“It is idle to complain of schools and colleges being trivial. Schools and colleges must always be trivial. In no case will a college ever teach the important things. For before a man is twenty, he has always learned the important things. He has learned them right or wrong, and he has learned them all alone.”
Recently I came across this passage by G.K. Chesterton at a conference hosted by The Heights School on The Teaching Vocation. It brought current and aspiring teachers as well as administrators from across the country together to hear about the if’s and why’s of teaching. Both practical and philosophical. All a treasure. For me, who has the privilege of teaching at the Heights, it served as a wonderful reminder of the mission of education.
Which brings me back to the point of this passage. It seems to claim that schools are quite trivial, unimportant and should remain so. It is part of a longer passage that claims man is educated in spite of his schooling. I’d like to pose the question: is Chesterton correct here? And if so, why are they trivial? Have they become thus? Or always been thus?
Why is School Trivial?
I’d like to begin with the second question first, which I suppose also answers the first as well. Those schools which are trivial are the ones that isolate its charges from reality, both natural and supernatural.
Think about it. A typical student, such as I was, attending a public school, wakes up early, in his climate controlled home, is driven in a climate controlled car to a bus stop, spends the next thirty minutes inside of a climate controlled vehicle, then from there, with a last gulp of fresh air, is herded into a climate controlled, fluorescent building where he will be ushered from class to class on a schedule laid out as tightly as the Schlieffen Plan at the outset of the First World War. There may be time for a break or even PE. But once again that too is going by the wayside, to add more time for the trivial. And at the end of the day he is back into the vehicle or bus, short walk to the house and whew, back inside a climate controlled building, where he will spend two to three hours watching reality television, other people living their lives, while he waits for dinner and pretends to do his homework, which he clearly sees for what it is…yes, trivial.
After years of teaching you see the effect that this (de-)formation has on the soul of a boy. He no longer knows or cares to remember who he is and what he is created for! Or as Antoine De Saint Exupery puts it in The Little Prince, “he is not a man, he is a mushroom.” Yet the wonderful thing about teaching boys is you very quickly learn how resilient they are. When introduced to truth, goodness, and beauty, and through that, to the Author of all that is true, good and beautiful, the spark is kindled once again, and can burn into eternity. That spark, that flame is—to borrow Exupery’s words again— “a fragile treasure…it actually seemed to me there was nothing more fragile on Earth.”
It is that flame that we as educators have the duty and privilege to kindle.
There is a longing in every adolescent boy for adventure; a longing to face some danger and be found worthy of the challenge. To receive the answer to a burning question that rests in every man’s heart: Am I capable? Am I man enough?…or to put it more concretely, Do I have what it takes? To help our students answer that question, and answer it in the affirmative, we must give them a chance to experience the adventure of life, including its bumps and bruises, even within the school. A school remains trivial as long as it remains sterile. If we want to form men, we must be willing to risk giving our boys freedom.
Embrace the Dirty
“It’s a messy business raising boys. They enter the world dirty, they are a mess growing up, and a mess before they leave it.” These were wise words spoken by a wise man, Tom Royals, Assistant Headmaster, and Heights Dad. He knows boys and the formation of boys better than anyone. And it is always a treat to be near him to hear these bits of long-mined wisdom.
Society as a whole is afraid of boys. They are wild, unruly, and well, dangerous. All of these attributes are put there by their Creator, which if formed correctly, makes great men who are capable of great deeds! The business of formation is messy, yet an adventure worth undertaking.
One of my favorite days in the 6th grade is the Colonial Feast. We study the American Revolution and to celebrate the Victory at Saratoga, the turning point of the war, we hold a great, long day feast where the boys cook Colonial food over an open fire in huge cast iron pots. It’s a ton of work. I’m exhausted at the end of the day. But it’s so good! The boys begin by cutting up all of the ingredients that they bring, including meat, bacon, and potatoes. They mix the dough, and stuff it with jelly. Flour and potato peelings end up everywhere. And that doesn’t even begin to describe what it’s like to scrub those cast irons after they’ve been used all day. Yet, the reward is priceless. The boys see and literally taste the fruits of their effort. Not to mention, they have a renewed appreciation for their mom’s cooking as well.
In the springtime, we also raise chickens. We order eggs from a farm-supply store and, once they’ve arrived, the boys watch them as they develop in the incubator until the moment they hatch and the fun begins. The boys learn about animal husbandry and biology. And like everything else that’s real, and not insulated, it is a messy business. The smell grows as the chickens do. Likewise there are at times disappointments, when an egg doesn’t hatch or a chicken gets sick and dies, or a fox finds the coop and steals its dinner. We shouldn’t shelter our boys from these fundamental parts of life. They learn that actions have consequences. If I don’t feed my birds on time or take care of them properly, they will not thrive.
It is so good for them to get their hands dirty, quite literally. As they experience this, a new confidence grows. And as an educator you see that it was worth the risk.
Snow is your Friend
If you get to teach in a place where it actually snows in the winter, you’re in luck. Whenever the first snow comes, and we are back in school with snow still on the ground, you can always spot the new kids that have recently transferred from other schools. There is a sense of wonder and disbelief.
“Sir, we can actually touch the snow?!”
“Touch it? Yes, you can touch it. And make it into a giant snowball. And fling it at your unsuspecting buddy over there who’s looking the other way.”
And so begins a massive battle, often with no clear winner, but plenty of heroic tales. This often runs into class time, but is there a better education that a boy can get?
We also have hills around campus and boys who know, will bring their sleds and at first break, go screaming down these hills, crash at the bottom and rush back towards the top again and again.
I don’t understand schools that restrict their students to the point of telling them “no you can not touch the snow that’s there underneath your feet.” First, isn’t there a bigger battle to fight? Second, that is precisely what has caused schools to become so sterile and trivial. Which makes me repeat, snow is your friend, and no better teacher of reality.
Spring is for Planting
So much of the wisdom that our Fathers and Grandfathers took for granted is simply dying into forgetfulness. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is seeing my grandfather’s garden every summer. He lived near the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan. It seemed that every square foot of his property, which to me was like an exotic paradise, was in bloom. He had cherry and pomegranate trees, persimmons, hazelnut bushes, walnut trees, blueberry bushes and raspberry bushes, eggplants, tomatoes. Whenever we spent the summers with him, I don’t remember my grandmother going once to the market for produce. It would have been an insult and completely unnecessary.
Planning and planting the garden was second nature for them, and happened as surely as the seasons came and went. We no longer live in such an environment. And what was second nature once, must be intentional now. But I think, even in the school environment, it should be intentional. What lessons lie for a young boy in the planning, planting, and then harvesting a garden!
This can be done on a scale as large or as small as time and space allow. Last spring, I planted some green beans with my 6th graders in pots, indoors. They were responsible for the watering and care of the plants, and as they began to grow we let them vine all along our windows. We used it to study soil and the effect of various soils on the growth of the plants. But the real treasure was just watching the boys’ reaction as their plants began to sprout, grow and produce fruit. They saw too how simple it all was; went home knowing they could repeat the process themselves.
Don’t Plan a Field Trip, Plan an Adventure.
I don’t remember too many school trips growing up. I’m sure we went to a museum here and there. But those experiences just didn’t stick. Our approach to field trips is a bit different in the middle school. They are there to educate, yes, but to educate and challenge through adventure.
This past fall we took our 6th graders hiking up Sugarloaf, challenged them through a ropes course, went kayaking in the local tributary and will soon go ice skating at the skate rink near our school. None of these have any direct correlation to our curriculum per se, but each of the trips is essential, and accomplishes much more than a visit to a lecture or a museum.
These trips help forge a sense of brotherhood among the boys, and show us a side of them we’ll never see in the classroom. Through an adventure experienced together, friendships are forged among the boys and also with their teachers. These days challenge the boys in new ways. They learn that they can push themselves much more than they thought, they also learn and experience their own limitations. There is perhaps no better teacher of reality than scrambling up a rocky cliff! Consequences there are real! But so is the message that is conveyed. Yes, this is a bit dangerous, but I know that you have what it takes!
We feel the effects of these trips almost immediately. The ride home is filled with retelling of the day’s adventures, telling of jokes and, yes, even singing. There is a newfound friendship there among the class, freedom and responsibility, a maturing that can not be achieved by sitting at a desk. And for boys that is invaluable!
It would be easier to run our school like a military academy. It is risky giving boys freedom, risky to let them cook over an open fire, or hike up a steep mountain, or hurl snowballs at each other. But schools which take that risk, cease to be trivial, and begin to be cooperators in the formation of immortal souls.