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Interview: Ty Fischer

Ty Fischer has served as Headmaster of Veritas Academy for 15 years, on the ACCS board for the last decade, and was the Managing Editor of Veritas Press’ Omnibus Project. He has watched the growth of classical Christian education since 1997. We asked him a few questions about the trends that he has witnessed during his time in classical Christian education and what he sees coming in the future.

What do you see ahead for classical education?

I am not as sure about this because the way that our culture educates is changing. In many ways this change must come and I see it as a positive development. People are beginning to be forced to think through the economics of the government run systems and the insanity of bureaucracy of this system. (They need to think more deeply about the worldview of this system.) What will come of this? I do not know. Changes like vouchers and defunding of public schools could radically change the environment. Economic difficulties for families could make a classical Christian education (at a school) harder to afford, so schools need to look for ways to make the economics work for families.

All of these concerns, however, are secondary. The underlying question that we will learn the answer to is this: do we have communities (churches and families) that will support classical education? If we have this, then we will see schools (in a myriad of forms stretching from homeschooling to fairly regular looking schools) grow and thrive. If love has grown cold (which is my greatest fear) or if our love is too narrow (which is just coldness to all outside of a narrow family or church), then we will turn in on ourselves. The best families will do homeschooling well. Others will be left to do the best that they can or will end up finding some other (non-classical) option. We need to love one another enough to continue to reach out to others and to make sure that more and more have the opportunity to have this kind of education.

What obstacles confront classical education now and what will it face in the future?

At present, I think the main obstacles are a lack of support, particularly from the church; a lack of patience; and a lack of wisdom (for all parties involved.

First, we face a lack of support—especially from the church. This lack of support is causing (forcing? tempting?) our schools to become what they should not be. The poor are being excluded from a classical education because the schools do not have the resources and the churches are politically hamstrung. The poor are forced into homeschooling (even if the parents are not gifted at it) or sending their kids to low cost and/or low quality schools. Schools seek to meet these needs, but quietly we are morphing into prep schools that serve—not the community that we had in mind at the beginning—but instead the needs of the wealthy who are tempted to look at this sort of education as a means to power (some poor are tempted by this as well).

Second, we have to face the obstacle of patience. We want things not to be messy. We want to come to definite wisdom. We want a machine that runs at a steady, cool temperature where all the meaningful questions are answers. This, however, is not possible if we want to do it right. We are 30 years into a 1000 year project. If we are blessed, we are not even done with the beginning of the beginning of this. We have to be patient so that we can continue to learn how to do this.

Finally, there is the lack of wisdom. This is being corrected, but we are still very inexperienced and very naïve. We learn by suffering through budgets, clinging to core commitments, cutting away things that either do not matter or matter no longer, and continuing to learn about how to do this well. The main dangers are twofold. First, we can fail to recognize our lack of wisdom. This is a fairly straightforward sort of pride. Pride keeps you from learning. The antidote to this pride is difficulty and failure. We face these now, and they should goad us to learn. Second, we can see our lack of wisdom and fall into despair. This despair can cause us to look for wisdom in the wrong places. I see this in the trend of schools recently hiring headmasters who know a lot about business or education, but (professedly) know little about classical education. I think that this sort of person will help the school become more financially stable, but what sort of school will it be in the end? I think that the real challenge is learning the real world truth (balancing a budget, etc.,) that we need to learn without drinking from the trough of worldly wisdom while discarding the very truth that was important to us when we started this thing.

So, you don’t think that schools should be hiring headmasters with a business background?

I am concerned about it. Sometimes it might be a good decision, but many times I think it’s driven by a school’s desire to have financial stability. They might get this, but they might not (economic troubles have various causes, especially today). My worry is that headmasters that do not have an academic background are often not able to make good long term choices for their schools concerning staffing (what makes a great teacher?) or curriculum (what sort of books should students at classical Christian schools should be reading?) or what commitments are important and which ones are unimportant. Classical Christian education is at the vanguard, I believe, of a biblical cultural movement (we pray that it is the beginning of a reformation of our culture that is the result of a movement of the Holy Spirit). This movement should not be co-opted, tamed, and domesticated. It should be allowed to grow as organically as possible. Leaders at schools should value (and live out) the type of life that they desire for their students. This is some of what their faculty members and their students and parents are looking for. In the long run, I think that schools (under most circumstances) are better served by having an academic at the center of the school.

But won’t academic headmasters just mess things up by failing to know how to read a financial statement or by not knowing how to work a spreadsheet?

Yes, they (or should I say “we”) might. If a headmaster will not learn to do these things (and do them well) then he should not be a school administrator. School administrators need to be good at these things. These skills can be learned by a committed headmaster who comes from an academic background. These skills are much easier to learn than the theology, history, and literature of the Christian West.

So why aren’t more school boards choosing academic candidates for Head of School?

I think that this happens for two reasons: board apathy and trust in the special knowledge of business and management.

First, boards are made up of people and they get tired. When schools start, everyone has a lot of energy. As time goes by, everyone gets tired (this is why it is important to keep bringing new people onto the board). A tired board is a board ready to abdicate their work (governing) to the school administration. They need somebody who can do everything for the school. This is not healthy (but it is tempting for both the board and the headmaster). Schools cannot thrive without a highly engaged and motivated board advising the headmaster and holding the administration accountable to lead the school effectively and well. Boards also need to make sure that good policies are in place and they need to work hard to connect the school to the community urging people to get to know the school—so that they will consider enrolling their children and support the school financially. When boards fail at this task, they go looking for a headmaster that can run a school while they abdicate. Business and managerial headmasters are better at this than academics.

Second (and this goes for society in general not just classical Christian school boards), boards sometimes get entranced by the latest business book. There are great principles (and really bad ones) in good business books. I love Jim Collins’ Good to Great. I do sort of snicker when Circuit City and Fannie Mae are listed as positive examples. Society has a deep desire for some sort of alchemy (but the academic will remember that the falsifiers are near the bottom of Dante’s vision of Hell).

What do academic headmasters need from their board?

If I were on a board, I would hire a young academic to run the school (like me when Veritas Academy’s board hired me at 25). I would assign each board member a part of his education. One would help him learn how to read financial statements and help him build the sort of record keeping infrastructure that the school needs. Another would help him with growing in understanding personnel issues (including interviewing, insurance, and human resources). Another would work with him on marketing and fundraising. Each would supply a short reading list and meet with the headmaster once a month to talk through and work through issues in this area. On the final week of the month, they would all meet and the headmaster would lead the board in a short study of an important book (some biblical, some classical, and some just thought-provoking). In this way, mutual respect can flourish.

These young headmasters need to be tethered by the board who will find themselves restraining and reforming the many “great ideas” that this young man will have. They need to be both encouraging and patient with him. He needs to be humble and patient with them.

Eventually, the headmaster will have other administrators leading in areas of the school. He will need to manage those people well and can only do this if he understands what they are doing.

What are the biggest struggles for academics as they lead schools?

The biggest sort of struggle for anyone in leadership is pride. Academics struggle with this sin particularly. This might be because they did well in classes and start to believe that report cards actually were tied to divine judgments on moral worth—which they are, of course, not!

Academics must be consistently reminded that the purpose for knowledge is love. The end goal of learning is the practice of the great virtues of faith, hope, and love. A school is particularly a place where we practice these virtues and try to get others to learn to practice them as well. At Veritas Academy our mission is to cultivate loving, serving, thinking students through classical Christian education. You can know a heck of a lot and not practice love or fail to serve others. Paul says that if you do this you a are banging gong (like the Gong Show). Academics must have this truth embedded deeply in their hearts.

What misconceptions do you encounter concerning classical education?

I think that some see learning as a means to an end—the end being Christian dominion. Too often we have some pretty unbiblical ideas about this “dominion”. Christ’s work is typically accomplished through suffering and love. We tend to think that we can come into the kingdom by our wits and by crushing down our enemies. This is just another (snottier) iteration of the political mythology that claims that things would be right if we just elected the right people. I have seen some parents that were saddened because the first wave of CCE educated people have not demolished unbelieving culture and set up the New Jerusalem yet. I think that this is very short sighted. Classically educated kids are doing great things. I see a lot of hope in them. I just don’t think that the way to cultural influence looks like a corporate takeover.

Another misconception is that classical Christian education is salvific or at least highly sanctifying and that it works sort of ex opere operato. So parents believe that our school will make their kids love the things that they themselves do not love. I feel at points like I am working to reunite not parents to their children, but grandparents to their grandchildren (i.e., the parents are from a different culture than their children and grandchildren).

What evidence of its success do you encounter beyond the statistics and data?

My favorite examples come from my own family. My daughters love some of the books that I love. My eldest has to be punished for reading and ignoring others (it is hard for me to do this). My next daughter lived in Narnia until recently—now she is in Middle Earth. My third daughter is plunging through the wardrobe now. My youngest (not school age) is jealous and is listening.

The enjoy singing with their parents. They sing beautifully and we like the same songs and hymns.

I also take some joy from my alumni. Here are some quips. I had an engineering major who let me know that they wanted to do a master’s degree in Literature. I had another engineering major that is planning on Seminary. The main joy is seeing them all sit down around a table and start to feel at home. They live in worlds (and in institutions of learning) peopled with persons different than them. When we sit down together, we fall back into the old familiar paths of discussion. We discuss our latest reading or good films. They are culturally engaged at levels that are encouraging. They are asking good questions and doing good things.

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