What do classical and Christian schools overwhelmingly share in common with public schools? There isn’t much to distinguish us in our approach to time management and measurement. Intriguingly, our academic calendars are quite similar: thirty-six weeks, 180 days, with Monday through Friday schedules the norm for many locales. On the whole, we share a lengthy summer break, which has roots dating back to the late nineteenth century when there was a push by policy makers to standardize schooling across urban and rural America. Before this, children in agrarian communities actually attended school during the winter and summer seasons as their help was needed during the planting and harvesting times of spring and autumn. It was the wealthy city dwellers who fled their sweltering neighborhoods, pulling their children temporarily away from school during retreats to country residences (this was before the invention of air conditioning at the turn of the twentieth century). Now for nine seemingly arbitrarily chosen months, children both in classical and public schools rotate through a timetable of classes that feels more mechanical (especially if there are bells) than humane. Boys and girls are grouped together primarily with others whose birthdays fall within the same twelve-month span, their learning progress branded with letter or number grades, the efficacy of which is never questioned. Graduating secondary school roughly around age eighteen, after twelve to thirteen years of formal education, with likely several more years to come given the idolization of college, classical and public-school students are all on the bandwagon of prolonged adolescence. Does this bode well for the future, especially given the rise in worldwide declining fertility rates? Amazingly, schools are closing in Japan due to its plummeting population crisis. Are we setting ourselves up to propagate the rich legacy of classical education for generations to come?
Why are classical institutions conforming to a mold similar to our public-school brethren? We are striving to nurture our students on the true, the good, and the beautiful but will the benefits of our curriculum be obscured by the model and forms we are imitating from the supposedly less enlightened federally funded schools? Perhaps this is a case of unquestioned acceptance: this is how school has been done for as long as living memory can recall. There may be many school leaders and board members who genuinely believe the current system is good for our students. Or maybe no one has time to question means and methods due to our modern lifestyle of perpetual busyness, urgency, and exhaustion that leaves little leisure for contemplation. There could be an unspoken obligation that we are catering to parental work schedules, so school becomes a sort of childcare service regardless of educational philosophy. One wonders, too, if classical schools are driven by fear of being “too different” or “out there” if they truly broke the mold, and thus lose precious income from having their services rejected by too many potential families and donors, so staying in operation becomes a domineering value. As one who is tempted and attracted by efficiency and controlled procedures (I have shared with my students that if I wasn’t a teacher, I’d be a flight attendant—I love the routines that are inherent to the job—so gloriously predictable and polished!), I can sympathize with those who crave a way to do things tidily, and the industrial plan of the school year provides an attractive option.
But how could or should classical schools be different? Each of these musings could be its own article topic, but my goal is to instigate a more widespread conversation around these questions:
- What would it look like if the academic calendar was driven by the physical location of the school and whether the school ascribed to any liturgical calendar? For example, one idea that was tossed around while I was in graduate school was whether it would be better for students in Arizona to prioritize learning in the summer months when everyone is indoors anyway to escape the heat? Or if one lives in an area that has significant shifts in daylight depending on the season, why are school hours not adjusted to better serve the body’s natural rhythms? Could there be a vacation around the Easter season (six weeks) instead of taking three months off in the summer? What about taking a winter break from Christmas to Candlemas?
- What would it look like if there were multi-age students combined into one cohort or class? What is a reasonable number of students per cohort? Should students be separated by gender? At a certain age? For certain classes? For example, at the school where I teach, P.E. and music classes are divided by gender by middle school.
- How could school time be scheduled so that it nurtures and benefits the teacher’s creative and intellectual powers as well as the maturing student? Should there be a range of time given for pursuing a certain subject instead of a fixed number of minutes with a hard stop? The latter may pressure the teacher either to unnecessarily edit or expand the content area, as when you must “do” literature forty-five minutes per day because it’s on the bell schedule. What if you need more or less time to contemplate the story? This might imply fewer classes taught, or more self-contained cohorts led by one or more designated teachers for that group.
- How could we rethink the assessment process? Should we keep grades? Why or why not? What do they mean? How else could student ability be determined?
- Why does it take so long to complete formal schooling? Is it wise to keep children in such a system? Is it serving their developmental, intellectual, and spiritual needs, or is it a reflection on us adults and our lack of potent preparation for our youth, whereby we constantly and consistently evaluate what we ought to provide for their maturation, so that they have the potential to begin living “the good life” classical education promises by age fifteen or sixteen? Could the final four or five teen years be dedicated to learning or apprenticing to a particular trade, occupation, or skill while also continuing to read and think deeply? Would this help young people enter adulthood in their early twenties and feel ready to marry earlier and establish a family? Or join a religious order? Or simply love and serve their neighbors more broadly and capably?