Writing at Ridgeview
When one reviews contemporary literary standards, takes in the average newspaper or magazine article, or deciphers a hand-written job application, it is easy to be nearly undone with despair. While we do more at Ridgeview to preemptively correct these types of oversights than is typically done elsewhere, there remains room for improvement. At Ridgeview, we do not do well enough. This is a school of self-examination, and as Oliver Cromwell wrote during Britain’s Interregnum, “He who stops being better stops being good.” With that in mind, it is my intention to make some improvements next year to ensure that writing and its corollaries – reading, thinking, and speaking – remain among the strongest traits of Ridgeview graduates.
Embarrassingly, we have spent billions of dollars and employed millions of people to do a poorer job of educating our youth to read carefully, contemplate wisely, and write proficiently than our predecessors of a hundred years or more ago. This is more than a curmudgeonly observation about the poor return on investment, but moral outrage over the virtually bereft intellectual inheritance one generation will bestow to the next. It is superficial and shameless to say that they will get what we got, because few of us in our private moments of honest self-reflection believe that we got what we deserved. To give no more to our children amounts to a sort of vicarious maleficence rather than a paternalism.
We will never enjoy the luxury of every student beginning at the same point, figuratively or literally. However, those who endeavor, deserve by that effort, the opportunity at an education. Note carefully the verbs in that last sentence. Bear in mind also that Ridgeview could quite easily reveal which schools and districts send us the most educationally misserved children. What happens at these other schools looks very much like industrialized neglect, because the professional educrats lack the mettle to retain functionally illiterate children and instead commit a massive fraud with public funds and permanently scar what can only broadly be described as their “students.” Lost in all the eduspeak about differentiation of instruction and learning, there is, and has been for hundreds of years, the essence of what it is to be an educated person, which includes the ability to think, read, speak, and write well. Like Faber in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, it seems at times that what is needed are a hundred-thousand fewer PhDs in education, and a class in thinking for would-be teachers.
Faber: True, we might form classes in thinking and reading.
Faber: But that would just nibble the edges. The whole culture's shot through. The skeleton needs melting and reshaping. Good God, it isn't as simple as just picking up a book you laid down half a century ago. Remember, the fireman are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord. You fireman provide a circus now and then at which buildings are set off and crowds gather for the pretty blaze, but it's a small sideshow indeed, and hardly necessary to keep things in line. So few want to be rebels any more. And out of those few, most, like myself, scare easily. Can you dance faster than the White Clown, shout louder than Mr. Gimmick and the parlor families? If you can, you'll win your way, Montag. People are having fun.
Montag: Committing suicide! Murdering!
People are having fun, and ironically while the district schools around the country spend millions constructing athletic fields and pronouncements are issued from the White House of all places about our children’s diets, the government’s major contribution to a better quality education has been to spend billions more on testing rather than teaching. Reading is, as Sir Richard Steele wrote, “to the mind what exercise is to the body.” Translating this exercise into something requires that one speak or write, and it is to that which we have lent such scant attention judging by the average teenager’s or college student’s ability to articulate a coherent thought. Muddled thinking leads to muddled writing, but as Faber noted, no one is signing up for classes on thinking. Instead, they are lining up to see how fast the White Clown can dance.
To counteract this, Ridgeview does something so obvious in the earliest stages of learning that it almost belies its own importance. The architecture of educating a person is not composed of a collection of interchangeable pieces, but fundamentals that once laid down determine the shape and nature of each successive piece. To wit, we begin with phonics. In introducing the first words, which many students may have learned by sight, we already begin forming a culture of slowing down. “Reading for information is not the same as slow, deep reading, reading for pleasure and understanding,” David Mikics has written. “Slow reading is as rigorous as it is full of unexpected delight.” As we tell them, “You already know how to spell the words we are going to be talking about today. But even though you know how to spell them, it may not have occurred to you, and probably no one has explained to you, why they are spelled the way they are. There are,” we tell parents and students, “important rules of spelling for English that are easy to identify and learn through these smaller words. If we see the rules and spelling patterns, and understand them in the smaller words, then it makes spelling and reading larger words easier.” Here begins our culture of festina lente – making haste slowly, and it will be continued through exegesis where students are taught to read deliberately and judiciously consider the words that have been chosen by the author. In both cases, phonics and exegesis, we are teaching our students how to read.
Around the same time, we introduce our students to their first Latin lessons. As students learn new vocabulary, they are better able to recognize patterns and expand the scope of their world as Wittgenstein famously put it when he wrote that to expand the limits of his language was to expand the limits of his world. This is because sixty percent of English is derived from Latin roots, thirty percent of that coming to English indirectly through French, and another twenty-five percent coming from Germanic, Nordic, and Saxon words, with around ten percent coming from Greek. We routinely make use of etymologies in teaching grammar, and so to formally introduce Greek and Latin to our elementary students is not as anachronistic as it may seem. For example, from Latin we have acerbus, which means bitter. In English we have the word acerbic meaning very much the same thing, “sour, harsh, of a severe character.” From the Latin alacer meaning quickly we get the word alacrity meaning “briskness, cheerful readiness, liveliness, promptitude, sprightliness.” The list goes on, but the point is that to know Latin is, to a considerable extent, to know English and to be prepared to learn Spanish, French, or Italian.
It is, incidentally, from French that we inherit around thirty percent of our words such as arsenal, ascendant, affront, affluent, and assignation. One need not go beyond the A’s, or even touch upon the litany of French expressions used so regularly in English that they constitute the kind of cultural knowledge for which classical education is renowned. Words like résumé, and phrases like ça n’empêche rien (it makes no difference), and the well-known quotation from Alphonse Karr “Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose” are not infrequently encountered. There are of course Latin expressions everywhere because Greek and Latin are the languages we refer to when we want our thoughts to echo throughout eternity. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum is better known than his original “Je pense donc je suis” (I think, therefore I am). Gravis ira regum est semper was Seneca’s observation that “the wrath of kings is always heavy.” One that should be important for students maturing in a postmodern and post-virtue age is vixit post funera virtus – virtue lives on after the grave. At a school such as Ridgeview, it should be emblazoned on our students’ hearts. One of the Latin phrases I find myself returning to with my students in government and history is Parmenides formulation ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes).
From Greek, we have important roots. The Greek alpha – α – meaning a/an, without or not, and from this words such as agnostic, ahistorical, amoral, apathy. Words important, even integral, to conversations about the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Words such as άγάπη (fraternal love) will be a point of discussion when reading the Iliad and the Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. The quotation from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon that features as Ridgeview’s unofficial motto – πάθει μάθος – can be understood a number of ways, but its essence is that men gain wisdom (or learn) through suffering.
As we practice our ability to read and think in the classical languages, our students also begin making simple marks upon the page, training their young hands to develop a proficiency at cursive and thus providing them with an ability to not only communicate with others through the written word, but to do so beautifully. Not only is this strategy such that each lesson builds atop another, but that no lesson teaches a singular thing. For instance, in the penmanship lessons, the students will copy out maxims from George Washington’s copybook Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour that will eventually look something like what is below:
The gestures of the Body must be Suited to the discourse you are upon.
In other words, children are learning to perfect their hand in much the same way as Washington did his own. They are learning a history lesson, a lesson in etiquette, and a penmanship lesson. Can it be reasonably argued that students elsewhere take away more from a keyboarding class than this exercise provides? While not exactly what Samuel Johnson had in mind, his words are nonetheless applicable as a defense of teaching penmanship: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”
As the years progress, more words are introduced, the Greek alphabet is decoded, the ideas become more complicated, and the expectations gradually rise. By the sixth year, the students are participating not only in spelling bees, but in events such as Young Aristotle and discoursing on the Constitution in their history classes. Everything they are capable of here is a consequence of something having been mastered earlier.
Where I feel as though we have become a bit haphazard is in the middle school, which is both a critical and a difficult time for students. The problem is that the curriculum does not continue to build upon itself as it has up to this point. It is as though the sixth grade had been designed to lead into the ninth or tenth grade, and this is what I intend to remedy by introducing a required composition sequence in grades seven, eight, and nine. This sequence will include a year-long course in grammar, logic, and rhetoric in order to ensure that we are providing our students with a genuinely classical education and a strong preparation for the rigors of high school.
The grammar course will include explicit instruction in grammatical terms and concepts such as conjunctions, ordinal numerals, indirect objects, etc., and students will return to diagramming sentences much as they did throughout their elementary education. An example lesson in diagramming might look like what follows:
While there will be an abundance of grammatical exercises, students will also read Mortimer Adler’s How to Speak – How to Listen and discuss topics like how to prepare a speech, present an essay, and listen to a lecture. As Adler wrote in the introduction, “How utterly amazing is the general assumption that the ability to listen well is a natural gift for which no training is required.” Indeed, insofar as we emphasize the conversation, dialectic, and dialogue, it is incredible that we do not pay greater attention to this. When students proceed to the eighth grade, they will take a course in logic. They will learn to differentiate between concepts, terms, and words, to take caution in defining their terms, and to identify fallacies and syllogisms. They will read Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. In ninth grade, students will take Rhetoric, where they will begin by reading Josef Pieper’s Abuse of Language – Abuse of Power. After receiving a warning about placing persuasion before truth, they will proceed through the progymnasmata and learn about schemes and tropes, and the modes of appeal, and much else besides. Additionally, all entering ninth graders will receive a copy of Diana Hackett’s A Writer’s Reference that they will be expected to carry with them and use while writing essays throughout their time in the high school in order to better learn what will be expected of them in their college writing.
All of this is undertaken to ensure that we do not rest on our laurels, and that we are able to offer our students a genuinely classical education without apologies and without compromises. We believe that it is through a rigorous education that we will ultimately be held accountable to the public and to our community. More than all of this, I believe we are raising the standard because we owe it to our students who, in working hard, deserve to be exposed to a curriculum that helps develop them as individuals capable of holding and expressing thoughts; and who, when being judged by the world, as they invariably will, will be found fit to be called educated. Only then can we be said to have fulfilled our duty to them.