“When applied to education, [progressivism] dictates that students are no longer to be taught to know permanently true, good, and beautiful things because such things do not exist (at worst) or are simply unknowable (at best). Instead, the children are taught to adapt to their environment…
If the truth cannot be known and does not govern human societies, then there is nothing to restrain the rulers. If rights are not derived from truth, then they are granted by the ever-changing state. Liberty and knowable truth are interdependent.” — Gene Edward Veith and Andrew Kern, “Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America”
As you enter Ridgeview Classical Schools’ newest building, built to help relieve its perennially full wait list of some 900 students, a marble inscription thunders at you, and the whole world, through the full-glass entrance: “What will justify your life?” Just inside, a former Louisiana State University professor is overseeing study hall. Between sharp rebuffs when students titter, Robert McMahon explains he’s come cross-country to teach high-school literature because the former professor “got sick of the hatred for undergrad teaching.”
Teaching is what McMahon loves. The PhD is the author of four books, one on teaching high-school literature, and he’s won a bevy of teaching awards. That’s somewhat surprising at first glance, considering his sharp and exacting manner towards the 14-year-olds reading around a set of tables arranged in a square.
But talk to him a bit, and you’ll find that this bespectacled man who has never owned a television and disdains modern teaching methods—“Advanced Placement teachers don’t assign whole books. It’s a preparation with no intellectual integrity whatsoever”—can pierce your soul in just a few minutes of quiet conversation.
“The discipline I teach is reading carefully and understanding what you read,” he says. “You can either understand what the words mean and map it onto the bigger issues in the work, or you can’t.”
A central problem with much instruction now is the demand that students apply it to “the real world” before they have fully digested it, he says. Students never learn the art of full and sustained attention, which dilutes their character as much as it does their intellect.
“The capacity to pay attention to someone is directly proportional to your capacity to love,” he says, which lands right between my ribs as I consider what this means about fiddling with my smartphone when my husband is trying to talk.
Statements like this, which alone form a full meal for mind and soul, abound on Ridgeview’s K-12, 780-student campus in Fort Collins, Colorado. Try this one on for size, from Principal Derek Anderson: “We’re not training [students] for a job, but for life. Your life is divided into thirds: sleep, work, leisure. Sometimes your work does define you. But so does your leisure, and if you don’t use that well, a third of your life will be destitute…Americans fill leisure with escapism or more work because they don’t know what to fill it with.”
The Arts Befitting Free Men
Ridgeview is a classical school, where children learn phonics, traditional math and science, Latin, and the Western and American heritage. They study the great books and receive explicit instruction in art and music. In other words, they study the real liberal arts: what centuries of Western leaders, including America’s founders, have considered necessary instruction for free men who govern themselves.
Because it’s a public charter school started and managed by a board of local parents, students attend for free—if they can get in. U.S. News and World Report consistently ranks Ridgeview’s high school among the best in the state and nation, based on test scores faculty consider a joke because the tests measure disjointed collections of factoids.
“We went the charter route [instead of starting a private school] because we believed everybody should have access to a good public education, and is capable of it,” said Peggy Schunk, a mother who helped found the school and who now runs the school’s admissions and human resources.
As the true liberal arts evaporate from college campuses, they are blooming within younger soil. Terrence Moore, Ridgeview’s founding principal, now travels the nation starting other schools modeled after Ridgeview for an initiative spearheaded by Hillsdale College (my alma mater). The newly released third edition of “Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America” succinctly details classical education and its recent boom, which includes the Hillsdale-supported charters and others, as well as a spike in classical private and home schools.
In the Common Core era, many parents have taken to classical education for respite, opening new schools public and private and flocking to homeschooling organizations such as Classical Conversations (disclosure: my son attends a CC co-op, and my husband ran one for two years). Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, and evangelicals have in recent years started and expanded societies for classical learning that offer teacher training, curriculum, publications, and seminars. “Classical Education,” the book, succinctly details its subject’s prominent expressions.
“Classical education is always inclined, by nature, toward decentralization, toward localism, towards connecting authority with responsibility,” said the book’s coauthor, Andrew Kern, the founder of the CiRCE Institute, which publishes curriculum and holds seminars for classical educators. It, too, is growing. “You’re not self-governing if you can’t rule yourself. Classical education is the means to freedom, the sine qua non of a free people, because it trains people in self-governance, in perceiving and living with the truth.”
Nothing Like Common Core
Classical education leaders like Kern, Anderson, and Moore draw sharp divisions between them and progressive education, the kind that has ruled U.S. schools since the 1900s and manifests itself today most prominently in Common Core. Common Core aims entirely at job preparation—see its motto, “college- and career-readiness,” which Congress has even endorsed by making it the defining characteristic of federally acceptable state K-12 goals in pending bills to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.
Like America’s founders, classical enthusiasts hope their students achieve far more than entry-level job skills. They intend for their students to also exhibit the public and private virtues necessary to cultivate and preserve America’s unique form of constitutional, limited government.
“We don’t know what [students] are going to be—lawyer, garbage man,” Anderson says, with a characteristically direct look. “But you will be an American, and can determine our fate through voting. They will all be humans. Se we want them to be good at it.”
Consciously educating for liberty in the tradition that began with Moses and Plato and persisted in the Western world until just a hundred years ago, however, is antithetical both to progressive government and education. That means conflict between classical and now-conventional education.
“We have a governing structure, really from the cities to the federal now, but especially at the federal level, by people who will never have to live with a single consequence of the decisions they make,” Kern says. “In fact, they ensure that they will benefit from the decision. They go to Washington and break Nevada, and they come out with millions and millions of dollars. So it is impossible for [most public] schools to succeed, because the people making the decisions don’t have to live with the consequences of them.”
Ridgeview’s board was one of the first to publicly oppose Common Core in Colorado, releasing a resolution in 2013 that provides two major objections. First, charter schools’ authorizing state law specifically provides that they offer innovative alternatives to general public education in the state, not required to follow the same academic program. Second: “the Common Core State Standards, while potentially exceeding previous state standards in certain respects, do not accurately assess the rich curriculum that has been conveyed to Ridgeview’s students, nor does it value any of the intangibles that make up much of a liberal arts curriculum.”
Judging Ridgeview according to Common Core metrics, Anderson says, puts the school at an unfair disadvantage, because its education model is so deliberately and decisively different.
“It’s like asking ‘How orange does your apple taste?’” he said. “Not very…Common Core is an existential threat” because doing what Common Core demands means betraying Ridgeview’s academic philosophy. Take a look at some more of that philosophy in action.
What Caesar Says about Ross Perot
In unobtrusive corners of every Ridgeview classroom sit two or three bright blue padded, stackable chairs. Those are for visitors, who range from parents checking out Ridgeview for their kids to school headmasters hoping to bring home good ideas.
As I entered Tim Smith’s Western civ classroom, a freshman named Grace with blonde hair and swoopy bangs walked over to me, handing me her study questions and a copy of the book under discussion—Plutarch’s biography of Julius Caesar. Students repeated this gesture of hospitality in about half the eight or so classrooms I entered, automatically and without disrupting class.
The class of 16 students and Smith were discussing the freshman thesis paper due soon, as it was spring: “Write so your parents who have not read the book can understand,” Smith told the youngsters. A few students took two minutes to summarize the assigned reading, then dove into a discussion of Caesar’s marriages, which created savvy political alliances.
“Caesar is genius at doing what piety demands and getting popularity for it,” Smith tells the class. In this context, piety means not just meeting religious but also civic expectations. Smith, the Colorado League of Charter Schools’ 2013 teacher of the year, compares Caesar getting his father-in-law elected consul to presidents hurrying through a series of executive orders just before they leave office.
Later, Smith compares an ancient Greek election to how Ross Perot split the vote in 1992. A young man lights up, noting the similarity to Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, where he became president despite receiving 40 percent of the popular vote. Students call out comments and rejoinders energetically, with Smith calling occasionally on quieter folks. They all have arguments about what Caesar is doing, why, and how. “He is slippery,” one comments, after another marvels at Caesar’s political genius.
After class, Smith stands beside one of his bookshelves, which feature early English poet Chaucer, ancient Roman poets Horace and Catullus, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, binders about madrigals, and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Smith has translated from Latin Virgil’s “Aeneid,” whose nearly 10,000 lines of dactylic hexameter took him a decade to work through.
“If we want to save or prolong human lives, to what end?” he asks, explaining why studying ancient history is important. “What kind of world have we saved them for? I’m introducing [young people] to their heritage and asking, ‘So, how are you going to contribute?’…We study great men to analyze their character and form our own, and inspire similar acts.”
The wall features a framed quote from Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher: “Character is destiny.”
Second Graders Write Full Paragraphs
Downstairs, second graders are working on their science writing with an energetic young male teacher, who sports a scruffy beard, black-rimmed glasses, khakis, and a navy school t-shirt.
“We need a topic sentence for our paragraph,” Kyle Luttman says, pointing to a whiteboard diagram. “A butterfly life cycle is a…” A little boy pipes up: “A complete metamorphosis.”
“Next sentence? Jeremiah?” Luttman asks. Jeremiah spits out a tumble of words. “You’ve got a good idea, but try rephrasing it.” Little Jeremiah thinks for a moment. “A complete metamorphosis is when an invertebrate goes through a complete life cycle,” he says, finally.
Remember, these kids are seven years old. But they do have help. Earlier in the class, they had mapped what their paragraph would say. Luttman calls it a “web of thoughts.” The children use it as a reference while Luttman guides them verbally through each sentence of an example paragraph, reminding them that lists require commas after every item.
Then he sets the children free to write their own paragraphs, giving them approximately 10 minutes before dismissing them to math class. Ridgeview uses no bells to mark the end of periods—it’s too disruptive, Schunk says. Instead, every classroom has an atomic clock and teachers dismiss students at the appropriate times.
The children then walk themselves to different math classes, because each child attends math at his ability level, rather than with his age mates.
From Latin to Early America
Down a hall that smells of hairspray, which is filled with young people switching classes and girls talking about prom, seventh-grade students file into Latin class with Kurt Mueller. They take turns putting Latin sentences on the whiteboard, which the student on tap corrects as the class parses what is grammatically happening in each sentence.
They use words like “pluperfect,” “subjunctive,” and “declension” with ease, but wrestle with putting the sentences entirely right. Mueller also ties the grammar into geography and history, telling students, “You need to know the location of Rome like you know puella means ‘girl.’ Rome is where more things happen than anywhere else.”
Downstairs again, several classes of elementary students have gotten together for a Colonial Day party, the boys sporting black tricorn hats and the girls beribboned mob caps. They’re snacking on popcorn and clutching corn husk dolls they’ve made.
Ridgeview, like most charter schools, gets less tax money per pupil than traditional district schools. In 2014, the average Colorado charter school received about $7,300 per student, approximately $3,000 less than district schools. So Ridgeview has larger class sizes than its leaders would prefer—usually in the mid-20s—and only recently has been able to afford “luxuries” such as teacher’s aides, Schunk says. Parent volunteers run the morning reading groups, where children read books at their level out loud for about 20 minutes in small groups, and the school does not offer lunch or busing.
‘I Didn’t Realize How Easy Other Schools Are’
Given limited parking space, student pick-up and drop-off is a highly choreographed event, with the youngest students let out earliest and the oldest latest. This warm spring day, a silver Mercedes sits behind a battered light blue Saturn Relay minivan in the parent pick-up line. Audrey, a ninth grader in a magenta polo shirt and khakis (of course, Ridgeview has a uniform) with long, black hair, stands outside in the sunshine, humming “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair,” the song she’s learning in choir.
Audrey has been a Ridgeview student since second grade. Last semester, she tried out another high school to “see what it was like,” and quickly decided to come back. At Ridgeview, teachers “don’t just throw facts at you,” she said. “They give you the tools and let you figure it out.”
“It’s very challenging,” she says. “I didn’t realize how easy other schools are. Here, it’s more like a conversation, like we’re learning with teachers.”
Families who come to Ridgeview and leave often complain the curriculum is too demanding, Schunk said over dinner at a classy downtown Fort Collins restaurant the evening before my visit.
“We’re not here to babysit,” she says, with a little shake of her sandy long bob. “We’re here to educate.”
For five years, Moore recruited Anderson to teach at Ridgeview, until he finally agreed, Anderson said, chuckling: “What sold me was the students. Our students are not robots. They take seriously ideas, virtue, and struggling with these serious things.” For him, “Ridgeview is being able to continue the graduate school experience.”
Faculty hold book clubs among themselves and with parents and students. Ridgeview also holds a weekly colloquy, meaning an academic talk given by a teacher or student. Every spring, each graduating senior writes and presents a thesis encapsulating his or her vision of the good life, then defends it before the school community.
“Children always choose the path of least resistance, but that’s not life,” said Kristina Menon, the president of Ridgeview’s five-member board. “When they persevere and push through, the confidence it builds—they’re proud.”