2018 State of the School Address
Thank you for being with Ridgeview this evening. I use with very deliberately tonight. I think that it is important that each of us is not merely at Ridgeview, or attending Ridgeview, or passing through Ridgeview, but with Ridgeview. It suggests solidarity, not principally with a structure situated at the corner of Stuart and Lemay, but with an idea. It is the state of that idea as much as it is the state of the school that we should be concerned with this evening because the two are inseparably linked.
It has become too easy to blithely declare that we support school choice without recognizing the profoundly ethical context of either the declaration or the thing supported. First, that there should be any need for such a declaration speaks volumes about our own time and condition. That anyone should feel compelled to declare that they, as the parents of a child, deserve, rather than inherently possess, the primary responsibility for providing for their children’s education, tells its own story about the growth and extent of state power. Is it a parody or a realization of Plato’s treatment of education in the Republic that the right to educate one’s children should be something one is given permission for from the state? One declares their support, because one understands that the education of their children is something for them to choose, not something to be determined for them based upon the precise location of their domicile. What could be more respectful of either liberty or the democratic, egalitarian instinct than allowing for each individual to choose that manner of education best suited to them, and who can possibly know the child better than their parent?
Second, I say ‘blithely declare’ because we assume that these rights once secured will remain safe. “The danger has passed,” we tell ourselves, and we are free to enjoy the fruits of other’s victories without contributing any vigilance of our own. Of course, it does not work this way. There is only school choice so long as people freely choose it. If, instead, they choose options that masquerade as differences from District education but are in effect comprised of the same fads and gimmicks, there is not really educational choice. There is the same product in different wrappers and sold with different marketing. The public must have the option; in fact, it must preserve the option by choosing the option in sufficient numbers to keep alive genuine alternatives. Where and when opinion settles, and the rebellion against monolithic, centralized education is allowed to dissipate, a single option, which is no option at all, will be available, which is to say mandated for all.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” is an aphorism usually attributed to Edmund Burke, but what he actually said in 1770 was that, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fail, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Though the two quotations are approximate, the differences between them remains considerable, and all the more likely to be missed by those who do their research on the Internet rather than in the library. It is the kind of distinction born from a slow, close reading rather than an incidental, cursory reading that is being lost, but in losing it, we are losing much more. Moral reflection gives rise to the possibility of moral courage. I have said that the survival of the idea of educational choice is intrinsically linked to the survival of Ridgeview; that to report on one, is to report on the other. Indeed, I believe, at the risk of sounding alarmist, that moments of moral courage and sacrifice will be demanded of those who wish to see the idea and the school persist.
Though the fate of our school, were it to meet a calamitous end, would be intensely felt by us, the world would spin on, goods would be exchanged, and life would proceed in some fashion. Despite our dispensability in this sense, we are essential in another. It is essential, as Thomas Sowell noted, that members of a free society be educated, and that the type of education we have in mind is also essential for individuality. There is merit in asking whether this is a type of education better done by a small group of likeminded people with a local board, administering policies of their own creation, offering a curriculum of their own development, to standards of their own devising, by teachers of their own choosing, and overseen by an administration intimately involved in the lives of the students; or alternately, whether this is a thing better done by a corporation of schools pandering to the demands and dictates of numerous other corporations who sell programs, anthologies, systems, textbooks, and software in order to assess students who will learn a curriculum that has been developed by panels of experts in order to meet the needs of still other corporations selling tests to determine whether other businesses, commonly called colleges and universities, will allow them admissions (i.e. allow them to pay them) in exchange for credentials, which will operate like ‘work papers’ and allow ‘students’ entry into the workforce. The latter option, and all that it entails, is what it means for Ridgeview to forfeit its autonomy, its sovereignty, its localism, and become a part of a Charter Management Organization (CMO). Ridgeview, the small, K-12, classical, liberal arts charter school is everything a CMO cannot offer right down to its old, red pews and familiar quirks. To select a CMO over a school like Ridgeview would be to descend, not ascend; to preference money above students, test scores above thinking, and college placements above moral character. It is the apotheosis of cookie cutter achievement in which nothing unique is ever tried. It is narrow conventionality, the preservation of the status quo, and generally deeply unprincipled. It cannot articulate its principles without sounding pusillanimous because it must appeal broadly; in order to attract the largest number of adherents, it must be intentionally vague.
Therefore, let’s not be vague. Let’s be very specific about what makes Ridgeview stand apart. First, it is classical. Latin begins in kindergarten, Greek in third, and classical texts, myths, poems, histories, and stories are read throughout the curriculum. Classical means not simply traditional, but instruction in a curriculum that appeals to the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans and those who preceded them. It does not regard ancient wisdom or ancient languages as retrograde. It considers them timeless when accessed in their original languages far more than when available only in translation.
Second, Ridgeview understands that its beating heart is its people. It is the parents selling muffins, doing reading groups, sewing costumes, chaperoning field trips, splitting firewood, cooking, serving, fixing, driving, and all other manners and varieties of volunteering that make most of our innumerable endeavors financially viable. It is the attorneys who help carry our mock trial team to victories, the janitors who clean the building countless times each day, the TAs who wander in serpentine patterns between student desks hundreds of times each day offering help and comfort where it is needed. It is administrators who live their lives on call twenty-four hours per day, calming frayed nerves and soothing hurt feelings, and managing this whole complicated endeavor behind the scenes. It is the teachers who teach of course, but who can also be spied on the video monitors standing in the lobby at eleven o’clock at night on a school night waiting for the last parent to pick up the last child after a rehearsal for the play or musical. It is the teachers, who make far too little, and still do far too much to ensure that their students have every possible advantage. It is also the students who confound and inspire us in almost equal measure, who for the better part of a full working day, hear one another out, treat one another with respect, say thank you when they leave a classroom, and hello when they pass one another in the hallways. It is an environment immensely respectful, collegial, hospitable, and convivial. No institution is ever beyond the possibility of improvement, but Ridgeview’s health, as measured by its morale, is doing very well.
Third, a portion of Ridgeview’s parents are as interested in classical education as the most passionate home schoolers. They attend the reading groups to tackle difficult and sometimes unsettling texts not only in order to understand Ridgeview, but to understand the precious gift they will be able to grant their children as a result of this kind of education. They learn about primary sources, the trivium, Socratic dialogue, shared inquiry, and much more in order to understand the place of conversation in classical education. They have read Socrates, Montaigne, Plato, Arendt, Paine, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and many more in an effort to develop or maintain a life of the mind so that their children can see what is regarded as laudatory here shall be regarded as such at home. That Ridgeview has parents who understand that this is not daycare with test prep, but a way of living one’s life is incredibly important, and it is something that everyone can participate in – even those who cannot attend these book groups. Carve out an hour each night, commit to reading a book, and attend some of the events with our students. Come to the plays and musicals, the concerts, and the other events we offer from First Responders Day to the Turkey Shoot, the Post-Solstice Solace, Valborg, and the Hoplite Hoedown. There is a veritable volunteer’s feast available to you, and at Ridgeview we do not say, as the district schools so often do, “Let us do our thing while you go to work.” Instead, we say, “Welcome! Visit our classrooms, have lunch with your child, send their teachers an e-mail to check in, come to conferences, read a book with us, talk with the Principal, come to a senior thesis, attend a madrigals performance, shoot clay pigeons for prizes, sled down a hill and go ice skating, run a Spartan race with us, or read Lonesome Dove with us this summer.” Being a part of this community is part of preserving the health of this community. Your participation is as valued in the work we have to do as it is in the play we enjoy together.
If we are in this state of endangerment that I described earlier, if we wish to preserve those dedicated stewards guarding the gates of a real education and interested in a ‘real happiness’ as the seniors are apt to qualify it, then we must be prepared to shuffle off the poppycock of educational fads, the attempts to hustle us out of our hard-won independence, and abjure the jargon of the modern educationist. We must persist in our insistence that faculty be subject specialists where applicable, that they undergo a rigorous hiring process, and that they are properly supported and properly reviewed. We must take pains to ensure that we hire and retain those individuals who not only teach the character pillars, but live them; who not only preach moral courage, but practice it in moments of unease and uncertainty. Without these kinds of individuals role modeling the life of the mind and the moral courage to uphold and sacrifice for noble institutions, projects like the senior thesis will be reduced to a farce, which would be almost too cruel a fate given what effect we know this kind of education can have in preserving what remains of the civilization we hope to pass on to our children. As Whittaker Chambers wrote in 1952, “It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the [embers], and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”
If this seems too heady, too implausible, too lofty a goal for a little school like Ridgeview, I would like for you to consider a long letter I received at the beginning of this year from a graduate who offered his reflections on what a Ridgeview education meant to him now many years removed from this place. He wrote,
To the Ridgeview community, past and present:
I came to Ridgeview in my sophomore year from a large public high school an hour and a half down I-25—a small distance, but a change of such magnitude that it has taken years to appreciate it. And appreciate it I do.
An odd experience awaited me upon arrival at RCS. I was to read a biography of myself in Moral Philosophy, and though that was strange enough, even worse was that it was not at all flattering. The unsuspecting schoolboy in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man was an uncanny depiction of my own attitudes, and the ruffling pride which rose to deny the resemblance was only further proof that my ability to learn (by which I mean learn things of real moral value) was in serious danger of being extinguished. Eventually I faced the fact that in my nine prior years of school-going I had not really been a learner at all, but just a consumer of assumptions, and bad ones at that. Instead of being a thinker I was a debunker, with the result that rather than being ennobled by my education I had by the ripe age of fifteen become a disillusioned cynic—a lamentable thing to be at any age, but a downright tragic thing to be as a teenager.
As I accepted that I had been wrong and began to change my perspective on education, my parents were at first concerned that I was becoming an elitist, thumbing my nose at public schools. Perhaps someone reading this has similar concerns. But though then, as now, I was prone to haughtiness, such would be a misrepresentation of Lewis. The tone of his book is not critical toward educators nor uppity toward public education. Rather, it is admonitory as he exposes the danger that profoundly dehumanizing assumptions can be inculcated even in something so innocuous as an English textbook. For one, such as myself, who prides himself on his English skills but has no notion of the philosophy that underlies his education, this can be a dramatically eye-opening thought.
So please pardon the sentimentality, but as I look back, coming to Ridgeview was very much like leaving a drab, monochrome, suffocating Kansas and entering technicolored Oz. The literature and conversations in that beloved little converted church so far outstripped the tasteless dearth I had previously known at a well-funded flagship school of a public district, that I dare say it was a change not only in quality but even in nature. I had left institutionalized “education” and entered a vibrant community of learners.
Perhaps a concrete example would help: In middle school I was taught a modern language because it was practical, with no effort expended to instill a love for it. At Ridgeview, on the other hand, I was so inspired by my Latin teacher, a philologist exemplar, that I resolved to become a professor of classics one day. I was so enthusiastic that in my senior year I dropped math for Greek. Now my point is not that Latin is superior to Spanish, or Greek to calculus, but that I had exchanged an education of utility for one of inspiration. To me, that is the essence of what makes Ridgeview a rare gem—not its classical curriculum per se but its tenacious hold on a bygone love for true learning, the sort of learning that makes schoolboys aspire instead of disparage, that humbles them by lifting their eyes upward.
So what came of this schoolboy? Did Ridgeview make him a classicist after all? No, and I am rather glad of it because that would undermine my point, that utility is not the question at hand. I do not appreciate Ridgeview because it furnished me a career path. Actually, and unexpectedly, I went into science. I got a BS/MS in biochemistry at an in-state university in four years. From there I attended a two-year postgraduate Bible program in pursuit of depth and rigor in my Christian life. In the fall I will enter a PhD program in molecular biophysics at a top school in my field, and have interviewed at institutions that are household names worldwide. Academically speaking, I have had a measure of success. Whatever that measure, I credit a large part of it to the high-quality training I received in high school.
But I do not confine the value of Ridgeview’s education to excellent vocational training. True, it served me well and contributed to my success. But more than that, it enriched my life. It did not consummate in a test score. Its benefits did not stop upon receiving an acceptance to a university. Years later, having pursued a path not obviously benefited by a classical education, I can testify that the value of that education has only grown with time. Humbly bound Dover Classics given to me by RCS are still on my shelves, and the conversations around them still surface in my contemplations. Thanks to those brief three years at Lemay and Stuart, Ortega’s observation of the modern scientist is not so fitting to this card-carrying biochemist, that he “‘knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.” Lewis has well said that “[the devil] always sends error into the world in pairs—pairs of opposites.” Too often we find ourselves tricked by false dichotomy, a popular fallacy in our days: old or relevant, beautiful or useful, useful or worthless. Whatever the use of Ridgeview’s education—and hopefully my little testimonial goes a little way in validating its usefulness—it is exceptionally worthwhile.
But like anything worthwhile, it comes at a price. So please, if this little note has any effect, let it be to thank those who have defended this noble enterprise, and that at great personal cost. Your beneficiaries all graduate, and I do not know how many come back to tell of what they gained. For my part, I would like to join the ranks of those who return and say a heartfelt Thank you.
I would ask you tonight to renew your support, your self-examined support, for educational choice and to reflect on the idea that the health of Ridgeview depends on your being with Ridgeview rather than merely being at Ridgeview. I would ask that you allow yourself to be optimistic and to be inspired by the support, in all its varieties and guises, of our parents, teachers, staff, administrators, and students. To see that they are not here out of a cold self-interest, but a passionate interest in doing what they believe in for people who believe in it. I ask for you to consider that the life of the school and the life of the mind cannot exist without one another, and that your modeling of the latter at home will ensure the survival of the former. I ask for you to find a way to be involved, to contribute your talents, time, and energy; to be positive and of good cheer, to know that joy and good will always transform more than hate and ill will. Be patient and kind with one another, be charitable with yourselves and with our students. Resist those, cheerfully of course, who would see our autonomy compromised and jealously guard our school’s independence. Listen to our students with an open mind and an open heart, and be with us, and our school’s state – its health – can never seriously be compromised so long as we never become unmoored from our principles.