State of the School Address 2017

Kindergarten students sing and gesture during a concert.

Thank you for coming this evening. It is easy to skip these types of events as our students are safely enrolled, the Board is safely seated, and our school safely re-chartered. God willing, the school will still be here on Monday when we drop off our children. I do not wish to heighten anxieties by contradicting any of this. There are, however, considerations about our school’s present and future, as well as concerns that extend beyond Stuart and Lemay.

I begin by acknowledging our good fortune. We have much to be appreciative of. For instance, Mrs. Calvert, Mr. and Mrs. Carvalho, and the many faculty who helped plan and organize the back-to-school camping trips for all our upper-school students. While a blazing fire and a night beneath the stars can be romanticized, there is little that is romantic about the position of school nurse, who nevertheless tends to minor wounds, dries countless eyes, takes temperatures, and hands out innumerable ice packs. Neither is there much glory or acknowledgement for the janitor’s Sisyphean endeavors whereby he carefully mops a section of floor only to watch hundreds of muddy shoes march across it as he nears the end of his task. Neither do our lunch monitors or TAs get the credit they deserve, much less the remuneration; yet, our children see tremendous kindness from them on a daily basis. The music teachers, Mr. Davis, Mrs. Cowan, Mrs. Faust-Frodl, and Mrs. Nichols, work with bashful children and bring out qualities in them that might have remained hidden for a lifetime. There are the ladies at our front desk who get sneered at by unpleasant people, but who, with an upturned heart, manage to smile at the sneerer’s child. We have elementary teachers who patiently wait until the last child is picked up, and who know, by this time of year, every vehicle, parent, and nanny. There are the upper-school faculty who have waded through hundreds of pages of student writing, marking every passage and every grammatical error, in the hope that the next draft will be a little less impoverished. We are blessed with wonderful elementary teachers who create conditions in which learning is possible and make available knowledge worth knowing. We have teachers with such a high reputation that our parents fear for their retirement, and we have teachers like Mrs. Schmidberger who hold themselves to high standards with projects like Veritas. We have parents who each morning who come to read with children, and in so doing, help to bestow the gift of literacy and all the treasures that attend it. We have a wonderful staff in the Resource Room and the Business Office who have had to work some days without heating or cooling or much appreciation. They have worked early and they have worked late in order to ensure everything carried on smoothly. We have an administrative team that have stepped up on more than a handful of occasions to save an event, or to go above and beyond in order to make someone else’s life easier. And, we have parents who show up to book groups on a weekly basis to do some important, but often difficult reading. Our last book, Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, was by far the most vexing. Nevertheless, Zak Smith, Ian Rutherford, Alexandra Hobaugh, Kristina Menon, Kelly Trosper, and Genevieve Rives dutifully showed up and made what had been a frustrating read into a productive discussion. I am profoundly indebted to all of these people, and I am indebted to our Board of Directors for having given Ridgeview a marvelously stable foundation on which the rest of us are able to do our good work.

I would like to thank all of you who show up each morning, endure our parking lot, and provide us with a good reason to do what we do. The good news is that there is much that we are doing exceptionally well. Ridgeview has sometimes been regarded as ‘just’ a humanities school, which is attributable to a fading segment of the population who understand what a liberal arts education entails. In reality, Ridgeview has been exceptionally successful in mathematics, whether in Math Counts or the Colorado Math League. It has done well – even ranking nationally – in the High-School Science Bowl, and did tremendously well with its Middle-School Science Bowl team this year. In one ranking, Ridgeview even ranked higher as a STEM school than those who label themselves such a thing. Ridgeview’s students have done well in chess, with many state victories under their belt. We were impressive this year at the State Spelling Bee, at Mock Trial, in All-State Choir, All-State Orchestra, and the PSD Middle School Honor Orchestra. Our students have put on both a play and a musical every year since 2006. This year, seventy-one students were involved in our musical, The Mikado. We excelled in Mock Trial, and have appeared at state in four of the last five years. This year, we ranked ninth overall, and won two best witness awards thanks in large part to the help of Tom Martin, Karl Ayers, and Kristen Carvalho. Depending on which ranking one prefers, Ridgeview is either the top-ranked high school in Colorado or someplace in the top ten. The Class of 2017 collected a total of over $1.6 million in merit scholarships. Our high-school students earned 137 awards in the National Latin Exam, and for the first time, thanks to the efforts of Ms. Krause and Mr. Dahl, we sent five students to the Junior Classical League competition, and they earned a total of thirty ribbons between them. We have outperformed many schools with better resources and larger student bodies, but more importantly, our students are flourishing. We are also continuing to improve in our fundraising efforts, and I would be massively remiss were I not to acknowledge Amy Cohen and the other parent volunteers who helped to organize the Hoplite Hoedown. It was an extraordinary event, and our most successful ever. Also, because of Mr. Rhead’s efforts, we received a sizable grant from Otterbox that will help our students in engineering, programming, and robotics. Finally, another sizable grant from the Johnson-Hanson Foundation has made materials available for our students in the elementary that simply would not have been within our budget, and we extend our deep gratitude to them as well.

I would like to thank the parents who have made it to either or both of the new parent reading groups. These parents have met nearly every week since September to discuss some of the ideas central to Ridgeview’s curriculum. We have talked about shared inquiry and what is meant by Socratic discussion. We have worked through the ideas of numerous authors about what precisely is meant by classical education, looking at everyone from Dorothy Sayers and E.D. Hirsch to Eric Voegelin and Richard Livingstone. We have discussed virtue, and the ways in which it is different from values and the much-lamented values clarification programs. Here we have read from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Cicero’s On Duties, and considered Claes Ryn’s notions of moral reality. We read about and discussed character, what it is and how to develop it. We looked at Kilpatrick’s Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, Lord Moulton’s Law and Manners, and C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man. We are now embarked on a longer discussion about patriotism and its place in education. In the monthly meetings, we are working our way through the Penguin Great Ideas series. Parents have read and discussed Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, Seneca, Montaigne, Thomas à Kempis, Swift, Machiavelli, and we are now set to explore Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Rousseau’s Social Contract later this month. Each of these parents has related to me privately about how the readings have altered and improved the conversations they have had not only with their children, but with their spouses and friends. It is an incredible thing to feed the mind on these texts, and each of us becomes better through discourse. If we truly believe that this manner of education is best for our children, how can it not also be the case that it does us well? Our community is strengthened by having such people in it, and I would heartily encourage you to join our circle wherein we are all students of one another’s.

Perhaps most incredible about Ridgeview’s accomplishments are that they have been achieved against a dreary backdrop, which is the state of education nationally and the state of educational choice and charter schools within Colorado. In a climate of disastrous educational schools, mills that turn out empty educational jargon, and even undergraduate programs that produce students who in many instances read at a lower level upon exiting than they did upon entering, finding teachers competent to teach in a school such as Ridgeview is a unique challenge. Too frequently, those who might have made for inspiring teachers either burn out within a few years or choose never to enter the profession to begin with. We live in a society in which nearly everybody wants for their child to have a great teacher, and in which nearly nobody wants for their child to become a teacher. If we look at Ridgeview’s challenges, among its greatest is that we need faculty who live by and model a noble creed, and we are forced to find them in a society that scoffs at creeds. We need teachers who do not simply have the work ethic to show up each day, but who feel as though they are answering their calling. We need teachers who hold high standards for themselves and their students in an age of mediocrity. We need people of hope in an age of apathy, and people for whom, self-examination is a way of living, when most the rest of the culture cannot distinguish it from self-centeredness. Against all of this, we see Ridgeview’s greatest asset, its rigorous curriculum and character development, as also its greatest liability. Ridgeview’s real nemesis is the relative ease of every other program with which it competes for students. At the most impressionable age, students are given the choice between doing what is easy and doing what is difficult, and they will for the most part make predictable choices, which makes those students who remain evermore impressive.

All of this is to say that it is hard – not that it is hopeless. Our community may be small, but it is not the case that Ridgeview stands alone upon the precipice. There is interest in the type of life we describe and teach about, and there is scattered evidence for this across the country and across the globe. It astounds me that there are thirty-four Amazon customers who thought it worth their time to write a review of Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, or twenty-nine that wrote reviews of Hesiod’s still more obscure Theogony and Works and Days. Add to this the number of people subscribing to the Times Literary Supplement, the Claremont Review of Books, Literary Review, the New Criterion, and any number of other outstanding periodicals. How many challenging books remain in print? How many Ted Talks or podcasts can we find on an interesting topic? How many people are taking up a new language or purchasing books and videos from the Great Courses catalogue to remedy some perceived deficit in their learning? How many patrons of museums or orchestras? How many people writing a blog about trying to understand or better appreciate a work of art or music? A former student once told me, at a moment in which she was fearful she would not find a community like Ridgeview’s that, “Ridgeview had prepared her for a world that did not exist.” This community may be in diaspora, but it exists. There are curious people with inquiring and capable minds seeking out knowledge, not for its novelty, but for itself. It is for us to find them and the opportunities for conversation are manifold. Endless discussion may be had with which we can pass what leisure we have in this world with benefit and pleasure. Ridgeview’s contribution to the world is that it adds to this stock, and that many will benefit by our efforts who know not even our school’s name.

Towards these ends, Ridgeview has made numerous improvements. The addition of weekly and monthly parent reading groups, the periodic meetings with Student Council and Student Ambassadors to answer questions and put down rumors, and the fine tuning of the senior thesis project have all sought to remain answerable to our first principles in their own way. A larger percentage of our parents understand the intent and aims of a liberal arts education, our students better understand what it is that underlies the decisions we make as a faculty and an administration, and the seniors hopefully produce a more contemplative thesis. Our media presence, whether through our website or our social media platforms, has improved tremendously, and we will continue to work to bring due attention to our students’ achievements and accolades. In the coming months, we will be working to produce the second volume of the Ridgeview Reader, a curriculum sequence detailing the kaleidoscopic variety of topics studied at Ridgeview, and the publication of a prospectus for students interested in enrolling at Ridgeview. We will emphasize in these documents that though Ridgeview enrolls nearly 800 students, we are a school that strives to continue providing mentorship and instruction that feels intimate and personal. Mr. Rhead will continue to roll out an impressive array of technology courses in programming, robotics, and engineering. We will offer AP Biology, Chemistry, Physics: Mechanics, Physics: Electricity and Magnetism, Statistics, Computer Science A, Calculus AB, Environmental Science, and Computer Science: Principles. Additionally, we will continue growing the number of our faculty who are CU Succeed certified so that juniors and seniors will be able to obtain CU credit for an increasing number of interesting courses.

There is, then, this world before us, and there is this frame of mind, or inner life, that we can come to discover as a sort of metaphysical home. It is not, however, everyone’s vision of what education ought to be. There are those for whom the person is not an end, but the means of animating some vast machinery in which the individual is only dimly aware of his consciousness. His is a life not fit to live in our sense of living a fulfilled life, but rather of a mind fit to be trained in how to work, produce, and consume. He is a man naked to the ambitions of others. Frighteningly and tellingly, when we look at our judges, legislators, and educational mandarins at either the state or federal levels, the story of educational choice takes a disconcerting direction. Choice, the instrument of freedom, is perverted. We see talk about Common Core, now adopted, now rejected, and only to be replaced by something the people comprehend less than what came before. We have corporations competing for our student’s data, and a hundred McCharters opening each year hoping to cash in on parent’s fears that their children will not amount to anything. We have workforce programs that are the enemies of education as the method by which we convey knowledge. Those documents that were supposed to protect us, such as the Colorado Charter Schools Act, could not withstand the cleverness of legislators and lawyers who are so much like the learned brother in Swift’s Tale of a Tub. In this story, three brothers are gifted three coats by their father along with a will that states how they are to take proper care of them. One of the rules is that they are not to adorn them, but shoulder-knots become very fashionable, and so after a handful of years the brothers come together to examine the will to see if there is a way they might not justify so adorning their coats. As there is nothing in the will that would justify this, two of the brothers grow forlorn. “After much Thought, one of the Brothers who happened to be more Book-learned than the other two, said he had found an Expedient. ‘Tis true, said he, there is nothing here in this Will, totidem verbis [in so many words], making mention of Shoulder-knots, but I dare conjecture, we may find them inclusive, or totidem syllabis [in so many syllables].” So, of course, they do, and they ‘find’ many more ways to alter the document to accommodate what is en vogue. So it is with our rights as regards education. They shift with the political winds, and such unsteady rights are hard to distinguish from despotism, the heart of which is always arbitrariness.

In thinking about this issue of education and freedom, it has been remarkable to note the parallels between what we are seeing here and what other commentators like Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted about totalitarian regimes. Havel, for instance, wrote that:

“Between the aims of the post-totalitarian system and the aims of life there is a yawning abyss: while life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, and self- organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom, the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline.”

Genuine educational choice produces plurality, diversity, self-organization; standardized systems of education produce conformity, uniformity, and discipline. They do not do so because people choose them with a full awareness of what they choose; instead, there is a coercion that is admittedly subtler than what occurs under totalitarian regimes. It is through vague, numerous, and complicated laws that the average citizen is so overburdened by trying to make sense of the whole mess that they find it easier to accept the services of the State – the bus, the lunch, the ‘free’ education, and the game on Friday night. Havel continues in describing this ‘freedom’ in the totalitarian state by writing that,

“This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance.”

How similar does some of this seem in the efforts towards greater and greater political correctness that are imposed by severe and even crippling punishments for those who refuse to comply? In 1978, in a lecture at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn said of the West,

“Every citizen has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness – in the morally inferior sense of the word which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to attain them imprint many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition fills all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”

Our comfort in material things, which has been no minor accomplishment, has created a situation in which we overlook other aspects of our development. That schools are complicit in this perpetuation of a false happiness, is a genuine threat to the types of students we can produce and the type of the world they will inherit. In looking forward, these types of challenges – cultural and political – are for our community, and ultimately our children to surmount. Our school, while it is in good standing, survives, develops, and progresses only with the active interest and involvement of its community. I urge you all to find ways great and small to be involved with Ridgeview, and for all of you who have given so much of your time, I thank you for the opportunity to serve a place that puts first principles first.

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