Home again and soon to be off again. It was a pleasure to see many of our alumni over the past few weeks. For those who did not stop by, we should like them to know that they were in our thoughts. We heard about first years at university, at basic training, in jobs and careers, about budding romances and extinguished old flames. Many of them talked to us about the real world, which impressed many of us since we were unaware such a place existed.
A handful of our alumni expressed a concern that they might not be welcome back because they had enlisted in the military or chosen to defer college a year or, horret tantis malis, attended a community college to make ends meet. Some of these choices would certainly be a disappointment at many other schools.
It is popularly believed that the purpose of high school is nothing more than a preparation for the next thing, and that next thing is always college regardless of whether it holds as much of its former purpose, value, or glory as it once did. Many Americans have begun to balk at this increasingly expensive credentialing service masquerading as a pursuit for truth, but the choice about what to pursue always resides with the individual making the choice. Ridgeview’s purpose was to ensure that our students were prepared for certain eventualities. With regards to which eventualities all people ought to be prepared for, there is no magic rub and no scientific formula, and none of us had the foresight to know what would be required of them except in the most general sense. To believe otherwise is to fall prey to a sort of epistemological hubris in which we presuppose that we can know things that we cannot. An acceptance of human beings as inherently individual impels us to recognize that people must be shapers of their own paths lest all the business about Frost’s two roads diverging in a yellow wood is to be reduced to unlivable rubbish. In this sense, as a school we are governed by something like F.A. Hayek’s description of the individual wherein the “recognition of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that as far as possible, his own views ought to govern his actions…forms the essence of the individualist position.”
Some of our alumni have begun to embody our greatest hopes, and seem even to have carried something of the Ridgeview ethos with them. Others have simply learned to strut and curse while modelling some of the cruder vestments of adulthood. Some did not have much to say, some revealed too much; some had accomplished a great deal, and others were waiting to declare their life’s purpose as they expired at “some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour,” as Nabokov put it. Some of them are under intense pressure to do well, while others can barely be bothered to care. The real world it seems does not look much different than the Ridgeview world in many respects. The setting changes, the scenery is moved about, most of the characters remain mostly the same, and the lines read differently but sound mostly the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
School is a microcosm, especially one as introspective as Ridgeview. Periodically, however, one is tempted to think it ought to produce a certain product, a certain type of person. It ought to be able to tell parents, “If your kid goes here, they will be…” It does not happen though, and it is foolish, utopian, or in its political form, totalitarian to think about education in this way. People are unique and any educational system that would deny this is dangerous. It may look as though it had a poor batting average or return on investment as a result, but the analogies fail. A baseball team does not take on weak players. It takes on only superb players, whereas a great school takes on virtually all comers, including those who promise to do little but underwhelm, and so its results are always mixed. We have the college bound, the service ready, the career ready, and the perpetually unready. We have all types while they are here to study, and it is logical to suppose that we will have all types when they return to visit.
Simply put, our alumni should not be ashamed or embarrassed to return to tell their stories. There is an astonishing story in every life as Alexander Herzen made clear. Similarly, though in more plainly religious language, C.S. Lewis pointed out that there “are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” Whether we are faithful or not, we only become susceptible to the potent notion of the individual in our most humane moments.
From time to time, it is good for all of us to see genuine diversity. One way of ensuring this diversity is by encouraging individuals to flourish by exposing them to a classical education. If such an education fails to teach them what to know, it may succeed in revealing the importance of what they do not. It may not teach them how to earn a living, but it will show them some of the ways to make good on whatever life that living has earned. We believe most of them are better for it, or at least that being a better person is brought within reach for those who are not thoroughgoing scoundrels. Whether it does them any good in the present moment or in the first heady years at university when they relive an imitation of Sayers’ combative logic stage, or whether they do not yet know what they believe in, is all unknown and unknowable secondhand. We can only conclude that each has an adventure before him that he must live out as fully and as well as he can. To quote the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott at some length,
This is a disposition to prefer the road to the inn, ambulatory conversation to deliberation about means for achieving ends, the rules of the road to directions about how to reach a destination, and to recognize that
The road runs always to the sea
‘Twixt duty and delight.
And since men are apt to make gods whose characters reflect what they believe to be their own, the deity corresponding to this self-understanding is an Augustinian god of majestic imagination who, when he might have devised an untroublesome universe, had the nerve to create one composed of self-employed adventures of unpredictable fancy, to announce to them some rules of conduct, and thus to acquire convives capable of ‘answering back’ in civil tones with whom to pass eternity in conversation.
We hope that all of our students (for they rarely cease to be so considered) find their way, and that along the way, they find their way home again.