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Is The Heights a Classical School?

The classical education movement has grown tremendously in recent years. Throughout the United States and abroad, hundreds of small classical academies have emerged, some of which are growing into well-established schools. There are professional associations that support these classical schools and even publishing companies that provide curriculum materials. The movement encompasses homeschools, private schools, religious schools, and even some public charter schools. Many people have wondered how The Heights fits into the classical education movement. Is The Heights a classical school? If not, in what ways does a Heights education resemble or diverge from what can be found in a classical academy?

What is meant by a “classical school”?

To best answer these questions, it is first necessary to explain more about the classical education movement and how classical schools are different from typical mainstream schools. The classical education movement is not rigidly defined by the word “classical”; that is, it is not a movement pointing exclusively back to Ancient Greece. Many classical educators join the term “classical” to the terms “Christian” or “liberal arts” and see value in practically everything up until the twentieth century. What passed for education in, say, 1850 in the United States or several other countries is likely to resemble what is meant by “classical education” as the term is used today. The one-room schoolhouse illustrated by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the education our founding fathers received, the scholastic tradition of the middle ages and the birth of philosophy in Ancient Greece all have a home under the “classical umbrella.”

Classical educators define their movement both in terms of what they stand for and what they reject from the dominant education model of today, which they call “progressive.” In classical education, the goal is to help each student reach his or her full potential through studying the liberal arts, traditionally understood as the trivium of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry. In practice, classical schools today tend not to replicate instruction in the seven liberal arts in a rigid way but rather teach a broad curriculum inspired by the vision of education that the liberal arts embody.

True to the spirit of the liberal arts, classical education focuses on a disciplined training of the mind through traditional practices such as memorization and learning set formulas and rules that foster systematic thinking, especially in subjects like grammar, logic and mathematics. Along with forming well-trained minds, classical educators strongly value fostering heartfelt love for the cultural riches we have inherited: our history, great works of literature, art, philosophy and theology.

Classical vs. Mainstream Progressive

The experience of education in a classical school is very different from a typical mainstream school. Some of the contrasts are obvious. Mainstream schools consider rote memorization and disciplined mental formation in general to be potentially stifling, and instead focus on developing skills that can be useful for professional work. Students learn how to analyze data presented in informational texts, graphs, and charts, instruction not typically emphasized in classical schools. The trend in math education, to take one example, is to focus less on learning algebra as a unified system with its own principles and instead to highlight the utility of algebra as a tool to analyze and model data, in line with a general increased focus on statistics. Likewise, there is less emphasis on reading literature, especially traditional literature, and more emphasis on reading what are sometimes called informational texts. Students in classical school tend to read a variety of traditional texts like Vergil’s Aeneid and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, often in their entirety. A progressive school is more likely to give students a textbook that presents excerpts from these works coupled with social commentary on the author and his or her times.

Many classical educators, however, note that it is far from clear that the progressive model is the best preparation for modern society and professional life. They argue that if we limit our focus to “college and career readiness” (to quote the progressive common core standards) we may come up short even on these modest goals, while if we set our sights on a rigorous liberal arts education, solid professional preparation and a well-rounded, thoughtful human person will result.

More than just differing standards of excellence, the contrast between the classical and progressive models expose areas of fundamental disagreement about the purpose of education. These differences, perhaps less obvious at first glance, are arguably the more significant ones. Unlike the classical vision of nurturing personal excellence according to a traditional view of human nature, progressives see education as serving social functions. There is a high value placed on helping students integrate into a pluralistic society without offending particular social groups. Students are instructed to be tolerant, understanding, and non-judgmental toward certain perspectives. Progressives strongly value the ideal of justice and correspondingly favor advocacy for underprivileged societal groups. Schools prepare students for the workplace and contemporary society in general and, even more, are powerful means for promoting social change, understood at least to some extent as a liberation from narrow cultural ideas from our past.  

Classical educators, on the other hand, value the tradition as containing resources to help us humanize modern society. They see the problems we face today as too complex to solve without the help of resources from our great thinkers. True solidarity can only be promoted by first entering into the great conversation that has been taking place for millennia on what it means to be authentically human. In contrast, progressives are less sure that we can meaningfully speak about a given meaning to our common humanity. Human nature appears to be somewhat malleable and thus we should be cognizant of our role in engineering future generations according to progressive values. Students in classical schools tend to read a variety of traditional texts, often in their entirety. 

And the mindset in classical schools is open to an understanding of rationality that has room for cultural and religious values. There is a recognition that objectivity can be reached through more than just the methods of the empirical sciences. Most progressive institutions acknowledge, at least publicly, the primacy of modern scientific research and analysis to reach objectivity. In reality, this paradigm of objectivity, along with modern thought in general, is in a state of crisis, sometimes referred to as postmodernism. In this context, both progressives and classical educators realize that there is a communal aspect to human knowledge that we know as members of a particular societal group.

Where does The Heights fit in?

So far, much that we have said about the classical education movement applies to The Heights in spades. Heights students benefit from our traditional approach to the liberal arts, our focus on training the mind and heart. They are brought into the great conversation and encouraged to find resources in the tradition that can help with contemporary challenges. Heights students read entire works of literature, delve into primary sources, write papers that require careful analysis, study Latin and other languages, encounter nature, embark on class trips and other co-curricular adventures, and even study Logic as a separate course in the curriculum.

But there are aspects of The Heights that are not common in classical schools. The Heights offers a wide variety of Advanced Placement courses, courses that many classical educators would reject outright as overly progressive. And it is true that AP courses tend to be progressive and there are some AP courses not offered at The Heights because of concerns with the curriculum. AP courses at The Heights, however, are not offered as a compromise with the dominant progressive educational system but rather as part of an intentional strategy to help our students better engage the world in which we live. A Heights education is designed to foster engagement with contemporary concerns and trends, including the progressive educational focus that dominates schools and universities today. We want our students to critically engage progressivism, not simply reject it outright.

Examples of The Heights approach…

The AP United States History course we offer to sophomores illustrates our strategy well. The sophomore year at The Heights is the final year of the core program that began in 7th grade (students in grades three through six have homerooms). The core humanities program involves students studying classes together, usually English and History, with the same teacher in a block period. Core classes have been developed by study groups of Heights teachers intentionally seeking to integrate knowledge across disciplines in a way that best engages the students. The sophomore core consists of British and American Literature and American History. Our approach to history favors primary source documents and seminar discussions instead of relying on a textbook. In the sophomore core history class students will read, for example, George Washington’s Farewell Address and discuss how radical this text was at the time. It is important to us that students encounter such primary sources, understand them in their historical context and how they fit within a broader cultural narrative reaching back centuries and even millennia and be able to react to the ideas presented in these documents.

For the past several years we have offered sophomores the opportunity to study Advanced Placement United States History alongside our Heights sophomore core class. This is the first introduction to AP humanities classes for most of our students. While the AP US History teacher, Heights alumnus Jimmy Callahan, is well versed in the Heights approach to history and helps form students through teaching US History well, he also embraces his role of introducing the students to the different academic concerns of those who are responsible for producing the AP US History exam. He explains to the students that a fair amount of contemporary university scholarship is focused on understanding history in terms of different identity groups, with an eye to critiquing the past from the perspective of contemporary postmodern concerns. Not all of this is without value, although most Heights students find this lens unsatisfying. A few students end up dropping the AP US History class, some because of workload concerns and others because they found the political agendas distracting. Even so, most students stay with the AP US History course and benefit from this introduction to contemporary scholarship in a way that allows them to understand its value and limitations, by being able to compare it to the Heights sophomore core history class throughout the year.

Many other examples of our intentional approach to integrating “classical” and contemporary scholarship could be given. Other AP classes strike a balance between preparing students well for the exam and providing a broader context to the material. In practice, this can be difficult to accomplish but each Heights AP teacher, without exception, takes steps toward this desired integration. In our Geometry class, students spend about one-third of the time studying Euclid’s Elements and two-thirds doing analytic geometry from a typical modern textbook. We offer a philosophy sequence including Logic (9th grade), Natural Philosophy (10th grade) and Metaphysics (11th grade). This philosophy sequence is precisely what students need to contextualize and value the traditional science classes they take. And Heights students excel in the empirical sciences, earning college credit through AP Biology, AP Chemistry or even Calculus-based AP Physics C. Though the 9th-grade logic class is primarily classical Aristotelian logic, we embrace a symbolic approach to analysis in our Algebra and Calculus courses. We offer a strong AP Statistics course. Our students are exceptionally well prepared for future studies in engineering, science or even pure mathematics. And many of our advanced course offerings, designated as 400-level and above in our system, are courses designed by our faculty here at The Heights. All seniors take our 500-level capstone History of Western Thought class and our most advanced and sole invitation-only course is our 600-level Jackson Scholars Senior Honors Thesis.

Our computer science department is an example of using cutting-edge technology in a way that is facilitated by our traditional liberal arts foundation. When we began offering computer science courses we were pleasantly surprised at how many Heights students excelled in this discipline. Several Heights students have earned college credit through taking the AP Computer Science exam and one student even received a congratulatory letter for submitting a perfect exam, answering every question correctly. Heights alumni currently work as computer programmers for companies such as Google and Apple. This department has grown to the point where we are offering three different sections of introductory programming next year. It is interesting to note that this success comes not from exposure to computers in the younger grades or even in middle school. These classes are primarily taken by sophomores, juniors and seniors. Our focus on the liberal arts, in such classes as math, Latin and Logic, instills the analytical rigor and exactness demanded in computer programming. We are convinced that learning Latin in grades 8 and 9 is a much better preparation for computer science than doing actual programming or computer work. Exposure to computer programming in younger grades may even be counterproductive. But learned at the right time, computer science is not only a useful professional skill but an arena where a well-trained mind can hone syntax, logic and mathematical reasoning, complementing our core liberal arts courses.

Integrating classical, modern and contemporary…

As classical educators rightly note, there is a critical need today to recover classical wisdom. We break from such notions as human nature, human excellence and virtue to our own peril. Christianity embraced and purified these classical insights and even used the philosophical language of Greece and Rome to articulate truths of the faith. Though a good portion of modern thought does represent a break from the classical and Christian past, the common narrative of a sharp break is often overstated. Recent research traces the beginnings of modern experimental science to the 12th century or even earlier.

Despite the many errors that we can point to in modernity, there are ways that the modern period corrects the shortcomings of our classical past. Classical thought did not adequately value productivity, human ingenuity or creativity. The sharp distinction between agere (to do) and facere (to make), in which making was seen as a servile activity not worthy of a free citizen, failed to appreciate the ethical dimensions of human work and production. The piety of the ancients was so strongly rooted in contemplating the natural order that the resulting stoicism not only led to indifference to human suffering but also to a failure to explore adequately the workings of nature. The shortsightedness of ancients never bothering to set up an experiment to see if heavy objects do, in fact, fall faster than light ones is laughable to us today.

Our contemporary situation can be characterized as the modern worldview in crisis. Central to modern thought is the notion that what matters most is what one produces, the results of one’s work and actions. The modern era is a flight from the existential indeterminacy within oneself to find meaning in productive activity. Some people use the word “postmodern” to describe the current state of crisis, which has been emerging since at least the early 20th century. People are more aware today of the limits of human productivity, including broader environmental challenges and questions of how fair it is to judge a person based on his results when several other factors are important as well.

There is also a growing recognition that the methods of the empirical sciences are limited, that there are problems with setting them up as the only standard of objectivity. The contemporary move toward identifying oneself with a particular group, to define one’s identity in the context of a particular community, stands in sharp contrast to both modern individualism and the modern gold standard for meaningful knowledge: scientific objectivity. It is interesting to note that aspects of this postmodern critique point back to the Greek polis as a community united by a common good and goal, as well as the importance of personal knowledge. After all, knowledge based on personal relationships where we trust others is critically important, in everyday human life and in matters of faith. The beliefs of Christians, for example, are reasonable in no small part because those who have passed on this knowledge are trustworthy.

Modern and postmodern patterns of thought are not simply wrong and without value. There is a great deal of the true, the good and the beautiful in the world around us. The modern impulse to relieve human suffering through medicine comes to mind, especially in the context of the professionalism, compassion and care of the whole person that many healthcare workers currently aspire to practice. Likewise, in addition to the postmodern insight that knowledge is connected to human relationships, passion for justice is itself good. The world needs leaders who are well grounded in the true, good and beautiful, as these transcendentals are articulated in the tradition and as they are present in the world of today. These leaders should critically engage the contemporary mindset, recognizing its shortcomings, but also open to using current thought patterns to present perennial wisdom in a way that resonates with our culture.

Going forward…

In attempting to integrate the best of our human tradition with contemporary concerns, a Heights education admittedly focuses heavily on the tradition. A significant amount of the time students are delving into our past, studying great texts, and acquiring the rigorous academic training of the mind that has been a hallmark of a traditional liberal arts education for centuries. It is no wonder that many see The Heights as similar to classical schools. But our attempts to integrate the old with the new, with an attitude of openness to the good that is present in the world around us, does impact the intellectual formation we offer. We aspire to form graduates who are not just looking to the past for stability and meaning.

People today have valid concerns and insights, and even particular customs reflective of the good, true and beautiful in ways unique to our times. We aspire to form leaders who value traditional wisdom and who love our world. Yes, they need to recognize that the tradition has resources that can be brought to bear on the challenges of our times. But we know that these leaders will only be truly successful if they engage the new challenges of our times with a creative openness that is not paralyzed by what is unprecedented in the challenges we face.

This philosophical background and approach is fundamental for understanding our spirit, the “spirit of The Heights School,” our way—difficult to define but strongly recognizable in our students and alumni. Part of this spirit includes an openness to the modern world and a valuation of work as a means of sanctification. We strive to form men who will be saints in the middle of the world—doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen, politicians, all types of workers—engaged with the modern world so as to transform it from within.

About the Author

Michael Moynihan

Head of Upper School, The Heights School

A native of Rochester, NY, Michael Moynihan graduated summa cum laude from the University of Notre Dame Honors Program in 1992. After teaching for one year and earning a master’s degree in theology from The Catholic University of America,

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