By now, everyone who reads or follows the internet has learned of the Tallahassee principal who was dismissed from her position because the teacher of a 6th grade class showed the students a picture of Michelangelo’s David statue, a famous piece of Renaissance sculpture in Florence, Italy. Because early news reports got some of the details wrong, let’s review the essential facts.
The school in question is Tallahassee Classical School (TCS), a charter school that is a part of the Barney Charter School Initiative, which is a project of Hillsdale College (Michigan.) You can always spot one of these by the appearance of the word Classical in the school’s name. This particular school has existed since 2019.
The Board terminated the principal, but it was the governing board of the charter school, not the Leon County School Board as previously reported. The constitutional officers of the elected school board for the district have no power to intervene in charter school operations under Florida law. Barney Bishop III is the chair for the school’s governing body.
While the instigating event for the termination was the lesson that included the statue, it was the culminating event for the school as Bishop revealed that it was only one of several issues they had with the principal’s leadership. Although we may be inclined to disregard the whole matter as a tempest in a teapot, most likely, the issue revolved around parent complaints.
There are two issues at play: one, that parents were not informed about the controversial and perhaps disturbing (for the students) nature of the lesson; two, that the statue itself is pornographic. The number of parents making the complaint in this incident were two for the first issue and one for the second, not large numbers at all even for a school that has a low enrollment of 403 students in all its K-12 grades.
There’s not much more to say about this particular instance. A minority of parents do opt for charter school education, including the Classical model that is promoted by Hillsdale College. A minority of parents are angry, whether innately or stirred-up by others, about public school curriculum and teacher discretion over creating lessons. A Venn diagram would show that these two sets of parents overlap to some degree.
We could sum up by viewing this as an instance where the principal and teacher failed to understand the clientele or to use what is rapidly becoming a cliche, read the room. While the principal was dismissed, we have yet to learn what discipline was given to the 6th grade teacher.
TCS has a faculty and staff of 48 persons, of whom 15 are deemed in-field teachers (they hold valid certification in their subject areas from the Florida Department of Education), 1 is transferring credentials, and the rest are out-of-field for various reasons like their certification has expired or they need to add their current subject area to their certificate. It is a plus for them that they require state certification for their teachers, but a minus that the percentage deemed in-field is low, only 33%.
Most interestingly, no one on staff teaches science although the school lists it as part of its curriculum. That leads into what the Barney Initiative means by prescribing a Classical education for children ages 5 to 18. So as not to tax your patience reading the descriptions of Classical education on various websites, it may be understood as a learning curriculum structured by what used to be described as the learning of DWM (dead white men) or traditional curriculums in vogue during the early years of the Enlightenment in Western civilization.
Proponents of Classical education make sure to explain that the foundation of their model is Greco-Roman philosophical thought, such as that expressed by Plato, Aristotle, and other famous thinkers of the ancient world. For instance, “If a student were asked to read Plato, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas or Locke because there will be a test on their content, the student would likely find them uninteresting. Our scholars read with a purpose. Like a treasure hunt, they are looking for the connections and development of ideas that span all great literature. When reason and belief are integrated, students are unlikely to be persuaded by college dogma.”
For what purpose would students be reading Plato? Like the Symposium, in which the men get drunk as they discuss the nature and pleasures of Eros, the god of love, and make reference to love between men. In these Don’t-Be-Gay days in Florida (remember to read the charter school room,) this cannot be in the curriculum. It must be a selective use of Plato in the curriculum.
Because, yes, Classical education comes with a purpose. It values everything that was valued in late medieval Europe (circa 17th and 18th centuries) “through a content-rich classical education in the liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue.“
It emphasizes the use of traditional texts (those DWMs again!) and the practice of logic, rhetoric, and debate. It seeks to produce an informed citizenry of the virtues (an old-fashioned word) of art, science, and literature. Students learn Latin and mathematics and receive intentional instruction in moral principles and encouragement to practice them.
The challenge, for them and for others, is that we don’t live in the 18th century and social media savvy is more important for today’s students than the careful construction of an hours-long argument complete with the rhetoric needed to sustain it.
It also leaves out an acknowledgment that we live in a very different world from that of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. It glosses over the existence of LGBTQ people and that they too are endowed with unalienable rights. It ignores the experiences of Black people and others in the world who are not European in origin, and western European at that!
Does it even investigate the tensions in Renaissance art between those like Michelangelo, who painted male nudes on the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel and a subsequent pope who ordered that modesty drapes or fig leaves be painted over what the Brits would call the naughty bits?
It would seem, given the recent flare-up over the statue of David, that more critical thought may need to go into how the curriculum is developed and what resources are used, the kind of critical thought that Classical schools pride themselves on.
Perhaps Classical education advocates should even examine their belief in the superiority of Western civilization and American exceptionalism, both features of the learning these schools seek to impart to their students. While great advances have taken place under these auspices, there were also great evils of colonial exploitation and wealth extraction that continue to shape the world today.
Ah, poor David and his overly large-sized hands! What was the artist’s intent in fashioning his masterpiece so? It is a debate worthy of having, although many of us would agree that the typical 6th-grade student is too young for it. But it is not a debate the typical Classical education advocate is interested in having. It is a great piece of art, they acknowledge, admire it and move on.
And by no means ask why Michelangelo painted and sculpted the many nudes he and other Renaissance artists are famous for or why Leonardo da Vinci fled Florence.