Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Counter-Cultural Education in a One-Room School

John DeJak, teaching Latin at the Chesterton Academy, a new high
school in St. Louis Park that aims to start an education revolution.

From the Star Tribune
By Katherine Kersten

Remember the old one-room schoolhouse? We've moved far beyond it with our multimillion-dollar school facilities and our high-tech computer labs, right?

If so, why are John DeJak and Dale Ahlquist back in a one-room school, aiming to start an education revolution in St. Louis Park with 11 students?

DeJak, of Richfield, puts it simply: "We realized that our kids are being robbed."

So began Chesterton Academy -- a school that may point the way to an educational renaissance to match the Renaissance man whose name it bears.

The academy, which opened in September, is a private high school that will expand from ninth and 10th to 12th grade in the next two years. It is named after G.K. Chesterton, an English social commentator, theologian and man of letters who was one of the 20th century's greatest minds and most prolific authors.

Chesterton Academy's "countercultural" identity doesn't spring from theories found in the latest education journals. Nor is the school breaking new ground in Chinese immersion pedagogy or robotics.

Instead, this place exemplifies the real avant-garde.

The bright room in Eliot Community Center is hung with icons and medieval art, and lined with such books as Cicero's "Orations" and Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." Students sit around a table, engrossed in Latin verbs. One wall displays calligraphy exercises, which include this revealing Chesterton quote: "A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

In future years, the kids will study calculus and chemistry, and immerse themselves in great thinkers from Homer to T.S. Eliot. They will also explore once-celebrated arts such as oil painting and Gregorian chant, which few pursue today.

The educational "robbery" that Chesterton Academy is striving to halt has two components, says DeJak, the school's headmaster.

First, schools are depriving students by failing to pass on the 3,000-year-old body of knowledge -- literature, philosophy, theology, history, art, music, drama -- that is their greatest heritage as human beings, he says. The greatest flaw of modern education is that it is based on a succession of fads, he adds.

As a result, our young people may be "eco-aware" or have great self-esteem, but they often can't explain the passions that sparked the Civil War or why "David Copperfield" is a great novel.

At Chesterton Academy, "We start with the premise that -- in Chesterton's words -- 'the oldest things ought to be taught to the youngest people,'" says Ahlquist, one of the academy's founders, who is also president of the Bloomington-based American Chesterton Society.

Do you want evidence that our kids can't think clearly? he asks. Just listen to them talk.

A typical ninth-grader's response to just about anything runs like this: "So I'm like, wow, that's, like, awesome."

"Kids today can't speak in complete sentences because they can't think in complete sentences," Ahlquist explains.

He's not kidding. At Chesterton Academy, there's a rule against saying "like."

Contemporary education robs young people in a second way, observes DeJak. Our schools teach moral relativism -- the notion that there is no truth, and that we all must choose our own "values," our own right and wrong. No wonder our kids' favorite word is, like, "whatever."

"We believe that there is a larger truth, which every other truth relates to -- and that is God," says DeJak. "For us, education is not just about job training, but about seeking the truth and training the soul."

Chesterton Academy teaches the Catholic faith, but is careful not to call itself Catholic until the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis approves that designation, as the church's law requires.

In line with its revival of lost arts, Chesterton Academy will place special emphasis on public speaking -- once the crowning glory of a high school education. Not long ago, every ninth-grader could recite the Gettysburg Address.

At the moment, students at the school are learning how to introduce themselves, and working on posture, articulation and presentation. Later, they will deliver two-minute speeches -- "you learn how long two minutes really is," jokes DeJak -- and will then move on to poetry recitation and debate.

Chesterton Academy's ambitions extend beyond academics, as you'd expect from a school that seeks to "train the soul."

"We'll work on getting rid of unfortunate cultural habits," says DeJak, such as the sense of entitlement so common among young people.

In November, for example, the boys from the school will travel to the University of Notre Dame to see a football game. "The guys have to pay $65 each for their tickets," explains DeJak. "I told them, 'Don't run to Mom for the money. You'll enjoy it more if you work for it.' So they're having bake sales and raking leaves."

How are the kids at Chesterton Academy responding? "The first week was the toughest of their lives," says DeJak. "But now it's beginning to gel."

When I ask, the students acknowledge that they will miss the football games and proms that bigger schools offer. But they are enthusiastic about their new school's small size, and about teachers who "bring the people of other times alive for us."

As 10th-grader Paul Cummings begins to answer my question, a renegade "like" intrudes in his first sentence. Shaking his head, he starts again.

As I said, this is the real counterculture.

No comments: