One of the unique features of the history curriculum at Regents School of Austin involves taking our entire junior class to Europe for 12 days every spring. This serves our school’s mission by giving students the opportunity to see and experience places that they have only been reading about during their classical education here. This taking of pictures and ideas out of the abstract of either the textbook or the PowerPoint slide and placing them in actual locations really helps students to understand the movements, people, and periods of history in a way that they cannot do from this side of the pond.
At Regents this trip serves as the capstone to their three year study of Western Civilization and is integrated into the history curriculum at the 9th and 10th grade levels, but is fully developed during their trip year junior history class. Whether it’s the Epic of Gilgamesh (“Wow, it really is on a tablet!”) or Versailles (“Now I know why the French Revolution happened”) this new knowledge filters back through what they’ve already learned and gives it more depth and meaning than it would have otherwise. I think all students, whether in typical schools or homeschooled, should have this opportunity towards the end of their education both as a carrot on the front end, but as a way to implant truth, goodness, and beauty into their souls in a more concrete way than books and pictures provide.
As Andrew Kern has pointed out on many occasions, one of the primary goals of classical education involves treating our students like young souls and not like machines. This trip provides our juniors with an opportunity to see that philosophy worked out. In our classrooms, we expect our students to take responsibility for their educational decisions, like the young adults they are. We do the same on this trip. We do not want to have passive students who are spoon-fed pre-digested information provided by a typical education tour company. We do use a tour company to handle most of the travel details and we represent a really odd thing for them in that we actively don’t want many of the resources that they offer. While they were initially skeptical of how we do things, the glowing reviews we get from the tour guides demonstrate how tehy experience first-hand what the students know and how they profit from this great educational experience.
We integrate the trip into the junior history curriculum while also using it as an opportunity for students to demonstrate their maturity in three main ways. Anyone can do these with a little bit of foresight.
First, while studying artistic movements, we only use works of art they’re going to see on the trip. So if we’re talking about Renaissance art, we look at the various works of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence so that when students are there, they have some context for the pieces they’re observing. Further to this, we provide a series of questions for students and parents to discuss while looking at pieces of art that enables them to develop their theoretical understanding of art (lines, colors, shapes, etc) with actual practical examples. It’s one thing to read descriptions of Renaissance art and look at small pictures in books, it’s a totally different thing to be standing in front of Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana or walking through the Uffizi from their collection of medieval altar pieces into their Renaissance sections.
Second, the students write papers both before and after which are directly connected to the trip. As part of them taking ownership of their education in preparation for the trip, our students write three research papers about various aspects of places they’ll see on the trip. For example, one topic involves Baron Haussmann and the redesign of the city streets of Paris under the reign of Napoleon III. On the trip students must keep a journal chronicling what they’ve seen and their impressions of it, and then they have to use that journal as a source in a major research paper after the trip which uses one of the artifacts or places they saw as a jumping off point to discussing a broader historical reality, place, trend or epoch. Last year topics ranged from the creation of the London Stock Exchange leading to modern capitalism to why the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum as opposed to the Louvre and how that shows the dominance of the British Empire even during the acme of Napoleon.
A final thing we do to empower our students to interact with Europe involves setting up various excursions for them outside the major cities. As anyone living in the United States knows, traveling only to New York does not provide a good representation of the whole of the US, no more than only traveling to Iowa would. Similarly, only visiting London or Paris doesn’t exactly connect you with the broader cultures of their countries. While we select the options in advance, the students have to do their own research and choose in the fall semester the excursions they want to experience. Then in the winter they, together with the faculty member who leads that particular excursion, meet and develop the details about what they want to see based upon both our expertise and their desires.
We’ve found that treating our students like young adults, giving them tools to prepare themselves, and making the trip what we want rather than what a tour company decides for us, we can create a truly unique and memorable experience that allows our students to put concrete places with many of the ideas that they have read about for a long time. This ‘incarnating’ of history is truly valuable to their growth as Christian people who can draw upon these experiences and connections as they develop their understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty.