A Tripartite Standard for School Success, Part 2 of 3

Posted by | December 05, 2018 | Blog | No Comments

By John DePoe, Academic Dean for the Schools of Logic and Rhetoric

In a previous post, I introduced the notion of measuring a school’s success by looking at the transformation of the students’ lives through three questions inspired by C. S. Lewis:

  1. What are our students learning about how the relate to others?
  2. What are our students learning about themselves?
  3. What are our students learning about the ultimate purposes of life?

Let’s dive into the first two questions in this post, but let me first state a caveat. My answer will heavily reflect the current curriculum of the Schools of Logic and Rhetoric since this is an aspect of students’ learning with which I am very familiar. Although, I don’t want to give the impression that these questions cannot be answered by looking at other aspects of the school.

So, what are our students learning about how to relate to others? One of the first things that comes to mind is that they are learning to collaborate and work as a team through projects and presentations. For example, this semester our 8th grade History students put together “shark tank” presentations to create a mock pitch to investors (or “sharks”) for inventions from the industrial revolution like the telegraph, cotton gin, and spinning jenny. Students were assigned groups and tasked with doing research, preparing a presentation (each student had to speak in part of the presentation), and creating visual aids for their proposals—some even created working models of their invention. Through assignments like these, students practice skills that are used in many aspects of adult life (e.g., working, family life, participation in church, athletics, higher education, etc.). These kinds of assignments teach students how to relate to their classmates, which involves the delegation of responsibility, open communication, and wise planning. In these learning exercises they see that different roles need to be played, and they often discover strengths among themselves that they didn’t realize were present. They learn to trust one another in working together to a single goal.

Another thing that KPA students are learning about relating to others is how to argue, debate, and disagree with one another, while showing respect to one another. I had the joy of overseeing a Socratic seminar in 10th grade English recently where students discussed the first quarter of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Students prepare questions that guide their forty-minute long discussion. In the course of the seminar, the teacher says virtually nothing, while the students debate and discuss the questions provoked from the text ranging from how come Queen Margaret always seems so bitter? to do you believe that Richard’s motivations for his villainy are justified? and even when is it ever permissible to kill another person? The discussion itself was and thought-provoking (I rarely find this level of discussion among adults!). But beyond what they said, it was gratifying to observe how they said it. Students often disagreed with one another, but no one ever made the disagreement personal. In fact, students were often more aware of the need to cite textual evidence from Shakespeare to make their point when they had a different point of view from their classmate. This kind of exercise teaches students how to disagree without being disagreeable. They focus on the issue, state supporting reasons for their positions, and look each other in the eye with respect as they do it. I often wish more adults possessed the skills I see our students practicing regularly in our school.

What are students learning about themselves? Through our academic coursework, they develop a biblical understanding of anthropology or an understanding of human nature. The biblical worldview teaches that human beings have become walking oxymorons, creatures with conflicting natures: humans are created in the image of God and humans have a sinful nature. I can’t resist quoting a statement of this oxymoronic state of man from the French philosopher Blaise Pascal:

“The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are (and we should be less so if there were no element of greatness in our condition) we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood.”

Recently, our 12th grade students in Rhetoric class had a discussion comparing and contrasting the competing views of anthropology posed by Socrates and St. Augustine. Socrates held to a view that all people desire to do what is good, and therefore any volitional act that results in evil must come from ignorance. Augustine, by contrast, claims that humans often do evil from evil motives; they even sometimes do evil for the sake of evil itself (see Confessions, book II). Although there is much to study, emulate, and praise from Socrates’s philosophy, his view of human nature is thoroughly secular and ignores the depravity of human nature, and echoes of his anthropology can be heard today in those who think more education, a better home, or other modifications to a person’s environment could eliminate evil. Augustine holds to the biblical view that acknowledges the depraved state of human nature. The Rhetoric students uncovered these differences in our class, and they recognized how different views of human nature make a difference. How delightful it was to see students understand these important truths about human nature!

Many aspects of human nature are raised through our students’ studies throughout the school, whether it is from their study of ancient Egypt, The Bronze Bow, To Kill a Mockingbird, the plays of Sophocles, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Over and over again, we reinforce the Christian anthropology that sees that humans are both created in God’s image (rendering them as creatures of great dignity and value) and sinners depraved from birth (resulting in their selfishness and estrangement from God).

In sum, I am delighted with the beliefs and values about how to relate to themselves and others in which we raise our students. These foundational truths prepare them to see reality in focus through the lens of a Christian worldview. In a final blog post, I will touch on the third question: what are our students learning about the ultimate purposes of life?

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