Education Revolution: Counter-Cultural Education in a One-Room School

October 8, 2008 at 2:54 am Leave a comment

chesterton-academy-one-room-school.jpgRemember 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.

Source: Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

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