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Signs of Life

by David Rothman, Ph.D.

In our first year, we looked at the campus and decided to make a few improvements to enhance the spirit of the place, in keeping with our vision for academic rigor that would be accompanied by beauty. To that end, we made a simple decision: in spite of tight finances, we purchased a good but inexpensive upright piano and maintained it.

In 1877, George Eliot wrote that she believed she had coined the term “meliorism,” meaning the belief that the world tends to improve, and we can help to improve it. The word was probably in circulation before that, but she certainly drew attention to it and is always associated with it today. Perhaps the wittiest retort to Eliot came from A. E. Housman, who, in 1936, near the end of his life, observed that he was an egoistic hedonist and a pejorist. When we survey the status and role of the arts in American education today, it is hard to resist Housman’s sharp rebuke to any optimism. All one need do is read the angry follies displayed daily in a slew of supposedly serious journals to become skeptical of any claims of excellence, let alone progress. At times, any melioristic claim seems to make as much sense as pointing out the excellence of the wine list on the Titanic.

And yet…there are Signs of Life, which I will be discussing regularly in a column bearing that title to appear in future publications of the Institute for Classical Education. The Stalinists, the Maoists, the Nazis, and even television could not kill poetry, and bad English departments, while they may destroy themselves, will not destroy it either. So, we should remember that while the larger issues of curriculum matter, the lasting triumphs of education take years, even decades to announce themselves, and the evidence occurs primarily as personal testimony, long after students leave school. As any teacher who has lived long enough to hear them knows, those testimonies and memoirs of what happened in a classroom many years earlier are the most convincing evidence that we have staked our professional lives on something that matters– that our leap of faith was and still is justified. Here’s one from my personal journal.

In 1998 I became headmaster of Crested Butte Academy (CBA), a small, independent co-ed boarding and day high school in Crested Butte, Colorado. The school specialized in strong, classically oriented core academics and was set apart by its mountain sports programs, which were some of the best in the country—if not the world. CBA sent almost all students to college and many of them on to high-level collegiate and even professional careers in athletics.

In our first year, we looked at the campus and decided to make a few improvements to enhance the spirit of the place, in keeping with our vision for academic rigor that would be accompanied by beauty. To that end, we made a simple decision: in spite of tight finances, we purchased a good but inexpensive upright piano and maintained it. Shortly thereafter, a gifted young man named Eric Andersen came to us for winter tutorials. He was not only a strong student and budding musician, of his age (13) in the country. He mostly studied viola, but I would hear him occasionally working through songs on that piano.

Life went on and we didn’t hear from Eric for a while, then lost track of him as he attended several different colleges and stopped racing, which meant we didn’t see his name in the results lists. Then, unexpectedly this fall, at least a dozen years later, he wrote and said he would be passing through town and wanted to get together. It turns out that he now is a songwriter, pianist, and the leader of a very successful indie band, The Novelists, based in Reno. We had heard about this through the grapevine, but to hear him play some of his excellent material—now that he was a mature, skilled artist—was a gift to be long remembered. Here is what he had to say, twenty years on, in a subsequent note, about that piano at CBA:

I’m glad you mentioned how you had insisted on the academy having a piano. I too believe that a school isn’t complete without one. It would be hard to overstate the impact of that instrument on my development as a musician, composer, and singer/songwriter. I lost countless hours in the dining hall learning the songs and discovering the brilliance of Billy Joel, The Beatles, Jamie Cullum, Beethoven, and so many others. My first instrumental compositions were birthed from that piano as well as parts of some of the songs I still perform today. It’s certainly possible that I wouldn’t be a professional musician today if it weren’t for that piano. Thank you!

Meliorism is a tough row to hoe. But without ignoring the tremendous challenges we face as educators now, it is worth observing that the present is not all that exists—and it is a profound spiritual error, a manifestation of despair, to forget the future. Education matters, every day, even if we cannot see its results for decades, even if we work in the dark. Keep the faith. Make the leap. And, pay attention to those signs of life.

By intentionally cultivating students’ abilities to recognize and produce beautiful artifacts–music, drawings, poetry, drama, etc.–K-12 classical education provides young people with the rudiments of a beautiful life.

As Sir Roger Scruton says in his short book on the subject, “Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways.

The printmaker bursts his throat telling us about light, telling us about the hillside unveiling in sequence each new day, each hour—the sun layered like paint on groves of olives or lines of dark cypress that spill, no, are quilted, diagonally across the field.

In 1877, George Eliot wrote that she believed she had coined the term “meliorism,” meaning the belief that the world tends to improve, and we can help to improve it. The word was probably in circulation before that, but she certainly drew attention to it and is always associated with it today.

With practiced grace, Mr. Kolb tucks a violin under his chin and places the bow on the strings, and the students’ own bows–silently, instantly–leap to their own instruments. He pauses to remind them to “Walk up to the first note, don’t play it,” and then he slices the strings and they launch into “French Folk Song,” a Suzuki standby.

Virtue is the flagship publication of the Great Hearts Institute. It disseminates stories, ideas, research and experiences in classical education to readers across the nation, helping them pursue the classical ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

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