I was listening to the radio the other day when I heard a story about scientists who were trying to revive the American Chestnut tree. You may never have heard the sad story of the Chestnut, but it is an interesting one.
From Maine to Minnesota, the Chestnut once thrived in America. Not only did it grow into a beautiful, stately tree, growing as tall as 80 feet, but it produced nuts that were both nutritious and delicious.
The tree also had a number of practical uses. In addition to being a great shade tree, its wood was used in cabinetry, furniture, flooring, boat building, and barrel making. In Pennsylvania, the Chestnut comprised 25 to 30 percent of all hardwoods. The Chestnut was also an excellent source of tannin used in the tanning industry, and provided much of the fall sustenance for deer, turkey, and bear.
But something happened to the Chestnut. In the early 1900s, an imported blight struck the tree. Today there are only a few old Chestnuts left, and those grown from new seeds are small and stunted, growing only a few shoots but incapable of bearing nuts. “‘Going for Chestnuts’ of an October morning on a hillside bright with Autumn foliage,” said the great twentieth-century nature writer John Kieran, “is no longer a radiant reality but a fond memory of days that are no more.”
You might even find saplings with golden flower plumes or possibly a few burs. If so, gaze upon them fondly. These saplings are the Peter Pans of the tree world. Our joy in them is mixed with sadness. They can never grow up.
But there are still nuts from the few mature trees left, and scientists are using them to try to restore the Chestnut. By cross-breeding and selecting a few of the most disease-resistant saplings to breed again, these scientists are confident that they can bring back the “spreading Chestnut” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refers to in his poem “The Village Blacksmith.”
But this process takes time. The Chestnut is a slow-growing tree, and it will take generations to complete the process of restoration.
Education in America has suffered a fate similar to that of the Chestnut. The once-mighty system of classical education which used to dominate our educational landscape—which not only produced the fruit of functional, cultural, and moral literacy, but which also yielded practical benefits—is now hard to find.
Thanks to the blight that was brought upon our schools by the progressive education of the twentieth century, you might still find a few places with golden flower plumes of classic history and literature, or a few burs of authentic language arts, but for the most part our schools today grow education in a stunted form or produce only a few shoots off of the old stump of classical education.
But like the scientists now trying to restore the Chestnut, there are those of us working to bring the old system of education back through the continued cultivation of disease-resistant strains of education. More and more families and schools—and even a few public ones—are joining the project to restore the liberal arts and humanities tradition of classical education.
It is a process that will take time, perhaps several generations. But like the scientists trying to restore the Chestnut, we are confident that we will succeed.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2017 edition