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Too Classical Or Not Classical Enough?

Not all the teachers at your school are like you. They do not all teach the way you do. If you work at a classical school, chances are good that you have encountered (in the privacy of your own heart) one of the following temptations when considering the differences between yourself and your colleagues.

A. I teach in a truly classical manner. Not everyone at this school is truly classical, though. Generally speaking, this school is classical enough, but I pull a lot of the classical weight around here. My curriculum is classical, but so are my methods. Some of the other teachers are more interested in standardized test scores than they let on. My methods seem strange to these people because I am actually classical. Because I care for my students, it is important for them to know what classical education is, and so it will be helpful for me to subtly let them know that the other teachers aren’t actually very good at their jobs. Never mind how much the students love those other teachers, or how highly they speak of their classes. They praise what they do not know. The same students listen to Lady Gaga, for crying out loud! The other teachers are more predictable— the students love them for this reason. Of course, these teachers also develop closer relationships with the students, but that’s because they’re older. I’m young. I have a family to take care of. I would spend more time with the students if I could. And I’m not saying these other teachers are bad people, but they’re part of this older generation that doesn’t get classicism. The fact of the matter is, they’ve absorbed way too much of their own public school educations.

B. There are some people at this school who think they’re “truly classical,” but they have their heads in the clouds. These people think that bizarre, untraditional class projects and assignments make them classical, but they have mistaken novelty for profundity. I am an actual teacher. I get things done. Some of these “truly classical” teachers think they’re the real deal because they don’t get things done. I’ve heard them brag about spending an entire week of class on a single page of a book. Their “real classicism” is simply the same unbounded, free-for-all liberalism that lets students write their own report cards. There’s nothing objective, real, factual, or genuine about their methods. These are people who can’t tell the difference between a priest, a psychologist and an educator. They’re lousy enforcers of rules. Naturally, the students love them. They assign half the homework I do. They claim they’re reviving lost traditions of education, but the fact of the matter is this: These days, we demand far too little of children and the “truly classical” teachers are only making the problem worse. I may not be a perfect teacher, but I keep the doors open in a place like this. If we were all as dippy as the “truly classical” teacher, SAT scores would tank and no one would send their kids here.

I have no interest in white-washing the situation. Both of these temptations suggest problematic disagreements among the faculty. Merely acknowledging that a person should not respond poorly to the problem does not make the problem go away.

There are ways of making such disagreements among staff and faculty worse, though. The problem becomes worse when a cold war ensues and the teacher given to A-style temptations attempts to discredit “other teachers” in the eyes of students through plausible-deniability level cuts and swipes at those he deems “insufficiently classical,” or when teachers given to B-style temptations subtly insinuate that the “other teachers” are fluff-mongers who can offer students nothing of real value. The comments of either style of teacher rarely rise to the level of outright hostility, but involve incredulous sighs and moans when hearing about what goes on in other classes. We apologize to our students when the geometry teacher assigns “so much” homework, or perform baffled confusion that the British Lit teacher would assign such an “unusual” end of the semester project.

And really, perhaps the British Lit assignment is nothing more than an embarrassingly naive nod to Dead Poets Society, and perhaps the geometry teacher is a Dickensian Gradgrind. Still, the teacher who tries to win favor from students and parents by insinuating the inferiority of other teachers ends up cutting an education off at the knees. The high school sophomore who is encouraged to be suspect of one teacher will, before long, become suspect of them all. A good education is not about obedience to one teacher, but obedience. A teacher is not vindicated by special relationships with a few co-conspiratorial students and parents; a teacher is vindicated by God. The young are far more perceptive than we credit them, and they see the little nicks and cuts adults afflict on one another; however, the young are not yet wise, so they don’t learn to make war on the foolishness of those adults, but simply to make war on adults. So, too, the Catholic teacher who incites Presbyterian students to doubt the Presbytery is not making his students into Catholics, but atheists. Once malaise emerges, it is hard to direct. Malaise is like ink in water and becomes diffuse. In and of itself, discord does not kill morale, because man is born into trouble as the sparks rise. A little discord is unavoidable. However, the knowledge that discord is intentionally being stirred up breaks the spirit.

Ours is a god who takes complaints seriously. I remind my students of this when talking with them about their greivances. I tell them, “If you’re a sophomore, don’t complain to another sophomore about the dress code policy. That person can’t do anything about it. Complain to the head of the upper school, because that’s a person who can do something about it.” As with all things, teachers must lead students in the prudent direction of grievances.

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