Note: The following post is from our guest contributor Derek Anderson, headmaster of Ridgeview Classical in Fort Collins, Colorado. In addition to leading the school, Mr. Anderson studies moral and political philosophy alongside of intellectual history. He is a proponent of the liberal arts curriculum, having taught students history, philosophy, literature and rhetoric.
As a teacher and later as a headmaster, I have frequently lamented how schooling in America so often amounts to homogenization. For all of our bluster about diversity, school sets a pattern for the successful student, and too often the successful student doesn’t mature into an interesting person. There is something un-American in this, which I reflected on recently while reading Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous with students, though I had touched on it before while reading Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man with a group of parents. What percolated to the surface in the latter discussion is that nearly every parent wants for their child to be well-prepared to meet the vocational challenges of his time. Yet, school prepares most children for college more than for life. The very qualities we celebrate as great historical archetypes are forged through challenge and a diversity of experiences. However, we are rendering our children’s lives through too narrow a set of mostly mundane goings-on. A child is born, they become a ward of the state at around four or five years of age, they are transported to and from government facilities, fed lunch and oftentimes breakfast at public expense, and emerge from the other end of this process after thirteen years to begin another process shortly thereafter. And, it is a process, and not one of their own choosing.
Something similar happens in these two books despite one being fictional and the other a memoir. Importantly, who Harvey, the protagonist in Captains Courageous, is and becomes is largely a function of what happens to him. For L’Amour, his life is a series of choices—a ramble through a series of boxing matches, solitary time in a mining camp, prodigious but undirected reading, working aboard a ship, and browsing in foreign ports. We see something of this in David Copperfield, too: the importance of determining whether we will be the heroes of our own stories. That is, will our life be one of circumstance or of choice? Persuading young people of the power of freedom entails persuading them of the power and importance of character and self-determination—herein lies the choice to choose our own course and lives.