As our days shorten to scarcely a blink, few of us are likely enjoying anything resembling a repose as we make our lists and gather our gifts for the impending holiday. As we rush to and fro harried and wearied by the obligations of the season, we are wont to neglect the spirit we are desperate to imbue it with. Nevertheless, the idealized version of the season beckons and we should be quick to indulge it.
As our students make their preparations for Winter Ball, final exams, presentations, and term papers, and our younger children mark the midpoint of their year, it is incumbent upon all of us to see that we keep the promise that the skills acquired in youth shall not cease in relevancy upon exiting academia; that these skills are not exclusively vocational, but the prerequisites for humane living. In short, that we are all – young and old – engaged in an endeavor that our cultural and philosophical forbearers would have recognized and reverenced. Eric Voegelin, borrowing from authors long preceding him, described this as periagoge – the art of turning around, or the opening of the soul. In either event, the true and ultimate purpose of education as self-reflection, self-discovery, and self-understanding. The slow and edifying realization of a life of reason and of faith.
I have been privileged to spend many hours over the past several months with fellow parents reflecting on what it is we want for our children from a Ridgeview education. In separate groups, we have met weekly and monthly to discuss texts that have inspired, challenged, clarified, and exemplified the sorts of conversations Ridgeview’s faculty attempt to foster with their students regardless of whether they are memorizing recitations in kindergarten or softening the rough edges of a senior thesis. More important than the names are the ideas. We have considered the differences between work and play, the experience of genuine conversation, the notion of becoming ‘fully human’, Aristotle’s description of natural slavery and Jefferson’s of natural aristocracy; we have considered what survives of the Greek inheritance, the tripartite split in human nature, and whether a national community can be said to exist. We have dissected the classical and modern conceptions of man, and the nature of dialectic in classical education. We have read and discussed substantial excerpts from substantial texts such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and St. Augustine’s Confessions. These texts have survived for centuries and even millennia. They have a way of working upon one’s mind. In professions likely and unlikely, one sees certain authors and ideas returned to demonstrating the timelessness of the endeavor we are all engaged upon. In unravelling ourselves, we come to a better understanding of what it is to be paternal, to set an example, to show our children what is worth exalting. To provide one brief example of what these meetings intend to convey, an excerpt from our next monthly meeting will have us read the following passage from Thomas à Kempis’s The Inner Life. Therein, it is written that, “A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always to think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection. Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace. We are all frail: consider none more frail than yourself.” We are not called upon to agree with this; we are called upon to consider it.
In doing so, we will model for our children the type of reading and reflection we expect from them in attending a school like Ridgeview. We will show a regard for more than how ‘they are doing,’ and show instead a concern for ‘who they are becoming.’ Let us allow our older children to see us reading and contemplating the types of grand texts that alter the course of lives and provide reconciliation between who we are and who we aspire to be. And, while profundity might diminish the magic of the season for our younger children, the number of books that embolden liberal charity and gentle kindness abound. Many of them are beautifully illustrated and will shape the imaginations of our youngest readers for decades to come. Stories like O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Louisa May Alcott’s A Merry Christmas, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, Susan Wojciechowski’s The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, and Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. We are the inheritors of a wealth too great to be spent, and it falls to us to ensure that it endures as a bestowment to posterity.
As we hang the decorations and organize all the many preparations that bring this festive season to life, let us not forget that in each moment we are determining not only the way our children will remember this holiday, but the way that their children and grandchildren will celebrate it in years we shall not live to witness. In essence, whether they shall seek to act upon an admittedly romanticized ideal or a bare naked cynicism; whether the season, and all that is breathed into it, shall elevate their spirits or see them brought low; whether they shall find in their education, a manner of living or a set of checked boxes. We have entirely too much power in determining the lives of others. It is, during this season more self-consciously than others, for us to be the better version of ourselves.