This is precisely what has happened with St. George, which just yesterday was voted into incorporation, though by no means voted in by a landslide. It has seceded with approximately one-fifth of a capital city in the modern United States and launched the fifth largest municipality in Louisiana. We must remember there is still approximately 46% of the area which does not support the incorporation. This means that a vast minority of the new St. George citizens will have to take the leadership’s “word for it,” until St. George makes good on its promises. What are those promises?
Let’s just consider one, the most important one. From the very beginning, St. George has pitched itself as a new city pursuing a new educational standard. Rightly fed up with East Baton Rouge Parish schools, proponents of the new municipality have used education reform as the top motivation in creating the newest city in the United States. To be sure, I believe those who have led the St. George break truly want something other than what EBR schools have become. And I truly believe they have an opportunity to not only surpass all the standards but to create a model modern city which is the first of its kind educationally. However, for several reasons, I am also highly suspect that it will happen. Still, if I take the man’s “word for it,” how would they go about creating a new educational model?
- Look outside the state. They must not only look outside the state, they must look outside the public system to create something worthy of all the effort of starting a new city. Educational leaders in St. George need to look at the national classical movement, the fourth most important educational renaissance in western history; they need to read back in educational treatises from Hesiod to Heidegger. They need to consider a fundamentally different starting point than modern educators have to offer.
- Get back to the liberal arts. I do not mean getting back to what we think the liberal arts are today. I mean getting back to those core methods and subjects which truly form a child to the five academic competencies of reading, writing, thinking, speaking, and listening. Require logic in middle school and high school. Require rhetoric in high school. Teach grammar properly. Utilize the beauty and bounty of Latin to form the architecture of our children’s linguistic faculties. Teach literature in its historical and artistic brilliance. Require the students to memorize poetry. Teach math and science in the fullness of their claims and not just for their pragmatic and capitalistic ends.
- Major on the majors. There will be lots of people who show up to St. George with an agenda, almost all of them being financial gain or social manipulation, and curbing mischief will have everything to do with the leadership determining he educational majors and the educational minors. The fastest way for the whole thing to go south, other than starting with the wrong fundamentals, is to get side-tracked off the major issues, those few things which have always been at the center of a good city and a good education. The leadership will need to identify “the majors” and then work on those for the next decade. After that, they can consider polishing the minor things, if the success of the major things has not already done so.
- Minor on the minors. If they are going to major on the majors, they must not let the minor things of education creep into becoming distractions or pseudo-majors. What are those? Big sports. Standardized testing. Innumerable electives. First-class facilities. Social clubs. Technology. State accolades. These are the minor things, and they puff their chest up quite often to look like majors. Don’t be fooled.
- Don’t worry about state testing. If this seems counter-intuitive to the leaders of St. George, then they have already lost at creating a great education in their new city. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest signs of a weak education is its over-emphasis on end-of-grade testing. Teachers know it. Parents know it. Students know it. History proves it. Future generations will look back at us, if they get it right, and wonder how we could be so short-sighted with education. State testing is a minor thing, if it should be a thing at all. And when the new St. George schools major on the majors in the students’ academics, they will soar past their counterparts on state testing.
- Don’t look at college admissions as the standard for success. This is merely another expression of the previous point. College readiness and admissions testing is a minor issue in a child’s education. Because of that, the child should focus on the major parts of their academic formation and let the minor parts take care of themselves. When the school does push the gas on college admissions testing, they should do so no sooner than the student’s sophomore or junior year. Treat the child like a human whose mind and soul are to be delighted in the glories of learning, and then watch how the much less glorious things of modern education (e.g. standardized testing) are hurdled with no problem and much less anxiety.
- Have a higher standard for teacher readiness and accountability. Our instructors need to be scholars and shepherds. They need to be zealous learners and model citizens. We need administrators willing to make hard decisions on teacher hiring, faculty training, and teacher accountability. The most important thing about the St. George schools will be their teachers, and if the schools go about selecting and training faculty like EBR and LSU propose, they will already lose the education they so desperately want to build.
- Require parent leadership and participation in the schools. This goes beyond PTA. This would be a new standard for parent accessibility, parent sovereignty, parent accountability, teacher relationships with parents, parent education, and parent leadership. This would put parents in the driver-seat of many things, and it would require the local school to acknowledge that and set up the organizational structure to that end. This could be as simple as no bus system or as complex as parents being required to sign up for one of a number of volunteer and leadership groups in the school.
- Educate the child for their vocation. This does not mean we create technical schools and follow much of Europe’s current model of dividing children in middle school down an academic track or a technical track. This means every child, as much as they are created fully human and ought to be treated with equality, ought to learn to think well, speak well, listen well, read well, and write well, to the fullness of their natural aptitudes and divinely dispensed abilities. They ought to be trained in virtue and not vice. They ought to be matured in their human faculties, guided in their natural aptitudes, and shepherded toward that next stage to which the parent and student sense the student is being called. That could be college. That could be trade school. That could be a job. That could be the military. That could be seminary. That could be a host of other opportunities for that 21st century American student. The higher education bubble is a mess, and we had better realize that it’s a mess into which many of our children are not called to go. If we educate them well, giving them the social and academic foundation for which their souls long, we will be setting them up for whatever they may be called to do, despite technological trends, despite market ups and downs, despite global peace, despite partisan politics, despite the future of Amazon. We would truly be giving them a liberating education.
- Be brave. This will not happen without some serious conflict, asking hard questions, and being brave enough to answer hard questions asked of the leadership. One of the reasons why Louisiana education continues to prove itself greatly impotent is because we don’t have enough educators willing to be brave. This is most especially true in the public sector.
So, what are the odds that this will happen? A better question is “How genuine is the leadership of St. George about surpassing all the state and local education standards?” What I have proposed here is a kind of neo-humanism, getting back to education which accords with some of our more central and most human characteristics. More specific, it is a kind of secular literary humanism. What is the center and purpose of such humanism, and can such humanism last? Those answers are for another article. But unless St. George is willing to follow its name and run headlong into a kind of incarnational humanism, the model I’ve proposed here is at least the one most in their reach, a reach which is really a promise to reform education for their new citizens. If the leadership of St. George adopts the same fundamental principles and practices in education as EBR and the rest of the state, if the leadership of St. George is not willing to cast its own mold, if the leadership of St. George sets its roots in the soils of modern education, they will build the same thing from which they are running. If a man wants apples, he had better not plant a peach pit.
Brian Daigle is the headmaster of Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is the author of two books on starting schools: So You Want to Start a School? and So You Want to Become a Classical School?