Forming a classroom environment where today’s students are challenged to think for themselves and free to say what they think, while still expecting to be accountable for their ideas, is very difficult. Headmaster Michael Van Hecke of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura, California, shared the following success story with parents this week.

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Mrs. Thomas witnessed a beautiful classroom moment last week when an intense intellectual discussion ensued during the 9th/10th Literature and Composition class and spilled over into the lunch period and beyond.

It happened like this: one of the students, exasperated by years of hearing teachers expound on the virtues of ‘the literary classics’, put forward a contrary argument.  With verve and tenacity the ninth grade girl maintained her position in the face of stiff opposition from Mrs. Thomas and several articulate student colleagues. The young lady explained that although in her earlier youth she had accepted that certain works of literature were ‘classics’ deserving of special respect, she now believed that no work of literature should be held as objectively superior to any other. It follows, she argued, that a genuine response from any reader to a given work of literature is as valid as any other’s. As long as the reader can make a reasoned argument that a so-called ‘classic’ is, in fact, no better, or perhaps not even as good as a given modern work, that opinion should be respected. Further, she rejected the ‘test of time’ criterion advanced by her opponents, arguing that simply because a book is popular over a long period of time doesn’t prove its literary merit.

She cogently made the latter point and made her opponents admit that popularity, ”even popularity lasting over many generations”, does not in itself make a book or poem great. However, disagreement persisted when it came to the following questions: (a) should a consensus of learned and appreciative readers over time be taken into account when judging the objective worthiness of a book or poem? And most important of all (b) can literary art (and by extension any human art form) be judged by any objective criteria? Or does the truth and value in a work of art lie only in the subjective experience of the beholder? The young lady argued, or seemed to argue, the latter position.

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At this point a 10th grade boy entered the argument, addressing the young lady with courtesy and respect. He related how his classmates had read and discussed The Allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic the previous year. He neatly summarized the narrative of the prisoners who have spent their entire lives chained in the cave, gazing at dim shadows, and contrasted them with the liberated prisoner who makes his way to the upper world and sees for the first time the sun and stars, the clouds, the seas, lakes, rocks, hills and living creatures. He then asked his younger colleague whether cave-bound prisoners or the one who has seen the upper world are better able to judge what is true or good or beautiful. Were the perceptions and opinions of the prisoners about the shadows of things as worthy of consideration and respect as those of the man who has actually seen the things themselves? Is it possible that someone who cannot see, for example, the beauty and power of a sonnet by Shakespeare, is analogous to a prisoner in the Cave? If so, is it possible that those who have come to know the Upper World have a deeper and clearer perception of the sonnet’s beauty and power?

It was exciting to see a shy young woman coming into her own and having the gumption to critique the ‘received wisdom’ of St. Augustine Academy regarding the objective, if subtle, nature of aesthetic criteria. Equally exciting and deeply moving was to see that a young man who had thought deeply about Plato’s allegory passing it forward to a younger student, and courteously, with the delicacy and respect, encouraging her to think about the questions it raises.

Another note: I had a similarly encouraging conversation in my Latin class this week. The topic of freedom came up, and the students brought up several examples of the distinction between “freedom” and “license”, using those exact terms. They learned, and really understood the distinction. They really knew that liberty comes with responsibility and boundaries, all established by the nature of things, and if we transgress, we do to our own peril. These are my 7th graders! Now if we could just get Washington DC here for a few months.