Fired For Showing Michelangelo’s David In Class? I’m Not Shocked.

Over the last several weeks, the news cycle has chewed through a story about a principal at a classical school in Florida who was forced to resign after showing sixth grade students a picture of Michelangelo’s David. If you read a half dozen articles about the matter, you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than the headlines make it out to be. Nevertheless, one rather crucial (and unambiguous) aspect of the story is that parents complained the sculpture was “pornographic.”

For casual readers of the story, the fact a self-professed classical school would sack an employee for showing students one of the most iconic classical works of all time is baffling. For teachers at classical schools, on the other hand, the story is not really all that surprising. A great many classical teachers in this country have gotten chewed out, written up, or fired for making pretty basic classical claims while on the job.

You would think that people sending their children to a classical school would expect Michelangelo’s David to show up in the curriculum. You would think they’d expect Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Dante, Milton, El Greco, Bach, Beethoven, and all the rest. But that’s not exactly the case.

If you hang out for long enough in the classical Christian world, you start collecting stories from teachers who were nearly fired for playing Mozart’s Requiem Mass for students because it’s “too Catholic.” Teachers have close calls with Dante and St. Augustine for the same reason, even when those books are placed in the curriculum by the board. Teachers are required to teach the Republic and then get yelled at because Plato’s Republic just isn’t capitalist enough or doesn’t support the idea of a free market. They are asked to teach the Iliad, but the Iliad is too violent. It isn’t appropriate for seventh graders. Or eighth graders. Or ninth graders. And the same is true of The Song of Roland. And Beowulf. And the Old Testament—which is also quite lurid. While we’re at it, the book of James isn’t appropriate for high school students because it sounds too much like works righteousness. “It will only confuse them.” While the recent headlines were about whether Michelangelo’s David was appropriate, you should know there have been many two-hour board meetings at classical Christian schools just to hash out whether the Creation of Adam could be shown in class given that it violates the Second Commandment. I’d be shocked if “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” hadn’t been scratched from a few chapel services for the same reason.

I could go on. Suffice to say, this isn’t the first-time people at a classical school have vehemently objected to standard-issue classical content. I don’t mean to suggest it’s an hourly occurrence, but it is certainly not irregular.  

The fact this embarrassing little news story out of Florida has blown up into a national punchline is a wakeup call for classical schools, who need to figure out how they’re going to keep something similar from happening to them—or keep it from happening again, as is most likely the case, even if previous cases haven’t gone viral.

So far as the David affair is concerned, my most pointed questions are not for the parents who complained, but for the admissions office. I am not surprised to hear certain American Christians think the David pornographic. However, I am curious how they made it through the application process at a classical school. What exactly did the admissions office tell these parents about classical education? And what sort of questions did the admissions office ask these prospective parents back when they applied? If parents at a classical school are complaining about sixth grade students being shown Michelangelo’s David, those parents never received a proper introduction to classical education.

During the admissions process, a classical school needs to weed out the sort of parents who think the David is pornographic—or who think Mozart’s Requiem is too Catholic or that Plato’s Republic isn’t Republican enough. In the last twenty years, the growth of classical education has far outpaced understanding of what it actually is. This is true not only of parents who send their children to classical schools, but also of teachers and administrators at classical schools.

A big reason parents end up objecting to Michelangelo, Mozart, and Plato is that classical education was sold to them as a product which teaches students “how to think, not what to think,” which the parents reasonably took to mean, “Your child is never going to see, hear, or read anything at this school which you will disagree with.” Classical education might have also been described as a method of teaching which “works with a child’s development level, not against it,” or as the sort of education which “helps children love learning,” all of which sounds wonderful, non-confrontational, and non-dogmatic.

There are two problems with such presentations. First, a classical education revolves around old things, not new things, and old things are different from us. They do not flatter us, which is why we despise them. And second, a classical education is about properly reordering our loves, which is confrontational and disagreeable and does not comport with the way you vote, no matter how you vote.   

The “how to think, not what to think” schtick does a fine job roping people into a classical school, but it creates numerous problems down the road. Many disputes which emerge between parents and teachers are the result of parents never receiving a really robust explanation of classical education before enrolling their children in a classical Christian school. Admissions officers are only interested in determining if prospective families are Christian and Republican—they assume any other differences won’t really matter in the long run. If a family is Christian and conservative, turning them away is elitist, and classical Christian education is for everybody. However, the late ruckus over Michelangelo’s David proves this isn’t really true. If you object to Michelangelo’s David, fine, but you can’t send your kids to a classical school. Classical schools are for people who don’t object to the David. Or to Mozart’s Requiem. Or Plato’s Republic.

So how do you keep people who object to classical things from enrolling their children in a classical school?

For starters, classical schools need to offer a more thorough explanation of classical education to parents up front. The explanation shouldn’t sound great—it should sound a little intimidating. It should not sound like a better way of doing what the world is doing badly. It should sound like something completely different from what the world is offering, something quite foreign, something only suited for people who have given up on the world’s promises. Classical Christian schools really need veteran teachers to explain to prospective parents what exactly the “classical” part means and what exactly the “Christian” part means.

It’s because of stories like the one out of Florida that I wrote “A Short Introduction To Classical Christian Education.

“A Short Introduction to Classical Christian Education” takes less than an hour to read and provides prospective parents—as well as prospective teachers, current teachers, and current parents—with a straightforward, common-sense account of classical Christian education. It was specifically written to divide readers. For the parent who wants their children studying Michelangelo, Mozart, and Plato, “A Short Introduction” will both encourage them and rope them in. For parents who don’t really want the classics, the pamphlet will send them looking elsewhere.

Read excerpts of the pamphlet and order copies for your school here.

Published by Joshua Gibbs

Sophist. De-activist. Hack. Avid indoorsman.

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