We Teach Beauty

by Lisa Hansel
February 27th, 2014

What is the purpose of our public schools? It’s a question some answer quickly—too quickly, and too easily—with “college and career readiness.” I’m not against those things, but they seem to me to set the bar too low, so low that many of our students don’t buy in. It’s all utility, no passion, a monotone call to hop on a conveyor belt toward becoming a worker bee. (I’m not saying that’s what the adults intend, but the teenager in me remembers it that way.)

There is a loftier goal, one that would appeal to many youth but that, sadly and wrongly, tends to be reserved only for our most privileged: classical intellectual and character education—the type of liberal education that opens the door to the highest forms of freedom. This form of education gets the college and career part done by intentionally embedding necessary knowledge and skills in humanity’s enduring questions.

At Ridgeview Classical Schools (a charter with an elementary, a middle, and a high school), the curriculum is so carefully planned that even simple grammar lessons are infused with a higher purpose. I haven’t (yet) had the pleasure of visiting, but I feel like I have after reading a terrific new policy brief on the school by William Gonch. Gonch, with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote the brief for AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Here’s Gonch:

One important element of the Ridgeview approach is the way in which texts and assignments are made to do double duty, so that assignments teach grammar and logic while introducing students to profound ideas and artistic beauty. T. O. Moore, the founder and first principal of Ridgeview, describes the way in which the school integrates skills and core knowledge:

A classical education requires more than functional literacy, however. It teaches students high standards of grammar, precision in word choice, and eloquence. Throughout his education, the student will be exposed to the highest examples of eloquence attained by the greatest writers in the language.

“. . . I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Shakespeare

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine

These sentences are entirely grammatical. They could just as easily be used to teach grammar as “I come to help Jane, not to hurt her.” By preferring Shakespeare to an anonymous “See Jane” sentence we teach three things rather than one. We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty. Our purpose is to introduce students to the masters of the language so they will begin to emulate them.

Actually, that’s just one of their purposes. As Gonch explains, Ridgeview uses Socratic, discussion-based classes in which “students spend their time interpreting texts and interrogating arguments and assumptions.” In K–8, its curriculum is guided by the Core Knowledge Sequence, and throughout K–12, the “Hirschean idea that Americans are defined by certain shared ideas and ideals, and that a school is the main vehicle for passing on those ideas, is central to Ridgeview’s understanding of civic education.”

Education for freedom is invigorating, but not easy. As readers of this blog know well, the critical thinking it takes to interrogate a text depends on having extensive relevant knowledge. Ridgeview’s curriculum is intentionally designed to build that knowledge starting in the early grades:

Ridgeview’s faculty have designed their curriculum as a coherent whole; ideas and approaches that are introduced when students are six or eight years old are developed, expanded, and drawn into increasing complexity as students turn 12, 14, or 18. One parent described this as a “cycling back process:” the curriculum introduces young children to a simple form of an idea, an intellectual method, or a story, and then brings it back recurrently in increasingly complex forms. A student might read a picture book of Greek myths in first grade, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology in sixth grade, and Euripides’s Medea in ninth….

The climax of the Ridgeview experience comes when students write their senior theses. The thesis is a 25–32 page research paper that asks students to sum up and reflect on their education. Students often describe the paper’s question as “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the good life?” Students draw on texts that they have read throughout their schooling, especially the landmarks of their 11th­ and 12th­grade literature classes: The Scarlett Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Apology of Socrates, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Crime and Punishment, and Heart of Darkness.

Because the thesis is the climax of students’ work, students begin thinking about it early in high school. Whether or not they talk about it explicitly, they know that the questions they ask about the nature of honor in the Iliad, the law of consciousness in Emerson’s Self-Reliance, or the nature of the American political community in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address will return in their final papers and that they will have to draw from those texts a theory of the good life that they can defend before their parents and peers….

But the senior thesis, the final product of a self-conscious community of inquiry, might be the most individual thing that any student does. John Herndon, a high school history teacher who frequently advises thesis writers, urges students to address the question by asking, “Given everything I’ve seen in my education up until this point, what can I actually put stock in?” Students … have read Augustine and Plato but also Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Necessarily they must pick and choose, rejecting some texts (at least partly), while making others their own. And they must do it in full view: Herndon says that, standing in front of their peers and fielding questions from their teachers, “They can’t hide anymore.”

As a result, students have a unique freedom to interrogate their own lives and experiences.

If there were one thing I wish all educators would understand about classical education, it is the dedication to questioning. All too often, I see specific traditional content derided as indoctrination. But I never comprehend this point of view. It seems to me that all of the works that have stood the test of time push readers to question themselves, to juxtapose ideas, to see that things are never as simple as they may seem, to see that a good life is one of striving toward ideals, not meeting concrete goals. I understand and agree with those who say traditional content alone is too narrow, that students benefit from more recent and varied perspectives. That’s a yesterday-plus-today approach that can create great challenges for students. It stands in stark contrast to those who wish to toss yesterday out of the curriculum, to leave students anchorless, without the power to use longstanding questions and ideals to keep pushing humanity to better itself.

“We teach grammar. We teach cultural literacy. We also teach beauty.” Now that’s a Core Knowledge school!

Ridgeview

Ridgeview’s homepage. Seems far more gripping than “Where Will You Work Someday?”

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