It’s Time to Build Schools, from the Ground Up

Sometimes the best thing you can do to a school is to raze it. The pipes leak, there’s mold in the ceiling panels, rats are nesting behind the wainscot, and a strange black stain has appeared under the basement floor near the oil line. It isn’t worth repairing.

It might have been worth repairing, if it had once been noble and beautiful, or at least conceived in an orderly way, for ordinary human purposes. But it wasn’t. It was constructed upon false principles. Its walls looked like those of a bad factory. It smelled like a warehouse. It could be terribly noisy, but it was never musical. It could boast plenty of glaring neon colors, but it was never simply sweet. It was not grand, but only big, and big enough for musty corners of corruption to develop here and there. This is the room where the kids snorted coke. This is the closet where they stashed the porn. Here is the English teacher who hated great English literature. Here is the history teacher who taught no history. Here is the health class that spread confusion and disease.

If it stirs any affection, it is in spite of its unlovable self. Perhaps one of the teachers took pity upon you and sent you to the library to read something good for a change. Perhaps one of the coaches lent you his hammer and chisels, and you used them to make a present for your father. But in general, the thing might well be wiped off the face of the earth, and you would feel a moment’s twinge, and then not give it another thought.

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I’ve been writing a lot about the latest dreary exercise in pedagogical flummery and inhumanity, the Common Core Standards. I’ll be writing more. But they do serve one purpose, as it seems to me. They can stir Catholic bishops, pastors, teachers, and parents to take stock of where we are. If somebody is giving you a peculiarly rotten meal and expects you to down it as you’ve downed all the others he’s served, you might just push the dish aside and ask yourself, “What have I been eating at this joint, all these years?” This rotten pedagogy, this dispiriting transformation of English and history, and what little poetry is allowed to remain on the lifeboat, into the Inhumanities—this rejection of wisdom and this reduction of knowledge to information, and of art to “transferable skills”—it is not spanking new. But it now presents itself as so thoroughly and comically bad, and so inimical to human culture in general and the Catholic faith in particular, that we might just begin to say, “The building was wrong from the start!” And then we can build upon truly human and Catholic principles.

So here I’d like to introduce my readers to someone who is aiming to do just that. I offer his example to inspire others to go and do likewise, or to assist him in his wonderful undertaking.

Peter Searby has a vision. He understands that boys are treated pretty shabbily in our schools—and not just the public schools. He recalls interviewing a nine year old boy, who told him that he hated school, because they gave the kids only fifteen minutes a day to go outside, and then only for talking, not for running and playing. Otherwise, school life meant being confined to a chair, listening to the teacher talk, and filling out innumerable worksheets. Searby knows, too, that many boys are drugged to smother what is a normal physiological and emotional reaction to the abnormal environment in which they are compelled to wear out their days. He understands that such boys, bored, resentful, and inured to failure, cannot become stalwart contributors to a healthy society, or clear-eyed defenders of the Church.

Searby’s answer is not to toss to the boys a little extra work. It is to reconceive the whole idea of teaching boys. Or rather it is to return to what we all know about those creatures, from history, from every human culture, from biology, and from the abundant evidence of our eyes and ears. What would a healthy and hearty Catholic school for boys look like?

His words are not just far from those of our reigning educrats. They come from a different world entirely:

Boys are full of potential that needs to be activated. They long to break out of the walls that hem them in at school, and to experience the world around them. They need a school that will tap into their drive and inspire them to do, to make, to solve problems, to give of themselves through the knowledge and skills they have mastered.

Boys long for a landscape of action where they learn to navigate boyhood and become young men of courage and imagination. They need to work and study alongside men who guide them—together with their parents—along the adventurous road to manhood.

They need a place where the academic curriculum is rooted in the great traditions of learning, guided by the compass of wisdom attained through the study of the liberal arts and sciences; where they hear, speak, and write alongside the masters of old; where their imaginations are enriched by characters and stories that inspire them with wonder and refine their consciences; where they learn the art of liberty and what it means to be human. They yearn for adventures in the outdoors, where their limits are tested and their hearts and minds grow strong; where competitions and games are part of learning; where they reconnect with nature and experience the joy of working with their hands.

And they need a place where they can actively live their faith.

That’s exactly what Peter Searby proposes to give those boys, in The Riverside School. He has thought the matter through. The Riverside School is, right now, still a-borning. But it is already more than just an idea.

During just the next two months, the Riverside Center for Education, located in Westchester, Illinois, will offer tutorials in Archery, Building Homemade Instruments, Sound Recording, and Soldering and Circuit Boards, and a treasure hunt and a dog-sledding exhibition. The Center is not a school; not yet. But it is the beginning of a school, and it can in the meantime supply many of the boyish adventures that the schools cannot or will not give. These come under six categories: Theater, Film, Tutorial (for reading, writing, and speaking), Maker (for arts and crafts), Ranger (for exploring the outdoors), and Folk (for learning how to play and sing traditional folk music).

As for the Riverside School itself, Searby wishes to combine, in a most engaging and fruitful way, the best of the classical model of education with the hands-on learning that bore its most glorious fruit in the medieval guilds and the workshops of the Renaissance masters. So the boys will commit poems to memory—and why not? Why not carry songs about with you in your soul? And in the early years they will commit the simple arithmetical operations to memory—and why not? Young children like the feeling of mastery that comes from a strong memory, and if you do not know that that may be especially true of boys, you have never looked at the back of a baseball card. They will have plenty of time to read quietly and to reflect upon their reading of the good books of our heritage. They will also be vocal about their reading—in recitations and plays and dramatic reenactments of history.

Nor will their hands be idle. Boys like to make things, with wood or clay or stone, with electricity, with fire—so arts and crafts will be a regular part of the school’s week. So also pioneering through the nearby woods, and taking care of animals on the school property. And let us not forget competitive games, for everyone, not just for a few gifted athletes; for the sheer fun of it, but also to forge friendships, to learn grace in victory or defeat, and to practice the virtues of forgiveness and magnanimity.

And all of these deeply human and pleasantly boyish things will be enjoyed, as it were, in the stained-glass light of the Catholic faith, taught fully and reverently, and lived by the teachers themselves, as models for the boys.

My dear bishops—it is high time to go on offense. We have our innings too. Why copy the architecture of the public schools? Those walls are buckling. Are we slaves, that we have to take instruction from our secular masters? Time to build anew, upon the sure foundations of nature and grace.


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