2018 Back to School Address
In less than a week we will begin a new academic year. While it is no easy thing to bid farewell to summer, here there is an aspect of beginning again that has a freshness and an optimism about it. It is neither Panglossian nor Pollyannaish to believe that the year to come can be whatever we would like for it to be.
While a new year may mean little more to some of us than the resumption of early mornings and fights over homework at the kitchen table, it is not true that this is all that the coming year has in store for us. In fact, it has already been much more than this.
For many of our students, the year began back in June when the newest Ambassadors completed their wilderness medicine training. In July, members of Student Council rafted the Arkansas River while the Student Ambassadors backpacked to Emmaline Lake and hiked Commanche Peak. By August, our seniors tackled Mount Belford and our juniors Mount Bierstadt. The sophomores went caving outside of Eagle, the freshmen completed the ropes course at Pingree, while the seventh graders hiked Horsetooth and played in the Reservoir. Finally, the eighth graders went to Wyoming to learn how to read a topographical map and orient using a compass and still managed to work in a bit of rock climbing. It has been our earnest hope that throughout all of these adventures, our students will have gotten to know one another and something of their teachers outside of the classrooms.
For the parents, it began by reading Lonesome Dove and debating about what McMurtry intended, and whether ideas like Stoicism and Epicureanism were a little too high-minded for a mere Western. They began with Lonesome Dove, which was a relief after reading W.H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety last summer, but they will read Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Apology for Idlers, and George Orwell’s Why I Write among many other works and excerpts throughout the coming year.
For faculty, it has meant settling into discussions about Collodi’s Pinocchio and Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, preparing classrooms and writing syllabi, and exploring everything from the peaks of Colorado’s fourteeners to the sweltering, windy, dusty plains of Wyoming.
While we will be welcoming many of you back, some of you will be experiencing Ridgeview for the first time. If you are new, what we have taken to calling the Ridgeview experience can be a bit overwhelming. There is such a bewildering array on offer, and the experience is so unlike traditional schooling that it can seem at times eccentric and at other times eclectic. At a place as countercultural as Ridgeview, introduction is best facilitated through participation.
This brings us to a conversation about what constitutes education. I am given to understand that a Chinese proverb goes something as follows: “The other day I asked my colleagues if they’d ever read a good book on teaching. There was a long silence.” If teaching at Ridgeview is complicated, it is because our objective is not just to change the minds of our students, but to enlarge the minds and lives of everyone who participates in our community. Many of my interactions with students over the past two or three months have involved outdoor activities. The wilderness is a great equalizer, and two days of being moderately uncomfortable and operating at a heightened level of physical exertion can often tell us more about ourselves and our students than two years ‘teaching’ them in the classroom. That we cherish our outdoor opportunities is doubtlessly true, and we will have more of these opportunities throughout the current year. None of these adventures, however, diminishes the rigor of our curriculum, or the intellectuality of our faculty, or the high-mindedness of our discussions. We can seek excellence in each of these pursuits: in the requisite athleticism of climbing high peaks and in the solitude and enjoyment of natural beauty as much as in the bibliographical joy taken from the words and ideas of others. We can be immersed in the beauty and logic of math and still recognize its utility as we navigate from one set of UTM coordinates to another. We can read about science, and we can appreciate its implications firsthand in studying a stream or listening to Mr. Hayhurst explain how the terrain took shape and how our ancestors understood the night sky. We can be filled with wonder as well as knowledge, and we should be able to hold that knowledge without it corrupting our sense of awe.
While acknowledging that our attitudes towards learning change over the course of our lives, it nevertheless remains possible to preserve the enthusiasm and sense of curiosity with which we first encountered the world and our fellows in it. There is in these twin drives a curiosity about the world, about others, and about ourselves. A true education will be more than a preparation for the SAT or the college admissions racket even if it involves these things as a concession to reality. What, then, is it that comprises this ‘more’?
Each of us is capable of being more than we are at this moment. None of us lives as fully as we might. Ridgeview’s purpose is to propose that this is true so that we might explore how to live more fully. “Are you going to treat a man as what he is, or as what he might be?” asked William Temple. “Morality requires, I think, that you should treat him as what he might be, as what he has it in him to become.” In reflecting on this, we must perforce acknowledge education to take many forms. That much is both a cliché and a truism. When our students are small, they sit together on a brightly colored rug in front of a fireplace and listen to their teacher read Aesop’s Fables. When they are much older and presumably better read, they sit round a fire in the middle of a forest and listen to one another. In both instances, an education is taking shape. We are proposing that both are valuable, and that it is as important to know how to manipulate figures as it is to understand how our world took shape and functions. Similarly, it is important that we not only understand ourselves, but that we know how to interact with others. Discovery. Discovery in this humble place, among humble people who know enough to know that they have few final answers, but that through conversation and a measure of wisdom, enlightenment and flourishing are possible. Down there at the foundations in the kindergarten where students practice their phonograms and up here on this stage with the seniors as they contemplate meaning, morality, and transcendence.
Different schools do different things well. For those who believe it sufficient to know, Ridgeview can be a maddening place. For those who believe one must learn in order to know how to live well, Ridgeview offers an edifying cornucopia. It is this that we must discover together – students as well as teachers, teachers as well as parents. We must be together in this venture or all our endeavors will reek of either hypocrisy or debasement. In this instance, what is good for the gosling is good for the geese. If this kind of self-reflection and learning, and the living of our learning, is a truer and nobler education than that afforded elsewhere, it is a manner of living that we must model and encourage through acts and not words alone. If you want to bring up children who revere God, let them see you worship. If you want to bring up literate adults, let them see you read. If you want children who are socially well adjusted and conversant in ideas and not mere gossip, let them see you behave with civility and charity, and hear you discussing ideas. Let them see that an education is about more than what one knows and extends into how one lives.
To embolden you in this, we invite you into our classrooms because we believe that you will find evidence of all that I have mentioned. We have an incredible faculty – brilliant and dedicated people who have an immense amount to share. Tonight, we want for you to meet with them, learn a little about them and their classrooms and their curricula. Throughout the year though, we invite you to join us on every occasion you can afford. Read with us. We will begin in September with Sophocles’ Antigone in the very first week, and we will be reading Blaise Pascal On Human Happiness at the end of the month. The faculty and students will deliver colloquia, there will be concerts, art shows, and recitations of poetry. The year will go fast. One moment we will be beginning school, settling into a familiar pattern, at once fascinating and hectic, and before long October will have arrived. Our First Responders will descend on our little parking lot and children will descend on them to learn about what they do and give thanks for their doing it. October will bring Homecoming, Halloween, Trick-or-Treat Street, and then the time will change, and by November we will be at the Turkey Shoot eating chili and competing for prizes. We will hopefully breeze past the political high drama of Election Day, celebrate Veterans Day and enjoy Mr. Binder’s fall play before we retire for our Thanksgiving celebrations. When we return at the beginning of December, the Madrigal tour will begin, students will dine and dance at Winter Ball, the winter concerts will amaze, and the parents will read Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty before we all go our own way for the Christmas Break. When we return in January, we will meet back in Estes for the Post-Solstice Solace and find our students ice skating, sledding, skiing, snowshoeing, and eating a big Nordic meal in the lodge, and Student Council climbing frozen waterfalls in Rocky Mountain National Park. February will bring not only the Father-Daughter Dance, but Humanities Day and the Ambassador’s yurt trip at the top of Cameron Pass. March will bring more concerts, another break, and the fiery, chaotic joy that is Valborg as we welcome spring. April will see us laughing and enjoying one another’s company as we raise funds at the Hoplite Hoedown, laugh heartily as we sit amazed at our students participating in the spring musical, and watch mystified as these once small children dance and mingle like adults at prom. May brings us the Follies where we laugh at our idiosyncrasies, hand out awards, hear senior theses defended, and weep over graduation signaling the end of another year. Throughout it all, our students will paint, sing, dance, spar, and compete in everything from mock trial to robotics to mathematics and science bowl. They will excel in all of this because that is what our Hoplites do, but they will also grow in terms of not only their knowledge and self-confidence, but in their sense of self and their sense of character.
Whether you are new to Ridgeview or simply renewing your commitment to Ridgeview, become a part of Ridgeview. Participate. Volunteer. Be a part of our reading groups each morning. Read the weekly notes, listen to the podcasts, come to the Principal’s Coffees, meet the board members, talk with the teachers, and give yourself every opportunity and reason to appreciate the enormity of what is occurring here over the next twelve months. Ridgeview will change your children, but it can also change you if you let it. That is its magic, and we invite you to participate in it. So, again, welcome to Ridgeview and to what can be a truly transformative experience.