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Sizing Up A Classical School In Less Than Ten Minutes

Is this classical school right for your children? The fifth graders chanting in Latin are impressive, the presentation on Dorothy Sayers is intriguing, the uniforms are sharp, but what prospective parents really want to know is what the lunch table conversations are like.

I have previously written on ways in which a classical school can assess itself, however, such assessments require quite a lot of time and deep self-knowledge, but before a school spends any money on a consultant, let me offer a bit of free advice on how to do a quick, unflattering assessment of your school: just look at the senior spread in last year’s annual. This is who you are. This is what you are capable of.

If I were considering a certain school for my children, I would certainly ask for a tour and listen carefully to the way the school presented itself— but before I made my decision, I would want to see the yearbook. Most yearbooks offer the senior class far more space than any other grade. Seniors are typically allowed to choose a few photographs of themselves, they are asked about favorite moments from high school, their favorite books, favorite quotes, favorite music, plans for college, their dreams. Forget about GPAs and scholarship offers. The senior spread in the yearbook provides an unflinching picture of what a school has to offer. The senior spread is not an account of what graduates know, but what they love and what they want to remember. At the end of so much Homer and Latin and rhetoric training, what do they hope to accomplish? What are their favorite book? What kind of art speaks to their souls? Who are they quoting? What kind of music inspires them? Do they speak with admiration of their teachers? The yearbook can answer these questions in a way that a syllabus cannot.

For prospective parents, the senior spread is not just a picture of what the school does, though. I recently encountered a proverb of Ralph Waldo Emerson which I found sobering, harrowing: “I pay the schoolmaster, but ‘tis the schoolboys that educate my son.” It is a saying that will make any honest teacher press his fingers to his forehead and sigh worriedly. You know exactly what Emerson means. It’s not the whole story, but neither is it false, and the senior spread is a telling snapshot of “the schoolboys” Emerson refers to. Teachers advocate the weird ethics of adulthood, but the schoolboys will teach your child what “normal” means.

As a bit of a caveat, I should add that the education offered by “the schoolboys” tends to matter quite a lot in the short term, but much less in the long run. The influence of the schoolboys tends to fade in the twenty years following graduation, while the influence of the schoolmaster tends to grow. So, the senior spread in the yearbook gives prospective parents a poignant look at the next several years of their lives, although the real meaning of an education will not surface until years later. “Cast your bread on the water, for you will find it after many days” is a proverb of consolation for fathers whose sons appear to not be listening.

What I am proposing is nonetheless a very high (and brutally honest) standard for judging the goodness of a classical school. The idea that the unedited, uncoached opinions of an eighteen-year-old boy should be treated as a fair representation of an entire academic community is enough to worry any administrator. I would be similarly anxious if one of my students were selected at random and asked by Lester Holt to “explain for our viewers at home what Joshua Gibbs thinks ‘the good life’ means.” The fact that such a scenario is anxiety-inducing, though, by no means proves it unfair. Social media has made the modern man profoundly disquieted at the prospect of having anything less than omnipotent power over his own image. That others should judge us by our children— by something we cannot exert perfect control over— is not unfair but very human and very natural. At supper time, when one of my children reports that a classmate misbehaved during the day, my first question is always, “What is so-and-so’s last name?” A child is known by his deeds, says Solomon, and adults are known by their children. Children are the workmanship of their parents.

I will wager that many classical Christian schools in this country view themselves as the competition to some more permissive, more liberal, and (probably) better funded religious school across town. Try tracking down a yearbook from this school and comparing their senior spread with your own. If the two are eerily similar, make a list of excuses, throw it away, and consider the possibility that your school does not yet truly conceive of itself as something more than a secular institution. But what do you wish your seniors would say of themselves? Do you hope they quote Goethe and not Post Malone?

Imagine that prospective families have to make their decision to enroll based on nothing more than the senior spread in your yearbook. What would seniors need to say to persuade wise parents to enroll their children? And what would your school need to be (to do) in order for your seniors to say these things honestly?

The answer to this question is your school’s real agenda.

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