The Great Student

What follows is not simply or even predominantly an exposition of the great student as I have come to know him throughout both my years as a student and my time as an instructor at Ridgeview, but a challenge to those students and parents who are new to the school, and those now slowly awakening to the uniqueness of Ridgeview’s conception of education and the demands of its instructors. The essence of that challenge is to consistently reach for what is beyond one’s grasp, and by persistence and tenacity, achieve by degree. It is my opinion that great students have three appreciable qualities: initiative, moral and intellectual seriousness, and an ardent respect for knowledge. What follows is a description of the three characteristics that I believe delineate the great student.

The great student is not strictly the one who earns perfect grades, or is the most loquacious contributor. There is a difference between being a great student and earning good grades. For example, one can study for a test, especially standardized tests, and acquire access to the best schools and scholarships without, by my definition, ever having been a great student. It is wholly possible for the unscrupulous student to exploit the system and circumvent all of the qualities I describe as composing the great student. For these students, the first quality – initiative – is not lacking, but misdirected. They are not focused on education as either active engagement or continual endeavor, but have been motivationally deformed by the bureaucratization of standardized education. They are driven to obtain impressive grades and high test scores in order to please parents, meet government mandates, and woo university admissions officers. They are impelled not by curiosity but by the promise of vainglorious accolades and material rewards. Such a student may feel out of place at Ridgeview since we emphasize the fostering of not only intellect but also character. The cultivation of character is an especially awkward proposition since virtue and honor can be tested only by living one’s life. Materialism and virtue are not antithetical, but an excessive proportion of one’s energies directed towards the former will leave little for the latter. Many of these students will end up like the masses of undergraduates who obtain a degree without earning an education. These are the students most likely to ask questions such as, “Do we need to know this?” The implication is that unless they will be tested, the narrative and all the extraneous bric-à-brac, which sustains the truly curious, are for the questioner, only an imposition upon his time. He would prefer a brief enumeration of facts to memorize. His initiative depends upon there being an examination and a grade.

The great student is motivated from within.  His initiative does not depend on what teachers or parents may or may not say or do; rather, it arises from an expansive curiosity and a perpetual state of self-competition. There is no paucity of classical texts from which to confirm the immutability of this lesson. Socrates, for instance, said that “if you are eager to learn, you will learn much.” Similarly, the fifteenth-century teacher and humanist scholar Battista Guarino wrote in A Program for Teaching and Learning:

Nevertheless before we come to the precepts of study and teaching, it is highly relevant to our undertaking to advise young people themselves, first, to acquire spontaneously a real desire to learn – something a teacher can’t give them from outside – and act like a case of dropsy, for whom, as Ovid says, ‘the more water it drinks, the more it thirsts for.’

The great student will never say, “You are supposed to teach us!” The great student knows that tilling the fertile soil of his mind cannot be outsourced to the teacher. Enormous sums of money can be spent on the unmotivated student, the best materials can be procured for him, and the most talented instructors can lecture eloquently until they expire – it will have been in vain if the student cannot be bothered to care.

Requiring that a student be morally and intellectually serious requires that he first take the task of learning seriously. The disadvantage of free and compulsory education is that because it is free, it is treated as something without value; and, because it is compulsory, it is treated as something to be loathed rather than loved. In neither instance is it viewed as a priceless opportunity; instead, it is viewed as a right: one is entitled not only to attend school, but to an education. This view assumes that the teacher’s job is to educate rather than teach, and the difference is more than semantic since a “person is taught by a teacher but educates himself or herself – partly by will, partly by assimilating experience.” In short, the great student recognizes that he is responsible for his own education, and that he must not wait idly by with the vain hope that his mere presence will make him educated. He is not a receptacle waiting to be filled or an empty room waiting to be furnished. Metaphors depreciate what actually occurs at institutions such as Ridgeview. The great student recognizes that it is activity rather than passivity that is required, and this is what is meant by the great student’s initiative.

Moral and intellectual earnestness enter into a conversation about the great student because the teacher’s task is to prepare his students to live in a free society. This means that the pupil must be capable not only of self-governance in the political sphere but also be capable of personal self-governance in managing his passions, beliefs, desires, life—in perpetuum. In order to succeed at this task, he must be proficient at making complex moral decisions, be able to arrive at conclusions that are intellectually and morally justifiable, and have an appreciation of others’ claims concerning the Good and True. He must first possess a philosophically and historically accurate understanding of human nature prior to outlining his own normative versions. It is moral and intellectual interestedness that makes possible the inheritance of civilization, and an individual without such an inheritance is an individual poorly equipped to be a part of any tradition, society, or body politic.

Where education and culture fail, we see the meaning of Dostoevsky’s claim: “Starting from unlimited freedom I arrive at unlimited despotism.” For the inadequately educated, individual liberty is a burden to be relieved by either the state or society since such liberty allows him to make poor choices. Hence, he invariably shirks off responsibility for the consequences in hopes of retaining the liberty to make more such choices. He does so without realizing that there has been a transaction cost: for every gain in security there is a loss to liberty. He is gradually becoming an individual manqué. Such an individual has “feelings rather than thoughts, impulses rather than opinions, inabilities rather than passions,” and he has claimed by virtue of this transaction “the right appropriate to his character…the right to live in a social protectorate which relieve[s] him from the burden of ‘self-determination’.” In not demanding intellectual and moral seriousness of our students, we create a class of individuels manqué bound not to soar, but to spiral downward.

Today’s junior-high and high-school students have begun succumbing to the same sort of moral and intellectual malaise that has been eroding universities for decades. Therein, the lamentable legacies of relativism and mystagoguery rule: there is no truth, only various opinions; there is no such thing as morality, only a vague preferentialism amongst values; there is no certainty, only an evanescent verisimilitude. The result is a series of crises wherein what begins with the erosion of the individual results in the collapse of a culture of individualism. Herein, nothing may be universally discernible as anything, and every belief or value goes untested either by logic or tradition, but is accorded a temporary status of validity based upon the proposition’s current popularity or convenience. Contrarily, the great student utilizes this propitious moment in his life, wherein he is provided with a vast expanse of time to devote to leisure understood in the most classical sense. He takes his training seriously and follows an uncoerced inclination to change, evolve, mature, and grow – not to stand resolutely fixed in one place from year to year. He is modest, humble, and realizes that the claims of others can often be politely acknowledged without being accepted. He seeks to understand human nature, not refashion it to fit his own ends. As regards religion, for instance, he is likely to believe that “those who do not understand what it is to be religious do not understand what human beings live by.” His claims are modest and reasonable and revised when necessary. He avoids the relativist tendencies that stifle the intellectual rigor of lesser students and render them destitute of any fixed principles. A student is, in his seriousness and rejection of relativism, vastly more likely to be a great student.

The great student is cognizant that knowledge does not come easily and is not owed to anyone. Those who recognize the prudence of seeking able tutors and the blessings of responsible and supportive parents recognize that the remainder of the task lies with them. No small part of respecting knowledge lies in earning it, and earning it requires that one work for it. This is an aspect of education that becomes less apparent when education becomes a good to which everyone is entitled. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

Education becomes something to which everybody has a ‘right’, even irrespective of his capacity; and when everyone gets it – by that time, of course, in a diluted and adulterated form – then we naturally discover that education is no longer an infallible means of getting on, and people turn to another fallacy: that of ‘education for leisure’ – without having revised their notion of ‘leisure’. As soon as this precious motive of snobbery evaporates, the zest has gone out of education; if it is not going to mean more money, or more power over others, or a better social position, or at least a steady and respectable job, few people are going to take the trouble to acquire education. For deteriorate it as you may, education is still going to demand a good deal of drudgery.

If Ridgeview students did not believe they were getting anything more out of their education than they would elsewhere, they would be foolish to dedicate the time to Ridgeview that they have. What keeps them motivated is the belief that a Ridgeview education is superior to that provided by other schools. Eliot’s use of snobbery seems unflattering, impolite, and snobbish. However, whether it is pride, vanity, or snobbery—if it evaporates, the will to bear the drudgery that necessarily accompanies the acquisition of a great education goes with it. The difference between the driven and the lackluster student, between the great and the common student can be demonstrated by the demeanor with which they bear this drudgery. Do they see in each assignment drudgery or opportunity? More importantly, do they see opportunity in drudgery?

Consider, for instance, two students told to define the term ‘fun’ and use it in a sentence. The mediocre student arrives home after school, has a snack, and spends the evening writing e-mails, instant messaging, and playing games online with friends while watching television until dinner is served to him. Afterwards, he plays video games with his siblings before getting ready for bed and remembering his vocabulary assignment. Reluctantly, he boots up his computer, goes to and writes the following assignment: “Fun, enjoyment of playfulness. I had fun tonight.”

The great student, by contrast, plays football with friends until supper, and then attends to his homework by consulting a number of books from the family library. He writes the following assignment:

Fun, n. – etymology, from fon, verb, to befool – Diversion, amusement, sport; also, a cheat, trick, or hoax. Others may have their fun now, but I shall have mine later.

The first student prefers trivial amusements to enduring knowledge. He spurns books and likely lives in a household that possesses few of any quality. He delights in every debilitating ease technology affords and does his homework without opening a single book. For his third-rate efforts, he will, whilst at Ridgeview, receive a third-rate grade.

Without a respect for knowledge, as Ray Bradbury made patently clear in Fahrenheit 451, books cannot compete with modern entertainments. For a majority of Americans, books are increasingly being jettisoned as antiquarian relics in favor of the television set or the internet. According to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts, “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life…The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity – and all the diverse benefits it fosters – impoverishes both cultural and civic life.” The greatest declines in reading are among the young, and those doing the worst in school have the fewest number of books in the home. Such a home may not be materially disadvantaged – it may have an abundance of flat-screen televisions, personal computers, game consoles, and any number of other such diversions. The mediocre student, though, is so distracted by the myriad of passive activities at his beck and call that he cannot begin to get through a scene of Shakespeare, or comprehend the importance of an idea in history, or relate to the sentiments expressed in a page of poetry, because he is incapable of focusing his attention. Reading a book, like thinking itself, is not passive entertainment; it cannot bombard all of the senses simultaneously. The mediocre student has forgotten what it means to work – the thoughts his teachers are asking him to retain and articulate are not merely beyond his comprehension, they are beyond his means to comprehend.

Great students need not be a rarity, and we all must be cautious in how we identify them. The ambitious instructor is wont to describe the ideal student and allow a vital distinction to elude him. The distinction is that the great students utilizes completely the experiences of education in a manner which best serves him or her; the ideal student reflects our ideal selves living vicariously through our students: we desire that they be possessed in youth and innocence with the wisdom we have acquired with age and experience. The former effort strives to make individuals capable of living virtuous lives as free citizens; the latter effort aims to create scholars, but invariably smothers the élan and vitality natural to youth. If we desire great students, we will refuse to idealize since the destruction of the former lies in the pursuit of the latter.

Mr. Anderson