The dismal state of many American schools—especially public schools—is almost universally acknowledged. If you browse the education section of any major bookstore, you will find popular titles such as Why Johnny Can’t Read, The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them, and Dumbing Down Our Kids. These books document the borderline illiteracy, the nonexistent math skills, the vast ignorance of history, and the lack of basic reasoning ability that characterize millions upon millions of students today.
Less acknowledged is that even those who attend the reputedly “good” schools emerge basically uneducated. While they dutifully pursue A’s and high standardized test scores to get into prestigious colleges—with as much memorization, homework, and test preparation as that requires—the amount of real, usable knowledge these students possess upon graduating from high school is pitiful. While they may have passed Advanced Placement history exams, they are radically ignorant of the basic progression of history from antiquity to the present—an ignorance reflected in our public discourse, in which all political events and questions are treated as unprecedented, and history is rarely cited. While they may have read many classics of literature, few have developed an appreciation of the value of great literature; rarely do they develop into lifelong readers who harness the power of classic literature to enhance their lives. While they may have passed advanced math and science courses, most have no understanding of the milestones of science or the nature of scientific discovery. While they have been doing homework and taking tests for a dozen years by the time they reach college, most write and think so poorly that college professors—and later, job recruiters from writing-intensive professions such as law—are aghast upon reading their work. And while they have been told their whole lives of the importance of education, it is rare to find a student among them with a genuine love of learning—a student who seeks to understand the world around him, and embraces with excitement the prospect of learning all about it from his teachers.
Do I demand too much of schools and students? My experiences and successes, first as a homeschooler and then as the founder and director of VanDamme Academy, a small elementary and junior high school, prove otherwise. When parents visit my school, they are awed by the students, who demonstrate great accumulated knowledge, sharp thinking skills, and genuine enthusiasm for learning.
Visitors to VanDamme Academy often comment on the total engagement of the students. It is typical for every student in the class to be completely attentive and actively involved in class discussion. Conversations about the day’s material will often continue after class. A while ago, while sitting at my desk, I heard a heated argument between two eighth-grade boys in the hallway. One of them yelled, “It’s not that kind of love!” You might think they were having a spat about a teenage crush, but in fact, they were discussing the relative vices of the villains in The Count of Monte Cristo, and whether Dantes’s rival Fernand was really in love with Mercedes.
Discussions of their work also continue at home. A seventh grader in my grammar class recently came to me after school and asked, “In the sentence ‘He said Go,’ isn’t “go” a noun clause with the understood “you” serving as the direct object of ‘said’?” I said “yes” and then naturally asked “why?” to which he responded, “Oh, I just had an argument about it with my dad.” When one of my students was asked on a high school application to describe his favorite activity, he asked his parents, “Can I say school?”
Last year, VanDamme Academy sent its first group of eighth-grade graduates on to local high schools. Two will be entering ninth grade having finished calculus and a college-level physics course. Most have completed high school grammar, mastered the art of diagramming sentences, and studied techniques of style in Foerster and Steadman’s Writing and Thinking, an outstanding college textbook.1 Some have become such clear and articulate writers that a law professor visiting the school asked whether she could borrow some of their essays to show her students what it means to write well. All have studied the history of the Western world, and have read and analyzed dozens of plays and novels by such authors as Sophocles, Rostand, Ibsen, Sinclair Lewis, Victor Hugo, and Ayn Rand. And best of all, they have retained the essentials of this knowledge, and cultivated a genuine love of learning along the way.….