What’s A classical school leader to do?

When a school determines to become a college preparatory school, it has two options. It can either think about the kind of college it is preparing its students for or it can become a silly little meaningless school that has no identity of its own and neglects its duties to its students.

Of course, it will more likely end up somewhere in between, with some serious college prap activity and some silly, meaningless trascript worshipping, gutless activity.

I write so provocatively because I believe that many people simply play the devil’s fool in this matter of college admissions. It’s as though they are perfectly happy to prepare other people’s daughters to go mindlessly into what Dr. Vigen Guroian has called a Dorm Brothel. They certainly aren’t taking the Christian faith seriously, or at least they don’t know what they are doing, when they are willing to let that great bugaboo of the high school parent, the college transcript, guide their curriculum development.

Which colleges do you want your students to go to? What is their philosophy of education? What habits of mind will they cultivate in your students/children?

These thoughts were provoked in me while listening to Ken Myers colloquy on a quotation by Joseph Pieper to the effect that the place where truth lives is in conversation. He argues that flattery is the enemy of truth and the corruptor of conversation. Pieper’s definition of flattery is conversation in which the speaker says what he does to get something from the listener. It appears that he is honoring him, but in fact he is degrading him to an object of use. Given our soul’s hunger for honor, we’re very susceptible to flattery.

And that, people in the conversation suggest, is what interferes quite directly with a classical education in our supposedly classical schools. Many parents put their children in our schools because they want something out of the school, a commodity, not because they want their children to be a part of the school’s life and conversation. Thus they demand highly productive and highly regulated curricula that have no room for, say Socratic instruction.

As a result we have classical schools that eliminate Socratic instruction, not only in the grammar stage (where it is also needed) but even in the rhetoric stage (where it ought to be the heart and soul of the intellectual life of the school). Classical schools without Socratic instruction!! Thank God Latin increases SAT scores or we wouldn’t have them either.

American education is governed and regulated by people who despise classical education, by people who set standards that are contrary to standards either a classicist or a Christian would establish. Teachers are trained to teach using methods and grounded in theories that have only a little to offer to classical educators and that only to those who are well enough trained in classical theory and practice to discern what is useful and what is not.

Yet we allow ourselves to be assessed by these Progressives and Pragmatists while bowing the knee to the parents who can’t think for themselves about what they want their children to learn. It’s all about success in the very generation and world from which came to save us.

The result is that, being confused, schools either don’t grow as they could, grow for the wrong reasons, or close their doors.

What can a leadership team do if the parents are squealing for higher SAT scores and more content for the college admissions officers if the leadership team doesn’t have a (literally) authoritative grasp of what Christian classical education is? The most practical thing most of our school boards could do is to spend a year studying classical theory. In the best schools the leadership has set a direction so firmly and clearly and has continued to grow so deeply that everybody in the school knows, within a few minutes of entering the school, where the school is going. The Volvo mafia is silenced, powerless.

Except when they want to participate in a Socratic discussion.  

What then should school leaders do?

  1. Enter the great conversation! If it doesn’t interest you, don’t try to lead a school that is defined by it.
  2. Read Norms and Nobility and discuss it as a team.
  3. Come to the CiRCE conference where we’ll laugh our way through these issues in 2008 (a Contemplation of Humor).
  4. Submit only to the assessment those who know what they are doing in education, and that does not include the standardizers.
  5. Demand that your teachers teach Socratically and through contemplation. Insist that they not be glued to production driven curricula.
  6. When parents want to reduce your school to yet another servile worshipper of the gods of the age, remind them of what you are: A Christian classical school that was created in response to the follies and failures of the age.
  7. Decide whether or not you really believe in Christian classical education. If you do, die for it. If you don’t, stop interfering with those who do. As the bumper sticker says, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way!”
  8. If you are ready to commit yourself, be ready for endless battles with people who won’t understand, most of which take place in furtive corner conversations, and for the endless pleasurs of schools coming alive.
  9. To return to the launching point of this diatribe, take very seriously the question of what kind of college you want your graduates to attend. Don’t sell out to that great abstraction that US News and World Reports has made of the American college. Remember, your students will be attending particular colleges, not “college.”

(By the way, I don’t think this CD is in our conference set and the sound quality isn’t great because it’s a colloquy. But if you’d like a copy in spite of the fact that you have to listen quite closely to hear what some of the participants are saying, I’ll see if we can make a special run. We could probably make some for the normal price of $6 plus S&H. Write to me at Akern at circeinstitute.org if you’re interested.)

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