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  • Writer's pictureTJ Neathery

The Wild West of Classical Education

When I tell people I grew up in Dallas, they sometimes ask if I rode a horse to school. It’s a joke that’s only funny to those who have never been to Texas. I might laugh the same way if I asked a Californian if they surfed to soccer practice or if I asked an Alaskan if they rode a dog sled to the grocery store. To answer the question, no, I never rode a horse to school.

If Dallas natives ever laugh, it’s because Dallas is so incredibly different from the joke’s underlying premise. Dallas is a concrete monstrosity. Its highways and developments spread across the land like a world-eating amoeba. The 9th biggest city in the USA, its population is greater than the entire nation of Cyprus. Even more incredible is its total area, which is larger than the country of Israel. The household income for ritzy neighborhoods would make your stomach churn, and the only Dallas horses I ever saw belonged to a friend who lived on $3 million property three miles north of the high-end NorthPark mall.

A kid can have vastly different experiences growing up in Dallas. You might get caught up in gang violence if you live on one side of the street. You might be the neighbor of Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, if you live on the other side. You might find yourself in quiet neighborhoods with quaint Americana Fourth of July parades, or you might bake inside an un-airconditioned apartment complex so close to the interstate that you risk long-term ear damage.

But despite Dallas not living up to the cowboy image, the saying still stands: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”

Although I never rode a horse to school, the idea of “Texas” still lingers in people’s thoughts and culture. The idea of “Texas” can be summarized in the naming of South by Southwest, the annual Austin culture and music festival. Texas is where the genteel sensibilities of southern aristocracy meet the wide-open freedoms of the Western frontier. Texas is not Southern. It’s too big and independent for that. It never settled into a true aristocracy. But it’s also not the Southwest with its baren landscapes and lean, hard-edged living. Many Texans treat Texas like a nation within a state within a nation. For a few, brief, shining years, Texas was its own Republic, and that melding of self-governance and independence has played heavily into the idea of what Texas is and who Texans are.

Surprisingly, this sensibility took root most strongly in regard to classical Christian education. Dallas was full of these types of schools. Of course, we had our rich private schools and nominally Catholic boys and girls schools (also flush with cash). But Dallas also cultivated less pretentious institutions that ran guerilla-style operations out of whatever church or rundown office park they could find for rent. In these small private schools, parents and teachers could pass on the Christian values of their Southern upbringing while also embracing the liberal arts, spurning the educational worldview of the majority culture. With no large endowments, flashy facilities, or generational records of success, these schools staked a claim on the frontiers, so to speak, of education while staying true to a generally Southern set of values.

So, when people ask me about Dallas, horses, and boots, I say that the closest thing I ever experienced to the Wild West was attending a small Classical Christian school called the Cambridge School of Dallas.

Let me be clear, The Cambridge School of Dallas’ connection to the Wild West was visceral before I was ever able to articulate it. For all my talk about the convergence of the South and Southwest, I felt that the school was different from other schools before I knew why it was different. For instance, the school was located in a rundown Lutheran church whose members were slowly dwindling from old age. There were no sports fields where young boys like me could expend their energies, only a brick wall against which we could throw a tennis ball. Ceiling panels came loose, and the laminate tile peeled from the floor. The facilities were shabby very much like a one-road Western town. From the moment I set foot a Cambridge, I knew that we were not like other prep schools.

In those days, the Cambridge School of Dallas wasn’t for everyone. While I attended for six years, some headmasters and teachers didn’t make it that long. I remember poor, old headmistress Buell, a kindly old woman who could have been cast in a movie role for Sunday School Teacher #1. One day in the south hallway, an energetic redheaded boy barreled through the crowd of students, shirt wide open, bare-chested, sweat dripping from his face. He was after another boy and yelled at him with some strange voodoo of Roman insults he’d learned in Latin class that year. Headmistress Buell, escaping the rampage, caught herself against the out-of-order water fountain and clutched it in shock. She left the next year for less ramshackle pastures.

But for every educator who couldn’t hack it at Cambridge, there was a professor who thrived. The Wild West attracts misfits and eccentrics, heroes and explorers both. So did Cambridge. It was a small institution that hadn’t been corrupted by wealthy donors or stringent accreditation standards. It was an experiment, a project of parents and teachers who wanted to create a space where liberal arts could be taught freely. And so, over the course of my studies, I was introduced to the four horsemen of classical education: professors Mackenroth, Clark, Johnson, and Lee.

A few brief descriptions should be enough to make my point.

Mackenroth was a behemoth of a man. About six-foot five and 300 pounds, he taught natural sciences like biology and chemistry. He kept his head shaved and intimidated the young students with his bright, glistening dome. Before coming to teach at Cambridge, he had spent time working in bio labs testing such miniscule organisms beyond our comprehension. He also had a proclivity for stories. There was the one about the cannibalistic gerbils he once owned, and there was the one about how his boy scout troop erected an Elijah-like gasoline-fueled pillar of fire during a camping trip. Then, there was the story of his pet rabbits that, true to form, bred like rabbits one year and created a conundrum for his poor mother. Naturally, Mackenroth looked forward to the section on genetics when he would have the chance to tell the rabbit tale. When he wasn’t encouraging the next generation to listed to Daft Punk, he was eating lunch with the other horsemen arguing about Aristotle or Plato.

Clark brought a straight-edge discipline style to the Cambridge School of Dallas. He kept his hair shaved down to a military buzz and he played the part of drill instructor, not so much in the classroom, but in the halls and outside the library when adolescent energies disrupted his thoughts. Many a child were subdued through headlock as a cowboy soothes a wild horse. Each day before school, Clark workout in the empty field in little shorts, the kind early NBA players wore, and he kept the unwashed shorts in a duffel bag behind a desk along with 18 cans of chili mean. Cambridge was a small school, which meant not every professor received their own office, so this desk sat in a common classroom, and Clark would often sneak in during other lectures to retrieve a can of chili.

Clark’s fingers weren’t quite right, an extra join here, some extra cartilage there. You couldn’t quite tell where the deformities were located, but you knew they weren’t normal fingers when he’d contort his hands into a Cthulu-esque mess of finger and knuckle affectionately called the Metaphysical Monster. The Metaphysical Monster was a hit with students, and he often used our amusement to steer the conversation toward actual metaphysics and the structures of reality.

Clark’s most lasting lesson came in the form of a question thrown out during a Latin class. Like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, he lingered on, “What is a mood?” He posed the question one day out of the blue in Latin class. The lesson on grammatical moods hadn’t come up yet, and the class did not know the answer. How could grammar have a mood? One girl suggested something along the lines of tone. Maybe it’s when you’re speaking angrily or calmly with someone.

“No, no…” mused Clark with his feet slung up on the desk (necessary due to a recent knee replacement). Some smart alec then found a dictionary definition, but that was struck down as a lazy and incomplete answer, and when the student was asked to define the definition he’d just proposed, he couldn’t. And so, we continued to wonder about moods, often asking Clark to tell us “the answer.” This went on for the entire year, and the inquiry into moods was never satisfactorily answered. Clark’s intellectual commitment and refusal to accept easy answers was laudable. Since then, I’ve seen teachers crack under the pressure of silence. Either they have things to “accomplish” in class, they don’t want to frustrate the students, or they don’t want to be exposed as not knowing the answers. But some questions need a little lingering. If someone came up to you on the street and asked you, “What is a mood?” would you have an answer? Not so easy. Rather than a set of rules enforced by crones with rulers, grammar became a philosophical mystery.

Johnson remains the deepest enigma of the four horsemen of classical education. I never had the opportunity to take a class with him. He left Cambridge before I became an upper classman. But as assistant head of school, he was around and sometimes subbed in to watch us during classes or study halls. He had a proclivity for ghost stories, and it wasn’t hard to twist his arm to tell one. Nodding toward the light switch, an eager student jumped up to cut the lights. And in a resonate voice projecting from his barreled chest, Johnson would begin the tale of the haunted trolley. But despite his knack for storytelling, Johnson believed in hard work and scholastic rigor. He worked up the funds to hang a banner in the cafeteria that read “There are no shortcuts,” in big, black font. Another favorite saying was, “Anything worth doing is difficult.”

Finally, Lee was perhaps the strictest and most intense of the four horsemen. He, like the others, did not abide hair on his head. He kept his head shaved while sporting a long goatee. Over six-feet high, he stared down students to make sure they understood the gravity of what it meant to study philosophy. Along the wall of his classroom, pictures of his favorite philosophers hung together like crown molding. From Socrates to William Lane Craig, these intellectual giants watched us students as we learned. Lee deducted points from students who refused to underline passages of text with straightedge rulers. He wrote out his lectures in large, all cap letters on the whiteboard and had students copy the lectures verbatim into notebooks. Of course, this is also the man who volunteered for the boys’ video-game lock in and holed up himself up in the English room to marathon the Xbox classic, Left 4 Dead 2. He also hated the movie “Dead Poets Society” because he thought it idealized the passions of youth, and when I argued that I thought the film said opposite, he simply said I was wrong.

Despite his intimidating demeanor and quirks, Lee taught from a place of conviction. He read Plato’s Republic at least once a year. He didn’t let sloppy essays slide with a B rounded up to a B+. What was given was earned. Rumor has it, his convictions led to his dismissal. Eventually, the school implemented an online portal where students and parents could check grades. The other horsemen had left the school long ago, and Lee was the only one who remained. Lee did not believe in making students (or himself) slaves to the GPA. He wanted people to learn for learning’s sake, not to wheedle out a 93 from a 91. Like Clark’s “What is a mood?” he wondered why we couldn’t let thoughts and frustrations hang in the air and steep the mind like a good strain of tea. Eventually, Lee moved on, and Cambridge lost much of its original spirit.

For all the individual quirks of the four horsemen, they shared much in common. They were all intimidating. They had little care for propriety. They didn’t dress up in skinny khakis and a bowtie like many English teachers today (though I have had many wonderful professors who do dress this way). They couldn’t abide much hair. Rather, they more resembled Buddhas, content in this small school where they were free to think and teach the subjects that inspired them. Add in an underlying mistrust for authority, and you have the basic recipe for a Mackenroth, Clark, Johnson, or Lee.

Let me be clear, this essay is not a follow up to Goodbye Mr. Chips. I didn’t write this piece from a place of nostalgic longing. There are enough cute news stories about the one teacher who inspired so-and-so to believe in themselves, who helped a great person develop some inner part of their personality and free them to do what they wanted in life. That idealization of the teacher has been overplayed. While I do look back fondly on my time at Cambridge and while it did prepare me for college (half of my graduating class received National Merit honorable mention awards or better). I understand why schools wouldn't want to hire professors like these.

On the contrary, I bet many parents would have voiced complaints had they known exactly what these professors were spending their time doing (or not doing) in class. In fact, parents did complain. Over the years, each of the four horsemen left the Cambridge School of Dallas for one reason or another. The spirit of the school changed, and like the cattle drivers and lone sheriffs of yesteryear’s Western frontier, these professors discovered that the school had no place for them. Both parents and administrators pushed for more AP courses (“Cambridge students take an average of 6.25 AP courses, with a 72% pass rate on AP exams in 19 different subjects,” according to their website), which would admittedly restrict the academic freedom to teach what professors wanted to teach but also improve the financial and academic prospects of students heading off to college. The aforementioned online portals aimed to provide accountability between students, parents, and teachers so that problem spots could be addressed before becoming deeper-rooted frustrations.

I recognize that every decision toward “normalcy” presented tangible benefits to the school. The evolution of the Cambridge School of Dallas can’t be painted with broad brush strokes as either “good” or “bad.” What makes qualifying Cambridge difficult is that both styles of its approach to education – the Wild West and the “normal” – embody core traits inherent to classical Christian education. The school never explicitly went against its core mission of “Academic Discipleship: Fostering a Love of Learning with a Passion for Jesus Christ” in either iteration. Perhaps what is valuable to both styles of education are mutually exclusive. You can’t have one without the other.

For example, how do we define a well-rounded education? The Wild West version of classical education might encourage students to embrace one discipline over the others. Students might take science courses, but it’s philosophy that explains and gives meaning to the sciences. This approach is well-rounded in that it enlists each discipline toward a specific educational goal. One might look to the medieval text, The Reduction of Arts to Theology, for inspiration here. A more modern classical education might try to balance the curriculum in order to achieve true breadth and understanding based on the subjects’ own terms rather than understanding one subject through the lens of the others. This seems to be the surest way of preparing students for college since it mirrors the college department ecosystem, but even “preparing students for college” is a contentious topic in the field of classical education.

Deciding how a school will approach such delicate topics is a complex task, no doubt. But many schools seem to take a both/and approach, which undermines their intended missions. Their ideals come into conflict with the practical task of running a financially and socially viable school. How many adjectives can be applied to a run-of-the-mill religious prep school? Depending on the situation, a single school could be called a classical, conservative, Christ-centered, college preparatory, family-based, liberal arts institution. Not every one of these qualifiers, however, can hold priority in the way a school conducts its business on a day-to-day basis. If a school fails to set its priorities, it risks doing nothing well and creating a generation of nice adults who go along with whatever culture presents the least resistance.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the school’s supposed task of character formation. Classicists often default to the belief if a student has a character to form, there must be an objective mold to match. If we can find the mold, “the true form,” then we can succeed in educating the student. Rejoice, good Platonists! A student’s character just has to align with this immovable ideal and the job is done. This thinking doesn’t need to be metaphysical. The idea of the model student has haunted preparatory academies for centuries. Go to such and such a school so that you too may follow father’s business footsteps. Go to another school so that you may be formed to the pattern of Christ-likeness and become a responsible, church-going citizen in whatever American suburb you choose to make your exile.

Again, if a school explicitly decides to form such a kind of person, then that’s what they will achieve more often than not. But most schools also claim to produce the next generation of counter-cultural leaders. The Cambridge School of Dallas claims, “We are a school that is attempting to raise the bar on both spiritual fervor and academic ability so as to graduate students who are able and willing to be an antidote to cultural decline and spiritual drift. Thus, Cambridge addresses both the heart and the mind. We believe in equipping students to actively engage their world and influence their culture.” It must be argued, however, that standardized and acceptable character models conflict with counter-cultural individualists.

In my experience, this quest for counter-cultural influence and active engagement comes part and parcel with praise for the great heroes of history. In this case, I’ll use historical figures often mentioned by proponents of classical education.

Winston Churchill classical education
Winston Churchill

From Socrates to Jesus, Churchill to Bonhoeffer, school assemblies ring with stories of great minds that sacrificed everything for the cause of truth and freedom. Now, I might sound sarcastic, and I’m not being sarcastic toward the great people of history. But I can’t help but be a bit tongue in cheek when I look at the majority of students that come out of classical Christian schools and wonder whether they’ve been trained to be individualists and reformers. No fault to the individual students, but what character develops from a steady diet of AP courses; shallow, conservative moralities (no swearing or drinking); and uncomfortable uniforms? Personally, I’ve seen students taught by “nice” and “moral” teachers take one of two paths. They either become conservative isolationists who listen to Christian music and do Christian activities with Christian friends. Or they push back and get scolded for four years of their lives, and, wondering why not dancing too close at prom is more important than addressing glaring moral hypocrisies, leave behind the core values of classical education for a worldview that's more real and less oppressive according to their own definitions.

Are these students the Churchills of tomorrow? If they are, anxious moms and dads should be ringing up the office asking for the headmaster’s resignation. Churchill was notoriously difficult to be around. The British Bulldog was sometimes harsh, idiosyncratic, and mean. Similarly, Socrates was supposedly ugly, poor, nearly homeless, and open to being killed by the hand of the state on account of his own personal convictions. I suspect most parents paying their child’s tuition would have joined the chorus of friends if their own child found themself in Socrates’ place. The parent would urge the child to flee the city and give up moral convictions about one’s relationship to the state.

It's undeniable that parents are major stakeholders when it comes to schooling. In the letter from Cambridge’s Head of School, the focus lands on the parent, not the student: “If you are like the typical parent pursuing Christian education for your children, you have three basic priorities: a safe and encouraging environment, good education, and development in Christian faith.” But parents often create friction between school mission and school administration. Imagine an ultra-wealthy Dallas parent watch their child grow into a leader like John the Baptist, wearing camel hair clothes and eating locusts (or cicadas) from pecan trees along Mockingbird Boulevard. Imagine the alarm and panic in the next school board meeting. Of course, it’s control that is at play here. Erring toward character models instead of individualism allows parents and administrators to control students and facult more easily. Individualists always come with the risk of doing something unorthodox; they push boundaries by nature.

The question every school has to answer is, “What character are we trying to form and how are we to do it?” To answer this question, school leadership must decide on its priorities. Any successful organization holds to a clear mission statement.

For better or for worse, I was shaped by the intense individuality of my early Cambridge days. The professors I’ve mentioned lived out a unique dedication to the life of the mind. They made few compromises when it came to ideas of philosophy and theology. And I have likewise gone on to receive degrees in liberal arts and creative writing. I started my own business and spent my first year of marriage living in a tiny home built by my wife and me. My life has been stamped by individualism; and just so that I don’t fall into the trap of idealized boasting, my life has been stamped by the deep-rooted depression and anxiety that come with individualism.

I would not give any of the four horsemen the title of hero. In many instances, I can’t remember anything specific I learned from these professors. They didn’t go on to do particularly great things for the school, state, or country. Many of their quirks made them difficult men to be around and led to their dismissals. Otherwise, they voluntarily sought greener pastures once the constraints of “normalcy” set in.

The more I look back on their individual beliefs or personalities, the more I disagree with them. Lee treated the Republic as gospel. Plato’s insistence of the primacy of reason over emotions and appetites, unless delicately handled, can reinforce unhealthy behaviors of repression. Mackenroth held vocal and confrontational political views that I find distasteful. Clark should have found a substitute teacher while doped up on pain meds for his knee. But nevertheless, I hold deep respect for their individuality rooted in clearly defined principles.

I can appreciate them for their thatness, the simple fact of of existing differently than other people. They have thatness because they are individuals. By thatness, I mean a thing’s essence that makes it the kind of thing it is and makes it different from any other thing. I don’t want to become these professors, but I can say this because they taught me that I wasn't meant to live like them. Individualism comes closes to the level of a virtue when solid principles support a person’s higher life purpose. In many ways, classical Christian education has always sought to form the thatness of a student’s character. In many ways, Christ himself wholly distinguished himself from his culture, family, and followers. The original universities were founded by monks who grappled with their unique callings while being part of a broader church heirarchy. And so, classical education has a history of embracing the complex relationship between who the student is as human being, as citizen, as creature of God, and as individual.

Classical Christian education is constantly balancing its role as reshaper of and participant in the broader culture. American history is flush with idealists setting out to create new societies. The pilgrims did it and so did the pioneers. The Cambridge School of Dallas, as I’ve said, began much like an outpost on the frontiers of education, giving Dallas children the opportunity to learn in a way that was radically different from what other schools offered.

But eventually, the American West fell into the standardized rhythms of suburbs and strip malls. Much of that original free spirit and individuality was exchanged for safety and economic advantage. At the risk of simplifying complex cultural shifts too far, we can see that once a new community has been formed, it must be built up. A nation cannot continue reshaping and reinventing itself indefinitely without periods of participatory buy in, where its citizens agree on common goals. Too much time spent participating, however, without reconsidering the principles or motives behind what we do, can lead to cultural complacency.

Are we training students to become reshapers or participants? It’s my opinion that America’s current cultural moment needs reshapers more than it needs participants. Specifically, what we need are sharp minds tuned to identify the good across disciplines. Today’s individualist is a connector, someone who can bridge perspectives, speak multiple worldview “languages,” and begin weaving together the various silos of personhood created by our digitized, capitalist, increasingly post-Christian lives. The modern individualist is not an isolationist. They are a community-minded person who works to recenter the metaphorical hub of the wheel of culture. Their strength lies in their cultural spokes, those connections that ground the margins to foundational realities like beauty, goodness, and truth. If we reject the formation of reshapers, we risk undermining any meaningful sense of American culture for a fragmented collection of sub-cultures that resemble a stained-glass window shattered across the floor.

In terms of practical pedagogy, Aristotle’s ethics provides a helpful guide. Forming character and promoting individualism is not an either/or binary just as it’s not a both/and package. These are two extremes of an educational spectrum. Education without character formation would devolve into ineffective anarchy. But character formation without individualism becomes a means of grinding down the soul. What Aristotle says in Book 2 of the Nichomachean Ethics is that cowardly men should err toward the brash. An Aristotelian approach helps us avoid the pitfalls of Platonic view. A school’s character model, mission, and vision are not the ideal form to which students and faculty must strive. Rather, a school's guiding statements become correctives that shift the general spirit of the school in a particular direction. If we think of this spectrum in terms of standard deviation, then a shifted graph still allows for the varieties of personhood that come with the thatness of individual students. Furthermore, we can see the dangers of idealized character formation in Aristotle's argument that the very actions that build up one student will harm another: "Again, the actions from or through which any virtue is produced are the same as those through which it also is destroyed... as you will become a good builder from building well, so you will become a bad one from building badly."

Unlike our country’s geography, which has seen the end of the Wild West, the landscape of culture will always have its readily accessible frontiers. Humans forget things. Humans are prone to folly. Humans cannot hold all that is good, beautiful, and true in their souls all at once. Classical schools are uniquely positioned to plant their flags on the outskirts of these frontiers. They are the gadflies, the voices calling out in the wilderness. And so, rather than asking how to graduate more National Merit Scholars, churchgoers, and law partners, it may be time to graduate more gadflies – for the great prophets of ages past were, at heart, individualists.

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