Saturday, November 3, 2012
The Once and Future School
Which direction should a school face? Backward toward the past, or forward toward the future? Should a school be primarily conservative, guarding the repository of wisdom from our elders? Or should it be more progressive, looking ahead to the challenges that will face the generation leading the world in forty years? Should the core values of a school be shaped more by the humanities, with their attention to the great conversations of the past; or by the sciences, which are driven by new paradigms and the frontiers of knowledge? Should it guard the analog culture of learning that it inherited from the past or adopt the new digital world ahead?
You can imagine that a school like Trinity, whose mission invokes a Christian, classical, and unhurried education, would attend to the voices from the past. Our guiding lights, from Socrates to Charlotte Mason, are all dead. We think that there is something our parents and grandparents knew that is worth discovering. Dorothy Sayers, whose essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” has inspired and influenced our school since the beginning, proposed going back to the medieval Trivium for a better way of education. We are prone to believe, prima facie, that an old book might be better than a new one.
But in this brave new world an old computer is never better than a new one. Whether we Boomer Digital Immigrants like it or not, every student at Trinity School is, by virtue of age, a Digital Native. They will work, read, play, shop, give, and worship in a world that is foreign to us: more connected and faster than we would like. We can slow it down and unplug it some, for their benefit, but we cannot turn the clock back. The question is not whether they will be digital and global citizens. The question is what kind of digital and global citizens they will be.
I refuse for Trinity School to be skewered on the horns of this dilemma. I feel enormous pressure to choose one side or the other—in one direction when I attend the annual conference of the Southern Association of Independent Schools, entitled “Leaders of the Future”; or in the other when I talk to parents or teachers who want Trinity to be a sanctuary from our digital culture. But this is not what we set out to establish when we founded Trinity. We set forth, in our bylaws, the goal to “promote thoughtful and responsible engagement with the culture at large, to the end that our students will answer God’s call to transform society for the common good and the glory of God.” This means that we engage with culture; and it means that we do so thoughtfully. This is a Third Way: neither Once, nor Future, but Once and Future.
Remembering the past is essential to any future worth having. Some things do not change, like our humanness. Belief in a constant human nature is one of the presuppositions of a classical education. We think it wise to look back to Socrates and Charlotte Mason for guidance about education because we believe that personhood is something constant. Attention spans may have changed, but the need for attentiveness has not. Word-processing is a lot easier, but finding the right word is not, to say nothing of matching word and deed. Even with their smart phones and iPads, our students are still angel-beasts, glorious ruins, in need of education and redemption.
Moving into the future, Trinity students will be well prepared because they have been given the tools of learning. These gifts from the past are essential for the future. The tools of learning, the liberal arts, are those skills that teach us how to learn. Students who have mastered these will have the capacity to approach any learning challenge with competence and confidence. For the challenges of a knowledge-based future, knowing how to listen and speak, how to read and write, how to think clearly and speak persuasively will be more valuable by far than an encyclopedic knowledge of something that Google can uncover in a nano-second.
In 1982 Christian author and scholar Tom Howard published an essay in Christianity Today entitled, “What My Children Won’t Learn in School.” Howard asked himself just what he wanted schooling to do for his children:
I want them to be civilized and articulate members of their generation. I want them to be able to live intelligently in this epoch and to bring to the choices they make the judgments formed by eons of human experience. I do not want them to be trapped inside the airless hutch of modernity. They will be assisted here by reading history and poetry and philosophy. I do not want them to be ignorant as to the sort of conditions under which all mortal life must be lived. They will get light on this from physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, botany, anatomy, and so forth. I want their capacity to apprehend beauty to be awakened and nourished and regaled. Hence, I want them to know about Praxiteles and Virgil and Giotto and Mozart. I do not want them to be traduced by the bestial view of mankind that is the specialty of our own century. I would like them to have Ulysses and Aeneas and Roland and Lear looming in their imaginations so that they will have images against which to test figures like Arthur Miller’s salesman, or Andy Warhol, or Charlie’s Angels.
What I want for our children, the ones who attend Trinity School now and the ones who will attend it twenty-five years from now, is a Once and Future School. I want a school that is conversant with the past and attentive to the future. I want a school that knows when to use an old tool and when to use a new one. I want a school that teaches and trains students in the ancient habits and virtues so that they will be wise and self-controlled when they face temptations I cannot yet imagine. I want a school where the technologies of the future are embraced with thoughtfulness and moderation. I want a school where the creativity and innovation that emerge remind us of Leonardo or Pascal or Jefferson. I want a school that remembers. And a school that, like the wise woman of Proverbs 31, smiles at the future.
© 2012 Peter T. Denton, Jr.