One of the first seventh grade history lectures Mr. Busek presents is the “Goodness versus Greatness” discussion. After delving into definitions of each word, it becomes evident to the newly-minted middle school students that goodness requires virtue whereas greatness entails prominence. The rest of the year and even all subsequent curriculum, hinges on students’ understanding of this quintessential principle of the liberal arts.
The distinction, of course, is not always black and white. Gray hues exist between ends and means, beliefs and reality. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is something more evil when we know it is evil, or when we believe it is right? Is there such thing as the lesser of two evils, and to what extent does that mitigate blame, if at all? How do immoral choices affect a man’s general goodness, and to what extent? What is forgivable? How much should we separate a man’s public life from his private life?
Although without obvious answer, each of these questions re-frames every discussion students have at Ridgeview. Misalignment of students’ perspectives on these aspects of goodness informs every conversation and disagreement in every history and literature class, culminating in a senior thesis that dares to answer “What is the good life?”
The classical education dares to lift up ideals like areté, pietàs, virtus, and gravitas, and yet also demands that we see our heroes for who they are rather than who we would have them be.
The most elementary reading of the Iliad focuses on the heroism of Achilles, while a more advanced understanding reveals a lazy, lustful demigod who serves his own pride and vengeance. His greatness becomes muddied by his immorality. But, the classical education does not rest on mere myth, which is why we are so dedicated to studying the founding fathers. Again, the introduction of heroes who accomplished so much requires glossing over certain flaws. The most basic understanding of these men must be what they have accomplished, but a more mature education must acknowledge Washington’s slaves and Franklin’s debauchery. Thus, the boundaries between goodness and greatness become not just distant matters of heroism, but fundamental challenges of humanity.
Although these distinctions seem obvious—conclusions that could be drawn from a half-conscious analysis of Hollywood—wisdom comes in the ability to simultaneously respect greatness and scrutinize goodness, to have a proper reverence without misguided worship.
A successful liberal arts education produces seekers of “the good” who witness ubiquitous moral imperfection without accepting ethical ambiguity. Ridgeview is dedicated to such an education.