Why Ridgeview? Occasionally, a handful of outsiders will provide a context than no number of insiders could hope to. The first question from them is almost always, “How have you created this culture?” They have seen other places, tried desperately to reach students, experimented with the multitude of tricks and techniques the educrats have taught them, told them, sold them, pushed upon them, and mandated. Mostly they have not availed. Tired of struggling, most burn out, move on to more lucrative careers, sacrifice whatever talent it is they might have brought to bear on the altar of standardized and sterilized education.
Meanwhile, Ridgeview teachers come together in faculty book groups to discuss Herodotus, Anna Karenina, Brothers Karamazov, and Middlemarch. The English faculty read Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading, and the Thursday Group just finished an essay on teaching and learning by Michael Oakeshott. The teachers are travelling to academic conferences sponsored by Liberty Fund, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Colorado Music Educators Association, and the College Board. They are writing and delivering papers and colloquia, participating in archaeological excavations in Scandinavia, Greece, and Italy, studying James Madison in Montpelier, and attending symposia. One teacher sent out an e-mail recently that began with, “Love where you work, Ridgeview!” She concluded the note to her colleagues by writing, “Thank you for having the courage to give our students a structured and safe place to fail, rebuild, and learn accountability. Thank you for supporting a culture where real education can take place.”
A part of the answer as to how Ridgeview creates its culture is to be found in a faculty and staff who value such a culture enough to want and sustain it. A small handful of parents have claimed that Ridgeview is not preparing their students for the real world, or the college system, or that we are too intellectual. Judging by the essays students write and the feedback we frequently receive from students already studying at universities across the country, they have a weak case. It is not Ridgeview’s intent to encourage our students to hide from the world like Peter Pan. Neither, however, do we intentionally prepare them for banality by submerging them in it. Life may contain plainer fare, but it is no excuse for acculturating a generation’s palate to it at such an impressionable age. Though the world may be less, intellectually speaking, we shall continue endeavoring to be more.
Ridgeview’s culture is partly attributable to its separation from the modern world’s worship of balance in place of excellence. For the attainment of the balanced life there have been written countless books to inspire and lead us towards a zen-like harmony, a secular nirvana, a non-judgmental bliss, all of which popular society holds to be much en vogue. Even “life coaches” are available for a steep fee, and magazines talk about the simple life, religion promises to clarify, psychologists have a pill for this and that, and it is the modernist’s soliloquy that we are doing too much, attempting to control things beyond our control, blurring distinctions between need and want, and living life in a hurried succession of satisfying imaginary obligations wherein the center cannot hold. Some of this is true, and some of it is simply a first-world affliction and the mundane anxieties typical of the self-indulgent and eternally entitled.
Many of the activities people seeking balance take the greatest pride in, devote the most time and resources to, and are the most ardent about, are largely about nothing larger than themselves. They transcend nothing, and the world is in want of a transcendental truth, which becomes clear in having genuine conversations and reading and thinking deeply. One can, for instance, run in place and become quite good at it, but so much of what one does ends up looking much like G.K. Chesterton’s description of inanity (i.e. making hammers to make hammers to make hammers). For example, the Ancients trained for war because there were great costs associated with winning and losing wars. The side-effects of this training were put in an appropriate context as means to an end. War itself was a means to a larger end, whereas the man running in place, while never killing anyone, appears possessed by a peculiar mentality. It is very much like that of Charles Murray’s description of the modern European’s view of life: “Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.” For those who thought there was a point, this is dispiriting; however, the man running in place cannot be wrong if running in place provides him pleasure in the intervening moments between his birth and death. Such a person’s conception of the good life, let alone a good death, is incompatible with the contemplative life. A culture of such people would be anathema to a life lived in defense of anything, especially anything greater than self-indulgence, and could not sustain the types of pursuits a school like Ridgeview counts as highest.
It should be noted that there is no claim that the examined life will necessarily be a happier one, at least not in the modernist’s understanding of happiness. Its purpose is excellence – not balance or fun or pleasure. For those who wish to pursue excellence, it is within reach. We direct our days, choose our purposes, make our lives. We can choose to avail ourselves and make something profound and lasting of our culture, or we can squander the opportunity and create a very superficial one. Our lives, and our culture, are what we make of our time. Balance is evanescent. Excellence is eternal. The happy man in such a culture as the one we are very deliberately trying to construct is one who pursues excellence. An education, properly speaking, is only the beginning of living such a life.
To our students who make this the type of place with the type of culture that dedicated, passionate, curious, and intellectual people want to work, we are indebted. In a badly degraded world, it would have been easier to take advantage of another culture: one that revered self-esteem and a sort of prosaic, navel gazing, solipsistic individualism pursuing common and tolerable ideas that play at social provocation but are really the safest and most correct social and political conformism. We are perhaps most indebted to their parents for not giving up and surrendering to the whimsical and chimerical wants of children. Finally, we are indebted to our colleagues for insisting that the good life require a good bit of work, a lot of determination, no small amount of grit, and the courage to face ourselves in our least attractive moments. We owe to the future an insistence that we can and will do better.