The School of Athens: Plato vs. Aristotle
Although good nutrition and adequate exercise are important aspects of human health, a healthy mind possessing cognitive maturity and well developed rational thinking skills is also of critical importance. Unfortunately, our public schools in today’s world are failing us in this regard and turning out students who lack the thinking skills needed to live a happy and healthy life. Until that situation changes for the better, we must find other ways to achieve the needed cognitive maturity for the living of a happy and healthy life.
Thankfully, we have a shining example of what an educational experience should be like to guide us as we look for educational alternatives. The shining example I am referring to is The VanDamme Academy located in Aliso Viejo, CA. Its founder, Lisa VanDamme has demonstrated through thought and action what an excellent education looks like and her students are a testament to the success of her methods.
Note: For those wishing to understand how and why our educational system has degenerated into its current state, I recommend the following essay by Andrew Bernstein: “Heroes and Villains in American Education”
The VanDamme Academy Approach to Education
Lisa VanDamme founded the VanDamme Academy in 2001 after working several years as a private homeschool teacher for two children. According to Miss VanDamme, the goal of education is the following:
“The proper goal of education is to foster the conceptual development of the child—to instill in him the knowledge and cognitive powers needed for mature life. It involves taking the whole of human knowledge, selecting that which is essential to the child’s conceptual development, presenting it in a way that allows the student to clearly grasp both the material itself and its value to his life, and thereby supplying him with both crucial knowledge and the rational thinking skills that will enable him to acquire real knowledge ever after. This is a truly progressive education—and parents and students should settle for nothing less.”
Children listening to lectures at the VanDamme Academy
So what does subject content look like when this educational philosophy is put into practice? From the VanDamme Academy website:
“We teach history. “Social studies” (aptly nicknamed “social stew” by one of Miss VanDamme’s favorite critics of modern education) amounts to a fragmented hodgepodge of facts and dates, crammed between the covers of a drearily written textbook, memorized and recounted in the form of filled-in bubbles on a multiple choice test, then gone, never to be recalled again.” But history—history—is a captivating story of epic figures, engaged in world changing events, with monumental consequences, that imply profound lessons about life.”
“We teach literature. “Reading,” commonly crammed in among the spelling drills, vocabulary puzzles, and stream-of-consciousness journaling exercises that comprise “English” class, often involves no more than a novel or two a year followed up by multiple choice comprehension tests or the dread “book report,” and mundane excerpts from textbook readers accompanied by instruction in how to find the topic sentence or identify metaphors and similes. But literature is a thrilling journey to other worlds, worlds in which we meet distinctly-drawn and timelessly memorable characters and in which we are exposed to great authors’ unique insights about life.”
“After a decade of discussing these literary classics, our graduates are not just “well read”—they are perceptive observers, incisive thinkers, and passionate valuers.”
“We teach science. Science—true science—is the process of systematically observing the physical world, thoughtfully and meticulously integrating those observations, and inducing ever and ever broader principles that explain those observations.”
“Science gives the child the confidence, as he walks out of the school doors and looks at the world around him, to point and say, “I recognize that; I know something about that; I can explain that.””
“We teach writing. The skill of writing is at once supremely important, profoundly difficult, and, in most schools – woefully neglected. At VanDamme Academy, the skills of writing, reading, vocabulary, spelling and grammar are not all crammed together and cursorily taught under the heading of “English.” Instead, each of those subjects is its own class, giving these vital skills their due.”
“Writing is a crucial and empowering skill for everyone to have, no matter what their interests or career ambitions. Most adults feel it is a skill they are lacking. For VDA students, it becomes second nature.””
“Across the globe, most math classes revolve around one goal: getting the right answer. If a student can do this, they are said to “get math.” Students pour over stacks of problem sets memorizing and automatizing the steps they need to follow to get the right answer. Too often, these students memorize the steps without understanding why those steps work and where they came from in the first place. The knowledge gained in this way is often brittle and inflexible; it fails the student when he faces a problem worded slightly differently. Many students, uninspired by memorization, conclude that they are “bad at math” and give up.”
“Our approach at VDA is entirely different. We teach math conceptually, i.e., we teach math as a set of principles that can be applied to a variety of situations.”
Summary and Conclusions
The fundamental principle that the Van Damme Academy rigorously adheres to is the principle of hierarchy. Anything that is taught at the Van Damme Academy is presented step-by-step building on low level ideas to the more complex. There is virtually no memorization, so the students reason their way to higher level ideas and abstractions. This is in marked contrast to most schools. (For more on Miss VanDamme’s views on the crucial importance of teaching hierarchically, please see “The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education”)
When asked what a success in education looks like, Miss VanDamme describes her students when they graduate as having “poise, grace, and a wisdom or “depth of soul.” They also learn to write clearly and eloquently and become passionate and dedicated to learning and achieving.
If you would like to follow this exciting school and its activities, take a look at the documentary video of their program, “A Little Candle” available HERE. When you observe and listen to individual students in the video you will quickly see that she is not exaggerating in her assessment of them. They are strikingly articulate and sophisticated well beyond their equivalents in the public schools.
Thankfully, in addition to the VanDamme Academy a number of other educational resources have become available to parents and interested parties who are looking for alternatives to the public school systems in the U.S. A list of excellent resources is available at “Resources for Rational Parenting and Education”.
For parents and interested parties in the beginning stages of looking for educational alternatives, I recommend starting with the following two resources that address many of the fundamental issues needed in an education intended to provide an individual with the cognitive maturity and rational thinking skills needed for a happy and healthy life:
1. “The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education”, by Lisa Van Damme
2. Teaching Johnny to Think, by Leonard Peikoff.
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