The Vanguard Philosophy

Why A Classical Education?

by Colin T. Mullaney, Executive Director Emeritus

All too often our society promotes the idea that there are short cuts or secret formulas to achieving one’s goals.  Rather than charting a sensible course and sticking to it, we are told that finding the easy way, “cracking the code,” and “playing the game” reveal the road to success.  Unfortunately, the notion is increasingly prevalent in education. Students and parents are tempted to find the easiest path to a high school diploma, to divine the formula that provides the greatest GPA for the least effort.  Once in college, students are enticed to settle for the easy major or the one that promises to pay the most after graduation.  All of this comes at the expense of achieving a truly meaningful education, one that nourishes mind and soul.  At The Vanguard School an education and all its attendant labors are important ends in themselves.  Yes, we plan for our graduates to continue their learning at the college level.  We have great success preparing students for college and helping them gain admission to the schools of their choice, often with substantial financial support from those institutions.  However, getting into college is just a means to an end – the all important end of becoming truly educated.  Our students’ admissions success is the result of the demanding education they have earned up to that point.

I have heard it said that, “Education is the only industry in which consumers attempt to get as little for their money as possible.”  This is because education, at least quality education, requires effort, and people too often don’t realize the benefit of the effort itself.  Just like any other worthwhile endeavor, such as learning a sport or learning to play a musical instrument, training one’s mind and soul is difficult. The hard work of an education is part of the education. Its difficulty is commensurate with its importance.  A classical education develops the whole person — mind, body, and soul — and therefore requires a total effort.  Benefits of this effort include building skills, fluency, coherence, stamina, confidence, resilience, and humility.

In nearly every field where one is serious about learning a skill, whether it is how to ski or how to invest, people understand that there is hard work to be done, frustration to be endured, some leaps of faith to be taken, and sacrifices to be made.  An education, learning how to live life well, requires the same things.  It involves learning academic content, learning to integrate the content, learning to think critically about information, learning to communicate thoughts and ideas, and learning how to live based on thoughtful analysis of what is good, true, and beautiful.  The academic content is the context of our lives, the background against which we practice discerning the truths bequeathed by the ages and evaluating ideas outside our own experience.  This practice helps us understand ourselves better and helps us test limits and define our boundaries.  It expands our possibilities and exposes us to the achievements and failures, to the good and evil, of our predecessors and contemporaries, illuminating for us our own potential for those things.  Suddenly available to us are generations of lessons, ours for the investment of rigorous but brief (brief in comparison to the ages from whence the lessons came) study.  From such experience, wisdom is earned.

The Harvard Business School has long been renowned for using case studies, historical or fictional situations designed to make students think about, as well as apply, the lessons of business, such that students gain the experience of business before actually going to work.  This model has been so effective that it has been adopted by universities and organizations around the world to effectively teach students and organizational leaders.  While a twentieth-century innovation in business, this is the oldest idea in education – it is what a classical education is all about. In a classical education, such as that taught at our school, all of history and literature is meant to be an ongoing case study.  History is an ongoing story of the real effects of actions and ideas over time.  We can see cause and effect play out over days, years, or centuries and make judgments based on the blessing of hindsight and context.  The Great Works of Literature reveal deep truths about what it is to be human, exposing the truth, beauty, and goodness as well as the falseness, ugliness, and evil that humans contend with in our world and in ourselves.  The works give examples of how characters have responded, sometimes tragically, sometimes heroically, to the circumstances.  Students connect with fictional and nonfictional characters and use them as inspirational models.  Woven through both the history and literature is the Great Conversation, the dialogue of competing ideas that is debated openly by the thinkers and is played out in real life history and true to life stories in ways that allow us to test the wisdom of one idea versus another for the right ordering of our lives.  Ultimately, we gain experience from this study so that we are equipped to assess the world around us and make wise judgments for our society and for the living of our lives.

It has been said that, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The struggles of Odysseus, Caesar, and Washington and the questions of Socrates, Cicero, Aquinas, and Jefferson are the same kinds of struggles and questions that we are faced with today.  We remain human, in spite of technology, and the struggle to live out the human condition well remains.  An education is exactly about learning from the experience of those before us so that we, and ultimately our society, benefit from their collective wisdom.  While this has been described by no less of a luminary than Isaac Newton as “standing on the shoulders of giants,” it is even more exciting and personally engaging than that The Great Conversation calls us to take an equal seat at the table among the greatest individuals in history to learn from, comment on, and even add to the body of wisdom that is the treasure trove of Western Civilization.  This treasure trove is greater than the Fountain of Youth and the City of Gold combined; it has, at its heart, wisdom and the secrets of how to live “the good life.” In stark contrast to the feelings of angst many express regarding “going to school,” a classical education has happiness as its ultimate goal.

So, while many attempt to get as little out of an education as possible, thinking that they can beat the system and still get the reward, many more have misunderstood the reward itself.  A rigorous classical education unquestionably paves the way to college admission and prepares one for success in a multitude of career fields, but the education itself is a vastly more valuable prize, one that offers not just the skills for a particular job, but the skills needed to live a successful life.

Such an education is never had easily; nothing worthwhile ever is.  Let us remember, though, the counsel of the Greek poet Hesiod:  “Badness you can get easily, in quantity: the road is smooth, and it lies close by.  But in front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it, and rough at first.  But when you come to the top, then it is easy, even though it is hard.”

So it is at The Vanguard School, where our students, guided by outstanding, dedicated teachers, are earning a reward from which they will reap benefits for a lifetime.  I invite you to come visit any of our classrooms and see this in action.

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