Duty, Devotion, and Love

June 2008

The following is the graduation address for the 2008 class of the Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado

Today we gather together as a body of parents and other family members, friends and fellow students, staff and teachers, to celebrate and commemorate the graduation of these wonderful students and, more than that, to wish them well in all their future endeavors. It is not easy to find words that do justice to the magnitude of this occasion nor to the emotions and rightful pride these young men and women must feel at this moment. Perhaps just as hard is to decide what this occasion exactly is. Should we mark this passage in our students’ lives as an end or a beginning, as a release from the peculiar form of Ridgeview responsibility or as the first step—hence the term graduation—in a life that will be full of rigor and work and turmoil and even grief, though we hope full of charm and levity and a good deal of joy as well? What words, what short address, could sum up the rich and varied lives these young men and women have lived up to this point and the even richer and more varied lives they will live in the years to come?

You will not, I hope, be surprised that I shall draw on a passage of ancient literature, one familiar to these students, one that seems in a way analogous to our situation today, in order to illuminate the moment in which we find ourselves. In the sixth book of the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas travels to the Underworld where he will encounter his dead father’s ghost. Aeneas, as you may know, was a Trojan hero who managed to lead a hapless band of refugee warriors out of Troy as it was being sacked by the Greeks, among them his father, Anchises, whom he carried on his shoulders to safety yet who later died on the journey. For seven years Aeneas sailed around the Mediterranean trying to find a home for this remnant of the Trojan people. That home would later become the city of Rome. It is the shade of Aeneas’s father in the Underworld who reveals to the future founder of Rome his great destiny. As his son approaches him, Anchises exclaims,

You have come at last! I knew your pietas bq. Would see you through the long, hard road.And so we can say today to these graduates, though thankfully we do not find ourselves in the Underworld, “You have come at last! I knew your pietas would see you through the long, hard road.” Since these graduates know precisely what that means, I may have already said enough on this occasion. So it is for the rest of us I offer an explanation.

I have purposefully not translated the Latin word pietas and will claim in fine Ridgeview fashion that it cannot accurately be translated, at least not into a single English word. From pietas we derive the English word piety, which means essentially reverence for God. We also derive the seemingly unrelated word pity, that is, the sympathy for those who are less fortunate than we are, who suffer, or who need our help. Thus pietas is the virtue that directs man to look beyond himself, to the heavens for guidance, and to his fellow man, who is so often in need. The most straightforward translation of pietas would be simply duty. Yet our expression duty does not convey the affection and loyalty that the hero, pius Aeneas, has for his gods, his father, and his countrymen, all subjects of his pietas, unless we begin to express duty in terms of “love of country and love of kin.” A simple Latin dictionary tells us that pietas has a wide range of meanings, to include dutifulness, piety, filial love, patriotism, justice, and kindness. I have consulted three different translations of the Aeneid and found pietas rendered three different ways, as duty, as devotion, and as love. In saying, then, that these graduates have come at last, that their pietas has seen them through the long, hard road, we have said a great deal.

After the conversation with his father’s shade, Aeneas sees his mission clearly. That he descended into and emerged from the Underworld suggests that he experiences a rebirth, and he does gain almost a new life, moving from a life of escape and wandering to one of purpose and promise. What links the two parts of his life, however, is his character, particularly his virtue of pietas. In fact, his virtue is what makes his job—if we can call it that—as founder of Rome even possible. He knows what he must do, and therefore he knows in a very real sense who he is. Had he distinguished himself by no such virtue, however, he could have had no special mission and no such identity. And so our students, in this first and important stage of life have distinguished themselves by their intelligence, to be sure, by their judgment from time to time, but mostly by their pietas, their duty, their devotion, and their love.

It is somewhat unfortunate, I guess, that we can only identify our students’ singular virtue and cannot also predict the future, as did Anchises, to see each of these student’s personal Rome, and thereby assign them their individual missions in life. You see, every year about this time I find that in some of our students, having come to the end of a long, hard road, yet one that was clearly set out for them, a kind of existential crisis sets in. They have for years derived their duties from their parents and from the assignments of their teachers at school without a lot of choice involved. Yet as they go off to college, they begin to realize that they must make decisions that could have significant impact on what kinds of lives they live. They must begin by picking a college from among the 3500 or so that exist in this nation and soon after that a major. After all, the question “what’s your major?” is the precursor to most all campus conversation. That they will be paying for their classes, classes that must amount to some major, a major that presumably leads to a career, all means that the stakes are very high in the choices our students will be making. I do not want to suggest that the careful selection of a college and a major are not part of an important undertaking in deciding what one wants to become, but I should like to put such choices into perspective. What classes might Aeneas have had to take to prepare himself to become the founder of Rome? Rome Building 101? Indeed, what classes did the American Aeneas, George Washington, take to become founder of our great country? My excursion into the historical record tells me that he took none at all. He had no degree and no major, though he had pietas to spare.

Having observed this phenomenon for a number of years I have begun to wonder whether in sending our students off into the world with little more than the pressure to choose a major and to choose it wisely we get the cart before the horse. Perhaps we should follow instead the example set in the Aeneid and concentrate a little more on their virtue— their pietas—that has brought these young men and women impressively to this point, indeed on the very virtue that makes human happiness and flourishing possible in the first place. A short history of their education and cultivation will reveal my meaning.

These students began their lives, as do all children, in the family home, learning the rudiments of the language but the essential rudiments of morality and behavior as well. “Sit up straight.” “Mind your manners.” “Chew with your mouth closed.” “Stop hitting your brother.” “Stop pretending like your brother was hitting you when he did nothing of the sort.” “This is right, and that is wrong.” They also began to appreciate the arts through music and other forms of beauty brought into the home, principally by mothers is my guess, but by fathers as well, I am sure. Even as little children they became students of human nature by observing how their parents and their siblings interacted. They became students of the physical universe whenever they became too bothersome indoors and were told to “go outside and play.” These many, varied interactions steadily communicated to these children that they could think, that they could discern, that they could understand things for themselves, as long as they had parents around to answer their recurrent question, “What is that?” They found that they had many pleasures: playing with toys, playing in sandboxes and on swing-sets, looking at books or having books read to them. They no doubt also found that they had tasks in the world given to them by people whom they loved and who loved them, tasks that they did not always agree with or see the immediate utility of, but tasks essential to their well-being all the same.

And then, just as things were getting interesting and everything made sense, it was time for these students to go to school. At first, school was pretty much like the home. They continued to learn lots of words that built their vocabulary. There were clear rules they had to follow in order to get along with their classmates and gain the approval of their teachers. Most of all, they were given answers to all their questions, and they had many questions, some of them on topic. They had endless details to concern themselves with: poems to memorize, names and dates and places to get right, problems to work out in math and science. Some of this work was tedious; much of it was rote; but they needed to get the basic facts down. They had to play the chords before they could perform in the symphony. All their rote work served to strengthen and to prepare them for what was to come.

Gradually they learned that all the stories and facts and problems they had been collecting constituted a tradition, a tradition of thinking and of living. They learned further that they were the heirs of this tradition and that the various voices in this tradition constituted a conversation, more often a heated argument, over the question of the best life man can live. The voices in this conversation were those of the fathers, and mothers, too. Our students, like Aeneas, carried these fathers on their backs: in having to read them, in having to write about them, and literally in having to bear heavy backpacks laden with books most teenagers in this country have not read and, sadly, may never read. These great and heavy books were not confined to the humanities. They had to study math and the sciences as well to understand the many ways the world may be explained and how the mind may be disciplined. They had to study the arts and languages to know how the world may be adorned and embellished and how people make themselves understood. So the students sat down, every day, in order to read and wrestle with the great books, the great voices of their tradition. The students did not agree with every one of these authors; they did not like some of them at all at first. But they had to take them seriously; they had to learn what each unique voice in this conversation over the nature of the good life had to offer lest they judge too quickly, with pride or with prejudice. In all this wrestling with the fathers careful disagreement was allowed, but impertinence was not: forbidden was the flat-souled complaints of the typical teenager, “This is boring,” and “This is stupid.” And our students had no inclination to say those things anyway because they were engaged and dutiful sons and daughters. They descended to the Underworld with Aeneas; they climbed to the tops of mountains with Petrarch and with Zarathustra; they experienced the bliss of Paradise and hoed through the thorns and thistles of our own world with Adam and Eve.

Over the many years of fact-gathering and conversations with the fathers the walls of Troy were built. The walls of Troy had to be built so that our students would always carry with them, in whatever waters they sailed, some semblance of safety, some memory of home.

Because at some point Troy would be besieged by a very difficult question, a question their teachers would no longer answer for them—“What does it all mean?” And then Troy would be sacked by an earth-shattering question, the question that lies before them now: “And what are you going to do about it?” These are not questions made for children. They are questions too often avoided by adults. Yet they are the questions your children chose to address and to answer by coming to this school. They are questions that involve the human mind, to be sure, but more directly aim straight for the human heart. And that is where their wandering began, their sailing from shore to shore in search of answers, in search of sure ground: to figure out what counts for right and what leads to wrong, to see what is beautiful and what is unseemly, tasteless, and overdone. They have studied not only human excellence and right thinking but human error as well, which at first often appears the more enticing choice. They have learned that the world has not always been as it should be—that it never has been—but that things only get better when men and women exert their own stubborn virtue, their own pietas. And so these students have learned to ask themselves in the midst of their necessary wandering: what is my duty, what is my devotion, what is my love? And in so doing, each student has found—or at least has begun to find—his own voice, has begun to offer her own testament to the world.

If you have not heard this voice, then you have not been listening or paying much attention these last several years and particularly this year that has passed. This voice, these voices, certainly came through in the chorus of thoughtfulness and character that was the senior thesis. In the rite of passage that constitutes Ridgeview’s senior thesis, these students must confront the modern problem, the inability of modern man to say who he is or what he stands for that has resulted from the supposed death of God, death of tradition, death of reason, death of truth, and death of beauty. While each of our students offered a distinct and nuanced response to the crisis of modernity, a common theme ran throughout the presentations, which I shall take great liberty in summarizing.

There is an order in the world. There is truth. There is beauty. Otherwise, how could we believe in anything; how could we be loyal to anything; how could we do anything that would not be senseless or ironic, to include our education? Pius Aeneas would be foolish Aeneas to fight for a fiction. Our pietas—our duty, our devotion, our love—is to find out what place in that order, whether big or small, we are to occupy and to cultivate that place in an effort to make the world a little more beautiful, a little saner, a little more just. The students found that the unanswerable question that so confounds and troubles modern man—“who am I?“—is so framed by the subjective I that it altogether misses the predicate of meaning: what must I do to be a good man or woman; to what fundamental principles am I devoted; whom do I love? By answering these fuller, more active, more self-transcending questions I discover who the I really is, or ought to be: the being I want others to see me as, the being whom both my ancestors and descendants would be proud of, the being about whom it can be said at the end of life: “I have lived well.” Our students found that the human being who engages the modern problem in light of the best his tradition or her tradition has to offer, and who has done so with pietas—with duty, with devotion, and with love—cannot fail to realize that being a servant of tradition and of goodness does not make one servile; that being a jaded, ironic, and all-too-predictable nihilist does not make one free. So have our students learned, at the ripe age of eighteen.

Of course, our graduates have hardly reached the end of the road. They have a great deal more work to do in hammering out the principles by which to live, and they have a whole lifetime ahead of them in putting those principles into action. Yet much ground had been gained. For at the very least, it seems to me, they have learned how to frame life’s essential questions in the right way, to turn life’s troubling questions into life-ennobling ones. Having begun to ask themselves “what kind of men and women do we want to be?”; having resolved to determine their duty, their devotion, and their love; the matters of what careers they should choose or where they should live or which colleges they should send their own children to may come a little easier. Once Aeneas knows he will become a founder of a great nation, that such is his pietas and his destiny, the rest is a matter of logistics. He only needs to figure out where Rome ought to be. Of course, I should point out that he must do a bit of fighting along the way, a lot of fighting in fact. Pietas is nothing without another essential Roman virtue: virtus, that is courage, strength, or, as the Romans would say, manliness. But that is another story.

Parents, when the teachers of Ridgeview and I think of your students today, we of course have in mind their many admirable qualities and impressive accomplishments:

Their astonishing mastery of detail in mind-straining subjects; Their delicious and elegant styles of writing; Their gift for unexpected metaphor; Their stellar, often tear-inducing, performances in concert and on the stage; Their sense of humor, sometimes on the money, sometimes overdone; Their graceful dancing and beautiful compositions in art; The glimmer that appeared in their eyes when an answer came to them; Their pleasing manners and gentle demeanor, so rare and precious these days; Their thought-provoking and idiosyncratic questions in class discussion; Their behind-the-scenes talent for organizing and directing; Their impressive logic and auditorium-filling oratory; Their crowd-rousing feats on the athletic field, as recent as yesterday; Their hard work and heart-warming smiles.Indeed, parents, we have seen in your children, as you have seen, their moments of genius, and their occasional moments of doubt. Yet in the future we shall remember them more, far more, for what will lead them all through many a long, hard road ahead, for what will distinguish these men and women as they found their own, individual Romes. We shall remember them for their essential goodness of soul, their pietas, the nurturing of which has allowed us, their teachers, to find our own voices and to make our own lives worthwhile.

I might try your patience just a moment longer to say something on a personal note. For the past seven years I have had the pleasure of having your children, these great graduates of today, as my duty, my devotion, and my love. The parents of Ridgeview, the teachers of Ridgeview, and many, many of the students have been quite effusive over the course of this past year, and particularly in these last few days, in telling me how much I have influenced the lives of our young people. I am thankful for these heartfelt sentiments. But I assure you that my gratitude runs just as deep as yours. I could never have been the man I fancied I could be—a man that a father might be proud of and that sons may one day speak of with praise—had you not taken me into your lives, had you not allowed me to teach your children, had you, students, not allowed me to coax you into learning with my lame jokes and drawings when such coaxing was never necessary, and had you teachers, and parents, and students not taught me so very, very much. I am forever grateful. I am forever yours. Thank you.

A Call to Greatness

The following is the graduation address for the 2007 class of the Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado:

Although high-school graduation is a cause for joyous celebration, an occasion to congratulate students for their work and accomplishments and to cheer them on as they enter the world on a more independent footing, it is also a tough time emotionally for those who are a part of it. Young people who have known each other for years, who have formed fast friendships and whose happiness has come to depend on each other, will go off into the world in different directions. They will take on new challenges and make new friends and find new ways to exercise their talents. But the life they have known—its challenges and friends and activities—woven tightly into the unique setting of high school, will pass from the world of the here and now into the more distant realm of fond memory.

The emotions of parents on such an occasion I cannot begin to know because I have not yet had such an experience. Yet I can imagine that realizing that the child whose diapers you changed, to whom you read children’s books again and again, with whom you played hide-and-seek and catch and hopscotch, and over time who gradually grew to your height and began to hold his or her own during dinner-time conversation: to realize that this living being you have known for so long as your child has become a man or woman must amount to a supreme moment of awe at the wonders of nature and of love.

Today, however, I speak not as a student or a parent but as a teacher. And I speak of the special relationship of teachers, books, and students that constitutes education and culminates in the rite of passage known as graduation. To understand fully why we are here today we must consider for a moment the significance and purpose of teachers, books, and students.

Before you, parents, you see your children’s teachers. They are good teachers. Our culture, of course, serves up many jokes about teachers, jokes about how little money they make or how they supposedly have their summers off (and I guess teachers who do not read books actually do have their summers off) or how those who cannot do end up teaching. Perhaps some of these jokes are warranted, given the state of most of the schools in this nation. When done properly, though, the calling of teacher is arguably, other than that of warrior, the most ambitious and bold and even necessarily offensive of human endeavors. For the teacher is the one who says to other human beings, usually the young but often the old as well: “You are unformed, you are ignorant, you do not know things, you are incomplete human beings; and since others cannot or choose not to teach you, you must learn from me.” That is a tough message to deliver, and not one that many human beings, much less teenagers, normally welcome. The ambition, the boldness, the offensiveness of education in wanting to make others better, to perfect them, though they may not want to be better, explain why the two greatest teachers the world has known, Jesus and Socrates, were both put to death. They offended too many people. Their message did not suit in their own times the unruliness, the prejudices, the pride of man. And yet their teaching persisted beyond their time on earth. The stones which the builders rejected became the cornerstones supporting the temple of truth and beauty.

However ambitious and bold and offensive the teacher must be, teaching is also one of the most humbling of human experiences. To begin with, the teacher who tells others that they are imperfect and unformed suspects that he himself is far from perfect, far from a complete human being. Further, the teacher must know that he cannot find completion without his students; without them he is but a half, and a half is always less than a whole. He seeks students not because he wants to sell them something; and those who try to make education into a business always fail. A true teacher needs something more from his students than their fees and he has more to give them than a simple service or a product. As Plato understood, the life and breath of education differs considerably from mere commercial exchange. Rather, teaching, like parenting, must begin and end in love. And in a way, there is nothing more humbling than love, than the realization that you have a fundamental need for and your happiness depends on another human being. The teacher loves his students and therefore longs to make their lives better, and by making their lives better, he finds meaning and purpose in his own life. Even more humbling to the teacher is his realization at some point that the better he performs his life-ennobling work, the less his students will need him. As the teacher’s love for his students increases, their need of him and his instruction becomes less and less. If he has done his work well, after a few years, the teacher will not be needed at all. The truly masterful teacher will see one day his students surpass him.

Teachers must have something to teach. Therefore they need books. For however long your children have been coming to our school, in many cases for six years, in others for two or three or four, they have been doing the same thing virtually every day. They have been going to class, opening their books, and talking about these books. Whether these several years have been time well spent depends obviously on what is in these books. Now I use the term books somewhat loosely or metaphorically. In the case of art, the students have opened their eyes to the wonders of nature in order to capture its beauty or its strangeness. With music, they have opened their ears to the harmonies of different rhythms and sounds. The purpose of the fine arts can easily be seen in the beauty that results from their practice. With regard to the mathematics and the sciences these students have labored over, I doubt whether anyone would question whether the time has been well spent. In these classes, the students have obviously been applying their reason to natural phenomena or to the wonderful world of numbers in order to understand the physical order of the universe. The rational understanding of that universe gives us a freedom in and a power over our world. As essential to human flourishing as are that freedom in and power over our physical world, such power and freedom must yet be subject to something higher. Recently an astute young man I know named Luke Heyliger [salutatorian] made the point that without a higher end, without what the Greeks called a telos, the sciences can be directed to inhumane and destructive purposes. It is thus reassuring to know that such humane and creative young men as Mr. Heyliger and some of his fellow classmates will dedicate their lives to the sciences.

At Ridgeview to find the ends of the sciences, to find indeed the ends of human life, we go to what are commonly called the great books: the best of literature, history, and philosophy as written in the beautiful and noble languages of the world. The students on this stage have been immersed in the great books of the Western world, from the Homer and Plutarch they encounter as ninth-graders to modern authors such as Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Conrad with whom they wrestle in their senior year. There have been many reasons given for why young people living in the modern world, what has come to be called the Information Age, should invest themselves in these great, old books. It has been said that the great books give us a kind of cultural capital or cultural literacy that allows us to find more success in the world. It has been said that the great books allow us to know our tradition. It has been said that the great books give us something better to do with the increasing amount of free time we have than mindlessly watching television or playing video games. It has further been said that without reading the great books we can scarcely know who we are, since human beings are so powerfully shaped by the thoughts and mentalities of the past. In addition to these reasons, I suspect there are a few people who have read great works simply so they can show off their erudition, because they have found success at playing the game of “who knows the most.” And I also know that there are antiquaries who amuse themselves by sporting with the diverting accounts of the past.

As compelling as may be some of these reasons for reading the great books of our tradition, as much as our human tendencies towards pride or amusement may direct every one of us to some extent in our intellectual pursuits, these reasons do not fully do justice to what is to be found in these books nor to the deepest longings in human nature. The great books must be read—the great books are great—because their subject is greatness and these books call us—their readers, teachers, and students—to the greatness that is possible in man. The great books demand us to know, to love, and to practice what is good, beautiful, and true in our world. In other words, fully embracing the great books means much more than being a mere spectator to their plot lines and lines of argument. Fully embracing the great books means acting on their commands. A liberal education is not just an attempt to put a lot of fancy information into our heads. A liberal education is an effort to strengthen our souls so that we may do noble deeds throughout our lives.

You see, there is all the difference in the world between reading to attain erudition and reading to form a plan of action. The first sort of reader will look at Aristotle’s Ethics and learn that Aristotle said this and that about virtue and happiness. This reader may be able to say a lot of clever things about how much Aristotle agreed or disagreed with his teacher Plato and how both of these philosophers compare to modern philosophers. The second, active reader studies Aristotle’s account of the great-souled man so that he may himself become great-souled, so he may become the man who in Aristotle’s words “thinks himself worthy of great things and is really worthy of them.” Such a reader does not just learn the definitions of, but labors to acquire the great virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. Acquiring those virtues is the end for Aristotle. As he tells us in the first book of the Ethics, “The purpose of our examination is not to know what virtue is, but to become good, since otherwise the inquiry would be of no benefit to us.” The Scriptures put this same sentiment even more succinctly and more poetically into the imperative: “Go thou and do likewise.” This sort of reading, this reading for action, equips us, encourages us, ennobles us to do good in the world. The active reader of Plato’s Republic learns to combine in his own soul both fierceness and gentleness, those two qualities that seem so opposed, in order to become a courageous guardian of his own nation and its people. The active students of Washington’s and Churchill’s lives internalize the lessons in prudence, courage, and justice these heroes offer and then enlist themselves in the great crises, the great fights for freedom in their own time. The active reader of Jane Austen becomes a keen observer of human nature, learns to distinguish good men from rogues, so that when Mr. Darcy comes, and he will come, she will be able to recognize him, to enchant him, to marry him, and thus secure both love and happiness.

The great books call us to be great warriors, great saints, great scientists and philosophers, great healers and poets and builders, and, not least, great wives and husbands, mothers and fathers. These are not merely professions that I list; I speak of ways of being, of programs for doing noble and beautiful things in the world. The great books are an idle pursuit if they result only in passive wishing for the good; these books are a living force in the world if they lead their students to an active creating and defending of the good. The great books call on their readers to be great-souled. They call on you, the men and women of Ridgeview, to be what the Apostle Paul described as “all things to all men.” Sometimes, they call on you simply to be good. These books teach us how to think, how to believe, how to hope, and how to love. They guide us in knowing when to make peace and when to wage war. They urge us at times to be just and at others to be merciful. They teach us how to live and how to die.

And now I should say something about these fine students. To say that these graduates are among the best and brightest students in the nation is merely to state the obvious: a simple fact that can be captured with numbers. To realize that they are the greatest of heart does more justice to their souls. The young men and women before you today have read the great books. And these Ridgeview graduates, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and teaching and loving these past few years, are anything but flat-souled. They have not only read the great books; they have read them with purpose, with imagination, and with heart. They have fought with Achilles; they have sailed with Aeneas; they have wept with Dido. These students are still young and as such have not yet proven themselves great. Their parents and their teachers know that they still have much study, much work, and much hardship ahead of them. Yet they bear in their character and their learning the unmistakable promise of greatness. These young men and women cannot be fooled by the false sophistication of modern man, the last man, but are full of spirit and longings and hope. For these several years they have given their minds and their hearts over to conversations about the good life and how it might be achieved in their lives. As a result, they have a head start on doing the good, and the beautiful, and the true.

I could give many instances collected from the past six years that would illustrate these students’ love of learning and of life. Perhaps the first time I was amazed by their maturity and work ethic was when two young seventh-graders, Candice Niquette and Sarah Erthal, came to me at the beginning of the second semester to ask whether they could, in addition to completing the remedial math class they were in, work on their own to do all of the pre-algebra class and thus be placed into Algebra I the following year. They only requested to meet with Mr. Yu occasionally. I gave my permission, probably thinking that such a laudable desire could not long hold sway over thirteen-year-old hearts. And yet by the end of the year, through hard work and some assistance from Mr. Yu, they had done what they had committed themselves to, and in the following year were two of the strongest students in algebra. Not surprisingly, several years later, they asked permission to do a similar self-paced program, this time by completing all of German II on their own because they had found first-year German too easy. This time I did not take their request so lightly. Other students in this class have shown a similar dedication to their studies and drive for self-improvement. Making up entire years of work in single semesters has seemed to become the rule rather than the exception. The stories of Katelyn Miller, Tara Mertens, Elin Moorman, and David Wiederhold in this regard are simply epic. Many of these students have given up their lunches to take classes they just couldn’t miss out on and have begged their teachers to offer more electives, not so they could pile up credits and grades, but so they could read more deeply into the literature that feeds the soul. Cassandra Fink and Tim Dwyer skipped their lunch period their freshman year so they could take rhetoric. They were allowed to eat in the class, however, which is why Tim crunched his potato chips through about every speech given in that class. And then there are the students who initially did not want to come to Ridgeview, students such as Kat Wyns [valedictorian] and Jonathan Asbury. They had simply heard too many rumors about us; perhaps they thought they could not make good grades at Ridgeview. Or they thought they could find better education in brand new schools costing tens of millions of dollars. But the chronic cursing in the halls by the other students brought Kat and Jon quickly to our doors. Ridgeview’s classes and the whole school would not have been the same without them.

The character of this class of students can best be witnessed in their efforts these last few weeks. Finishing up harder courses than any of our students have taken before, sitting for Advanced Placement exams left and right, these students have nonetheless performed under pressure and without much sleep with grace and wit and intelligence. Their senior theses were from start to finish magnificent, as you parents got to see. Even more, they have brought joy to their teachers and animated the whole school. We have seen Justin Schaffer staying up all night not only to study for an AP Latin exam but also to finish a script to an unsanctioned dramatic production that did honor to the faculty and to the school. (I am told he even fit in some swing dancing and a couple of rugby games that same night.) We have seen Leah and Hannah and Tara weeping and hugging each other before going into their last literature discussion with Mr. Hild. We have seen Matt and Candice and Sarah getting together to make sure that a fine young man who could not have gone to Prom otherwise would have a tux, a ticket, and a date, a very lovely date, I might add. We have seen Jonathan, after winning more scholarship money than any student ever has from this school, when nothing he turned in could affect his grade, writing an in-class essay until the last second it could be turned in when all the other students had finished. And we have seen Budi Waskita, that good-hearted, hard-working young man from Indonesia who will honor us at Stanford next year, coming up here on the seniors’ day off, to spend 40 minutes talking with Mr. Herndon about the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset. I might add that Mr. Herndon was not reluctant to spend forty minutes talking about Ortega. I could tell many other wonderful stories about these young men and women. Some would be a little embarrassing, and some are just too personal to share with everyone. But, alas, I must finally let them go, though they seem unwilling to go. Just yesterday at 4 o’clock Mr. Carpine and I had to tell that fine young man Josiah Fusher, who was hanging out in the halls signing yearbooks with his friends, to go home. High school is over, we said, though neither of us wanted to see him go.

Which brings me back to where I began: what happens to the teacher when his students who once needed him move on? Perhaps this question only betrays my own, private concern. But it is a real concern, nonetheless, and I am sure that not a few of these other teachers share it with me. I give away no secret in saying we care very deeply about this class that has a special place in our hearts. Though there are many great students coming up through the ranks whom I shall enjoy teaching and spending time with, I have yet wondered for some time whether when these students graduate and leave me behind, life might lose some of its savor. This increasing sense of worry explains why I have taught more classes than I ought to and still be able to run the school. I quite simply long to be with them and to share with them the heartening fellowship of human understanding. I crave their company and am lost without it.

Yet I have found hope in the midst of their senior theses, in the most unlikely of places. I do not normally consult Nietzsche on matters of ethics and the afterworld. His idea of the eternal recurrence of the same, however, strikes me as among the most sublime of human sentiments. I shall read a passage with which our students are very familiar.

How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you… Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly“… The question in each and every thing, “Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would weigh upon your actions with the greatest stress. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal.If it were given to me to live these last six years over and over, to be able to have these students again and again in class, to be able to open up our books and our hearts together every day, to hear their laughter in the halls, to share their joys and their setbacks, to read their essays and even haggle with them about the dress code, to weep together through the last scenes of Pride and Prejudice; to be able to live such an eternal recurrence would be, for me at least, Heaven indeed.

For now, I thank the parents from the bottom of my heart for entrusting us with your wonderful children. We must charge these graduates to go out into the world, ennobled by their learning, and to become great-souled men and women. They have much work to do. We teachers have nothing left to teach them. We have nothing left to offer, we have nothing left to give them—but our love.

A Special Place in Hell

The vast majority of visions offered of the afterlife, whether that of Dante or the ordinary man on the street, figure that the fires of Hell will be reserved for murderers, thieves, rapists, and other malefactors, while a rather better fate awaits faithful saints, brave warriors, and the caretakers of children. The Democratic education leadership of the Colorado state legislature apparently has greater insights into such matters than the rest of us. Among them one will find the new Dante: State Representative Mike Merrifield, until a couple of weeks ago chairman of the House committee on education. In a private e-mail to Sue Windels, the state Senate education chairwoman and long-time choice opponent, Merrifield proclaimed, “There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charerizers [sic] and Voucherizers!” Thus Merrifield condemns to their own circle in the Inferno parents and public-spirited men and women who want to give children a chance to leave a failing public school system and enter schools in which they will actually learn to read, write, do math, and think about important things. Due to public uproar, Merrifield resigned his position as chairman. However satisfying that resignation may be for the moment, the legislator’s opinions are hardly unique to him. Rather, they finally bring to light the true animosity and contempt the educational establishment has for school reform and not a little about the establishment’s methods as well.

The venomous statement against school reformers was made in the context of Merrifield’s and Windels’s plans of abolishing the Charter School Institute, a board created under bipartisan leadership to authorize charter schools in the state, especially in districts hostile to the formation of charters. Not surprisingly, the hostile districts constantly invoke the deceptively Federalist-sounding watchword “local control of schools.” Translation: groups of parents and school founders wanting a better education for children who are constantly rebuffed by local school boards controlled by ed-school professors, union activists, and retired public-school teachers and administrators.

Just how hostile those districts can be is well illustrated by the heavy-handed tactics used by the Poudre School District of Fort Collins against the charter school of which I am principal. Though boasting a steadily growing enrollment, a substantial waiting list, a strong financial balance sheet, and the unique advantage of being ranked as the number-one public high school in the state, Ridgeview was treated to a grueling re-chartering process spearheaded by a notoriously anti-charter lawyer who attempted to revise in every place he could the original charter contract that had been working for five years. Particularly egregious was the district’s attempt to change our governing structure and the funding system used by every district in the state of Colorado, of course to the financial disadvantage of the charter school. Only after a successful appeal to the state board of education was the school able to obtain a contract even slightly to its liking. Throughout the process the school knew it had the option of seeking a charter though the state Charter School Institute, an option that at least allowed our teachers and parents to sleep at night during the months of unnecessary “negotiations.”

Should the Institute be abolished, the writing will be on the wall for charter-district negotiations. Local school districts will be able to bully charters even more or deny their applications altogether. Not surprisingly the PSD board, in league with two other districts in the state, has sued to have the Charter School Institute abolished. This same board has at another time voted illegally to limit the number of students who may attend charter schools in the district, a de facto limitation on the formation of any new charter schools that could be countered only by the existence of a state chartering authority. Thus far the attempts on the part of hostile districts to limit the scope and number of charter schools have not met with much success. The 2006 state elections that put Democrats in control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship have given local districts reason to hope that they have powerful allies at the state level.

Every school reformer in the state suspects that the Democratic assault on the Charter School Institute will be only the first battle in a war to undo the impressive school-choice legacy of Governor Owens and his fellow Republicans over the last decade and a half. Representative Merrifield’s revealing e-mail suggests that those fears are far from paranoia. The continuing battle over charter schools in Colorado should offer a lesson to the rest of the nation in the 2008 elections. Anyone who assumes that the gains made by “charterizers” and “voucherizers” will remain safe with Democrats at the helm (with a few notable exceptions) would do well to remind themselves of the words the real Dante placed above the entrance to Inferno: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”

originally published by the Ashbrook Center