Last week, I contrasted the cliché junior high classroom—of raucous teenagers throwing spitballs, passing love notes, and giggling at lewd jokes—with a VanDamme Academy junior high classroom—of young adults in raptures over Cyrano de Bergerac. How we produce students with such maturity and enthusiasm for learning is something I hope will be made clear over the life of this newsletter. But for now, I can at least indicate the answer.
The high achievement, the sophistication, and the reverence for learning of VanDamme Academy students ultimately derive from the school’s basic philosophy. Our view is that the goal of education is to provide children with the knowledge and skills indispensable to life as an intelligent, informed, flourishing adult. We do not treat school as a holding room for adulthood, where we keep students busy until they reach the age when they can strike out on their own. We do not treat it as a grooming salon, where we prepare them for tests and build them a resume for admission into the best high school, colleges, and careers. We do not treat it as a Boy Scout camp, where we train good citizens with lessons in values and enlist them in the latest political trends. The busywork, the “to the test” teaching, the propaganda that results from these approaches defaults on the real responsibility of education and sours students on learning.
At VanDamme Academy, we believe that the purpose of a real education is to prepare the child for life as a capable and fulfilled adult. The curriculum, therefore, consists of only that which promotes this basic purpose, and is presented with this purpose always firmly in mind.
In literature classes, for example, students read the great classics for children and adults. These works are chosen for their timeless (i.e., insightful and eternally relevant) themes, for their captivating plots, and for their defined, memorable, and often inspirational characters. The goal of class discussions is to mine these values from every work, coming to a real understanding of the story’s events, the meaning of these events, and the applicability of this meaning to the student’s own life. I will always recall with satisfaction experiences such as the following: a junior high girl seeing to the essence of a Turgenev villain’s soul (“He is so shallow, phony, and pretentious!”) and then drawing out a lifelong lesson (“I would never date someone like that!”).
This can be contrasted with my own education in literature. We read the stock list of mediocre American novels (The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, etc.), and focused our discussions on stylistic devices (e.g., simile, metaphor, irony), an array of arbitrary “themes” that present themselves throughout the story (e.g., the symbolism of colors), and standardized test preparation (e.g., learning vocabulary words and identifying topic sentences). This experience encouraged in me, as it does in most, the view that literature—and education in general—is an obligation to be reluctantly fulfilled: not that it is deeply selfish, profoundly satisfying, crucially relevant.
It is by offering a core curriculum program, one that consists only of that which is most essential to the child’s intellectual development, and by presenting it in a way that conveys to the students the power of the knowledge and allows them to harness it for themselves, that VanDamme Academy cultivates an environment of reverence for learning. Put in colloquial terms, the experience of a VanDamme Academy student is, continually: “That is so interesting!—I really understand it!—I see why I need to know it!”
Just yesterday, we were visited by five VanDamme Academy graduates. They had just finished final exams at a local private high school, and chose to spend their time off at their beloved alma mater. During their visit, they argued (somewhat facetiously) that VanDamme Academy should require more homework, to prepare students for the pain of the piles of un-graded busywork they will suffer in high school.
These same graduates had presented Mr. Lewis with a crystal trophy at their graduation, engraved with the following words, which they had composed: “Andrew Lewis. The man who has taught us to look at kings and see more than crowns, to look at wars and see more than bloodshed, to look at laws and see more than words. The man who has shown us the world of ideas.”
Such is their feeling about a VanDamme Academy education.
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