The Good and the Beautiful and the True

Terrence Moore

June 1, 2003

A Tocquevillian Perspective on a Charter School’s First Graduating Class

One thing we have learned over the last two years at this school is that if you challenge students with meaningful assignments, they will meet and exceed your expectations. Indeed, we adults have often come to realize that these young people are better—more educated, more polished, perhaps even more humane—than we were at that age.

The purpose of a classical education, for instance, has always been to make good orators. You have seen that Miss Wilson and Mr. van Maren have indeed become orators—to the extent that they leave their poor principal little to say and have set a higher standard of eloquence than he was prepared to match. Alas, that is the recurrent fate of teachers: they see their careful lessons at first as a matter of difficulty for their charges; but soon the bright and the hardworking students catch on and finally master the subject. Rather than the teacher exhausting the student with his homework (and we have a bit of that at Ridgeview), the student exhausts the teacher with his desire to know, until the student must move on. That is precisely what we mean to celebrate here today: the moving on, the passage of a group of young men and women from our classrooms and our discussions and our assignments to the larger world where they will use the arts and sciences they have learned here to tackle the great challenges and opportunities that await them.

This occasion is to be relished but not prolonged. As such I cannot say everything about these young people that I could, or should like to. I would, however, like to say something about their ethos, the spirit that drives them and has made them good students at Ridgeview, the spirit that will propel them into the future with great velocity and force. Before I explain this spirit, I must say something about America, how this country came into being and what has sustained it. If you bear with a short history lesson, the connection will become clear.

America began with a charter, in fact with a series of charters. These charters were rather dry legal documents (which, by the way, our students have read) documents that a king would grant to a small number of people who wanted a better chance or a greater challenge than they could find back home in England doing the same, run-of-the-mill, expected things. The charter was a contract, then, full of promise, but wholly without spirit and life. It took courageous men and women, sometimes children, to give the document spirit and life. Well, you know the story from here. After these first bold pioneers, the Puritans and early Virginians, went to the new world and worked hard to build a new life in a new place and met with success, then others saw the possibilities. And many more came, generation after generation, until the multitudes of immigrants outgrew the original charters. They formed themselves into one people and discarded the narrow confines of the old charters in order to make one great charter founded upon the highest ideas of human dignity and freedom. That charter, of course, was the American Constitution.

American principles of freedom and self-government became the model for how a people ought to live together. Yet it took a foreign visitor to understand the magnitude of what the Americans had accomplished. That foreign visitor was Alexis de Tocqueville. Not only did Tocqueville explain the greatness of what the Americans had done, he also warned them of how their great achievements might be lost and undone by future generations. Specifically, Tocqueville applauded the pioneering spirit and hardiness of the early settlers. He also applauded the vast learning and wisdom and prudence of the authors of the Constitution. These men, by the way, had received a classical education. They knew their Greek and Roman history cold; they also studied the latest modern sciences, both natural science and political science. Tocqueville, the classically educated European who admired American democracy, was convinced that Americans would best preserve their liberty if they somehow combined their pioneering, can-do spirit with a love of the good and the beautiful and the true that came with a classical education (an education that heretofore only aristocrats had had the leisure and wealth to pursue).

What Tocqueville most feared about Americans was that their similarity, their equality, their sameness, their potential uniformity, their sometimes attachment to the practical over the theoretical, their seeming indifference to higher things of the mind, that all these and many other aspects of their character might lead to a stultifying mediocrity in their thought, a growing ignorance of their founding principles, and eventually a tyranny of the majority in their politics. He feared that Americans, lacking an aristocracy, would lose their taste for the good and the beautiful and the true that aristocracies had always upheld. Tocqueville, writing in the early nineteenth century, left it as an open question. Would Americans preserve their daring, their enterprising spirit—governed by a sense of the right and the true—or would they succumb to narrow envy, pettiness, and a tyranny of mediocrity in their government and their lives?

So now we come to our occasion. As you know, this school was founded upon a charter. This charter was granted, not by a king, but by a monopoly of sorts, to a group of concerned parents who wanted more for their children than the same, run-of-the-mill, expected things. It is a good charter. It is a charter written out of an over-arching worry: a worry that many Americans do not know much about the founding principles of this nation, a worry that students often settle for mediocrity, a worry that schools do not teach their students to love and to pursue the good and the beautiful and the true. All the same the charter is a cold and lifeless document. Even its authors do not stay up nights admiring its use of metaphor, its rhythm and its meter.

This promising document plainly needed people to give it spirit and life. It needed teachers, no doubt, teachers who loved the good and the beautiful and the true. But, in a sense, finding the teachers was the easy part. The men and women who came from all over the country and sometimes from Europe to teach in Fort Collins had already committed themselves to learning. The hard part was that the charter and the school needed students, not ordinary students who simply wanted a high school diploma, however debased its currency, but students who would forsake all the pep-rallies and hoopla and big parties and, frankly, at least in the beginning, better facilities that could be found in any normal high school, who would forsake all these things to get an education. In many cases, they would give up a higher GPA and class rank to work harder and to have less free time. They would come here because of their dissatisfaction and their hope: a dissatisfaction with the same, run-of-the-mill, expected, easy things and a hope that they might use their minds to study the good and the beautiful and the true.

Two summers ago when this school was being transformed from a paper charter into a living, breathing enterprise, when we (and by "we" I mean parents and teachers and students) were washing up and moving old, hand-me-down furniture from other schools and holding mock-teach lessons for prospective teachers, we had a sense we were doing something profound. Yet, as in the case of Tocqueville and America, it took a foreign ambassador to understand the magnitude and the uniqueness of what we were doing. Mr. Hild, our great German teacher of American literature, said to me in his exact and insightful way, "This is very American what we are doing here, all these people coming together to build a school from nothing." But even Mr. Hild at that point did not expect the level of intelligence and curiosity and intellectual discipline he would soon find in his students.

Friends, the nine young men and women you see before you today are pioneers. They are trailblazers. They have done not the easy things but the hard things. They have studied the arts and sciences, day in and day out, with a rigor and a seriousness that are too seldom found even at the best colleges in this country, much less in high schools. The intense discussions they have had in class did not stop with the end of a period but continued in the halls during the passing periods. These students plainly saw where their abilities in reading and writing and math and speaking were when they came to us, and rather than complaining that our assignments were too hard, they asked for more assignments so they could read and write and calculate and speak better.

These graduating seniors are also the founders of film societies and drama clubs and student governments and chess clubs and Shakespeare societies and, lest we forget, the choosers of mascots, and, when that mascot must be explained to a candid world, they are the explicators of that unique and entirely fitting mascot: the hoplite. Extracurricular activities, of course, are not unique to this school. But whereas in many schools these activities are set up as a replacement for and distraction from the real substance of learning, in this school the extracurricular represents the spilling out of intellectual activity from the classrooms (the site of the vita contemplativa, for those who know some Latin) into the practical things of the world (the vita activa). Thus these students are thinkers and doers, precisely the combination of character that Plato said the leaders of a society ought to have. Many, if not most, of the things these students have accomplished, even the tone they have set for the school, and the level of their activity, were not in the charter, were not dreamed of by the charter’s authors. But, like Washington’s presidency, the first graduating class has set the patterns and standards of scholarship and conduct which will live on at Ridgeview Classical Schools and which all subsequent graduating classes must live up to.

As most of you know, education at Ridgeview ends with a bang, not a whimper. All these students have made it through the Senior Seminar, a class that is the culmination of their pursuit of the good and the beautiful and the true. All year long students must read and discuss difficult books dealing with profound questions about human nature. At the end of the year they must write a long paper that says something insightful about these books and these themes. Then they must defend their theses orally, not just in front of the regular class and teacher, but in front of the public: any students or parents who can attend, any teachers who have an off-period, and also in front of me. I saw all of their presentations, and I asked questions, tough questions that would make them squirm. Yet they did not squirm. They stood there and came back at me: with thoughtful answers, with their own questions of me. Indeed, it is time for them to move on. They are getting too tough for their teachers and for their principal.

The Tocquevillian challenge will always remain with us. Will we Americans allow ourselves to be overcome with envy of and contempt for the higher things or will our can-do, pioneering attitude be governed by a love of the good and the beautiful and the true? But as we hear and read about other rituals at other high schools around the country that do no honor to humanity and to the founding principles of this nation, we can rest easier with the knowledge of what these young men and women are. They are the natural aristocracy, the aristocracy of talent and of hard work and of a sense of mission, of which Adams and Jefferson and the other Founders wrote. We look forward to their achievements in the future. We salute them. And we love them.

Dr. Terrence Moore is the Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado. He studied history at the universities of Chicago and Edinburgh and served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Marine Corps. He was also an Assistant Professor of History at Ashland University in Ohio. He is the editor of George Turnbull’s Observations upon Liberal Education (1742), published by Liberty Fund, and writes a weekly column for the Fort Collins Coloradoan and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs.