Parent: There’s a lot of changes at school this year.
Gibbs: What’s changed?
Parent: All of a sudden, several upper school classes are beginning the day with catechisms. The school has switched from offering Spanish to offering Greek. The report cards at this school used to be fairly straight forward, but I hear that’s changing this year.
Gibbs: I see.
Parent: Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I have to ask: are you just experimenting on my kids? So much is in a state of flux.
Gibbs: Would you think it problematic if I said, “Yes, we are experimenting on them”?
Parent: I’m pretty conservative, so yes.
Gibbs: Why does the fact you’re conservative make it problematic to experiment on kids?
Parent: Experiments tend to produce “Recent studies show…” kind of results. Classical education isn’t based on what recent studies show. It is based on what ancient sages have proven.
Gibbs: I entirely agree with you. We’re not experimenting on your kids, but I can understand why it might look that way, and based on the way it looks, I think you’re entirely right to be concerned.
Parent: So, if things keep changing, how is it that you’re not experimenting on my kids?
Gibbs: As a conservative who generally sides with tradition, I don’t care a fig about progress, but I do care quite a bit about stability and sustainability. What most modern people call “progress,” I call “instability.” The changes this school has made over the last several years have not been accomplished in the name of “progress.” It would be fairer to say the changes are regressive, because they’re aimed at the past, not the future.
Parent: “Regressive” doesn’t sound good, though.
Gibbs: It doesn’t sound good to ears accustomed to hearing the word “progress” used as an unqualified good. Most progressive things are relatively new and based on theories, but conservatives are interested in what has worked and progressives are interested in what might work better.
Parent: So, will using catechisms work better than not using catechisms?
Gibbs: I believe catechisms have worked in the past. Catechisms aren’t something I dreamed up. They don’t work in theory, but in fact. The catechism is one of the most traditional forms of transmitting knowledge there is. Catechisms were abandoned some time ago to make room for progressive models of education, so in returning to catechisms, this school is actually removing what was unsustainable and unstable. A return to stability always involves change—not change for the sake of change but change for the sake of changelessness. I would say the same of the other changes the school has made lately, as well.
Parent: If catechisms and Greek are so traditional, why weren’t they put in place years ago when this school started?
Gibbs: I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes for many years and one of the most important lessons Solomon offers in that book is that no one gets everything they want. Not even the king gets everything he wants. To be frank, I would love to do away with grades entirely. You would be surprised how many teachers at classical schools would love to snap their fingers and make grades disappear. But I know how that would look to many parents. It would look like capitulation to the zeitgeist. It would look like this school was bowing to relativism or forsaking the objectivity of truth. I tend to think that in 20 years, grades are going to be so obviously broken and meaningless that everyone will see it, but I’m content to wait until then.
Parent: Classical education isn’t new though. The classical renewal has been going for thirty years now. What has been going on for the last thirty years?
Gibbs: Good work. Small steps. I’m not saying anything about classical education that wasn’t being said thirty years ago: “Our children will see farther than we do,” and, “Don’t despise the day of small beginnings…” The classical renewal began with a return to classical curriculum. About fifteen years ago, the renewal began to incorporate classical pedagogy. I think the next stage involves reforming assessment, and that’s going to be difficult because it involves grades and grades are inextricably tied up with money. But real reformation is always expensive and embarrassing. That’s an enduring lesson of Martin Luther.
Parent: So, we should expect more change at classical schools?
Gibbs: Yes, but not all change is created equal. Some change aims at stability, other change is based on mere restlessness.
Parent: What do you mean?
Gibbs: I’m skeptical of changes which are initiated because “recent studies show.” It’s tempting to use “recent studies show” to prove how bad cell phones are for children, but I don’t think you need “recent studies show” for that. I think you can prove cell phones are bad with philosophy and common sense. The “recent studies show” route simply has too much baggage.
Parent: I’m uncomfortable with the idea classical education is in such a state of flux.
Gibbs: Think of it like this: we’re rebuilding a cathedral that almost entirely burned down two hundred years ago. Many years went by, then restoration work began. The earliest restoration work made the cathedral usable again, but the restoration work was admittedly imperfect, not to scale, and not intended to be permanent. Years later, some of that restoration work can stay and some needs to be torn out and redone. Every year, we learn more about the original shape and construction of the cathedral. Every year, more work is done into the origins of the cathedral, the purpose of the cathedral, the division of labor by which the cathedral was constructed. The people rebuilding the cathedral are engrosed by the story of the construction. Those people presently tearing out portions of the restoration work want the cathedral to last. They are grateful that the reconstruction has begun, and that the cathedral is usable again, even if a little rain gets through the roof. They’re not tearing it down for the same reason the cathedral was torched two hundred years ago. They do not love destruction. They love the cathedral.