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Latecomer: My Somewhat Accidental Discovery of Classical Education

Address by Dr. Daniel Coupland, associate professor of education at Hillsdale College, at Classical Prep's 2015 Winter Gala
"Why read? Because we are given more than we are." - James Schall

The speaker at Classical Prep's Winter Gala was Dr. Daniel Coupland, a professor of education at Hillsdale College. His remarks on the nature of a classical/liberal arts education illustrated why Classical Prep is committed to bringing this form of education to its students.
 
Introduction

Many of you are new to classical education, and some of you might still be skeptical. Because you have heard rumors: Latin? Are they really going to try to teach Latin? Old books? Togas? Well, let me assure you that there are no togas—or at least not many.

When I started my teaching career more than 20 years ago, I had not even heard of the term—classical education. Although some aspects of my own education were traditional—perhaps even classical, I was not classically educated. Indeed, like many of you, I came to learn about classical education after much of my own formal schooling was already over. As you will hear, I discovered classical education partly by accident, but mostly because I was frustrated as a teacher, as a student, and as a future parent. So, in a way, I too am relatively new to classical education, and I still have much to learn about it. But over the last 15 years, I have learned much about what many call the Great Tradition in education, and I have dedicated my own professional career to telling others about it. If you will put up with me for the next 10 minutes or so, I will describe how I stumbled upon this Great Tradition and perhaps—by the end of my talk—I can help you to understand classical education a little better.
 
Teacher

In 1994, a public high school just north of Detroit took a huge risk and hired me to teach Spanish. Straight out of college, I started my professional teaching career with energy and enthusiasm. On the first day of school, my pencils were sharpened, my desks were arranged, and my bulletin boards were just shy of museum quality. As it is for most rookie educators, the first year of teaching was a blur. I spent hundreds of hours reading, planning, grading, revising, and all the other things that first year teachers do. That first year, I was so preoccupied with doing the work of teaching that I never stopped to ask what I was actually trying to do. Throughout that first year, I was simply pleased if I could make it to the dismissal bell at the end of each school day.

As I gained more experience in the classroom and became more confident in my work, I began to ask questions about the purpose of my work: What am I trying to do here and toward what end? I began to look around me for answers. In teacher meetings, the administrators at my school would use terms like “quality education” or “high academic standards,” but these were hollow terms that were never defined let alone ever enforced. In all my years of teaching at that school, the administrators did very little to set and encourage high standards for academic coursework and moral character. Instead, they spent much of their time—and our time—talking about how we—as teachers—should make the material “relevant” or “useful” to the lives of our students. The message was obvious: to the leaders of that school, a high-quality education was one that was most relevant to the immediate lives of the students. Rather than drawing the students up to something higher, we were being asked to bring the material down to their expectations.

In the end, I discovered that the term “high expectations” was a hollow slogan that few teachers actually believed in and even fewer implemented in their classroom. Within a couple years, I did what many other frustrated teachers do: I closed the door to my classroom and did what I thought was best.
 
Graduate School

A few years later, I was presented with the opportunity to pursue a graduate degree in Education. I quit my job as a high school teacher and became a full-time graduate student at top research university. At last—I thought—here is my opportunity to escape the low expectations of the school where I had worked and its obsession with pleasing students.

But I quickly realized that many of the ideas about teaching and learning that I had experienced as a high school teacher were pervasive in the Ed school. In fact, I discovered that many of the teachers and administrators who I had worked with had weak expectations for students because this is what they were taught to have.

Within the Ed school, conversations about what students should know and be able to do frequently devolved into discussions about a student’s interest, background, or perspective. Within the Ed school, I even had professors who recommended that we think of teachers not as leaders in the classroom, but as “co-learner.” While in some sense this perspective is true in that teachers themselves should always be learning. But this is not what my professors were referring to. In the wacky world of the Ed School, my professors were recommending that teachers have as much to learn from students as the students from the teacher. For them, the “teacher as guide on the side” did not go far enough.

Once again, I was frustrated with what I had found in the world of education. I knew that there had to be people who believed that education was more than making students feel comfortable or simply preparing them for the world of work. By this time, I could easily identify many of the problems in American education, but I was unable to articulate any coherent solutions.
 
A Book, A Community, A Passion

While I was still in graduate school, my wife and I visited my parents here in Florida. One morning, I was in my dad’s home office browsing through his books. I noticed an old book on teaching and pulled it from the shelf. What was my dad—who is not an educator—doing with such a book? I casually flipped through the pages, chuckled a little, and thought arrogantly, “What could something so trivial teach me—an advanced graduate student in Education—about teaching?” How wrong I was. At the beginning of each chapter in this book, the author quoted a man named John Milton Gregory. After every one of these Gregory’s quotes, I found myself saying, “yes” and “exactly.” I remember thinking, “Now, this guy gets teaching.” His words were like refreshing water to one who was perishing of thirst. I discovered that these quotes all came from a short book by Gregory titled The Seven Laws of Teaching and that the book was originally published in 1884. Within days, I had hunted down a copy of Gregory’s book, purchased it, and read it cover-to-cover multiple times. As is often the case with a good book, this text introduced me to other books. And these books—some of them very old—described an education quite different from the one I had experienced as a teacher and graduate student.

Very soon I had two piles of books that I was working through. The first pile included the books I was assigned for my graduate classes. Most of these books served heavy diet of Progressivism, with a little Post-Modernism and Critical Theory on the side. Although these authors did their best to suggest otherwise, they ultimately presented a mechanical view of education that was shallow, cold, and lifeless.

In contrast, the second pile of books presented an older, richer, and deeper form of education—known as “classical education.” The authors in this pile described an education that was built upon the notion that truth, goodness, and beauty existed and that these things could and should be pursued relentlessly. They described the teacher—not as “the guide on the side”—but as model of intellectual and moral virtue in the classroom. Rather than making students feel comfortable with their ignorance or simply preparing them for a particular line of work, classical education sought to liberate students from their ignorance and myopia by introducing them to a rich tapestry of human understanding in history, literature, language, science, mathematics, music, and art—all of these subjects working together to provide well-ordered picture of reality. Classical education did not cater to our lower selves; rather, it invited us to experience a world above and beyond our immediate lives.

For me, the central theme of classical education is summed up wonderfully in a short essay by James V. Schall titled “Why Read?” In the last few lines of this essay, Schall revisits his central question. “Why read?” he asks. In other words, why should we read and learn from those who have come before us? His answer: “Because we are given more than we are.” In this simple yet profound statement, Schall makes two important points about humanity: First, whether we recognize it or not, we are formed—intellectually, morally, emotionally, spiritually—by the people, places, things, and ideas that we experience in our lives. Second, we become the best versions of ourselves—in other words, we become fully human—when we are shaped by that which has come before us—by that which stood the test of time.

In my own formation as an educator, I also discovered that classical education has a long and rich tradition within Western culture and that many of the greatest men and women over the past two millennia had been educated in this manner. In truth, classical education had been the norm for centuries. In contrast, Progressive Education was the fad, an experiment of Modernism that had failed time and time again.

I soon realized that there were other people like me—most of whom were living and working far beyond the walls of the Ed School—who were discovering and recovering the classical tradition in education, and they are rekindling this tradition in their own communities.

In time, my pursuit of and passion for classical education led me to Hillsdale College, where I have been for the past 10 years. I now have the privilege of working with many people—college students, parents, community groups, and practicing teachers—who are restoring the classical tradition in education. Classical Preparatory Academy is one of a rapidly growing number of schools across the country established by brave men and women who want their children to know and be part of this Great Tradition, a tradition that will echo for future generations as it has in generations past.

So — on this night, I applaud your noble work, I celebrate your achievements. I am honored to be in your company. Thank you.

by Daniel B. Coupland, Ph.D.

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