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educational reform
“The ideal classroom is a student driving an automobile with Russell Kirk in the passenger seat.” —Stephen Masty (I made that up, but it’s what he would say)

The EarthBOX is a marvelous invention. In a small, controlled environment one can grow vegetables and flowers in great splendor with very little effort. It’s a plastic container equipped with a screen about three inches from its bottom, a tube to guide water into that sub-region, an overflow hole so that the environment will not become water-logged, and a mysterious growing mixture (not dirt–dirt is too heavy and makes the box unwieldy) which all pretty and edible plants seem to like. A plastic cover eliminates weeds and encourages both temperature control and water conservation. One can use it anywhere: on a desert plot, a patio block, even a ten square foot balcony on the 77th floor of a Manhattan apartment.

The EarthBOX is the veggie equivalent of what I call the EdBOX; a small, controlled environment in which one can dispense enormous amounts of knowledge with very little effort, and grow intellects like flowers or hybrid tomatoes. One problem with both boxes is that they can get costly. When I explained to an agricultural agent friend the reasons for my elaborate system of raised beds and irrigation in my backyard garden, he said, “Oh, you’re going for $10 tomatoes!” That’s about like $50,000 tuition, which is today more the rule than the exception.

It has always been costly to grow anything worthwhile in controlled environments. We mucked up Eden, where we were put to tend the garden. Hanging gardens and miniature trees have been around for at least a few thousand years (who has the patience for bonsai?), and Thomas Jefferson went broke a couple of times trying to build a model farm at Monticello. It’s interesting, therefore, what little thought we have given to the EdBOXes in which we plant our little potential citizens of the res publica. Mass education has been a part of the American faith for several centuries, but we haven’t done much with its environment.

I have two stories that might be metaphors for this aspect of our educational mystery. The first is a report I gave to the Board of Trustees at Hillsdale College twenty years ago (updated here to about 2005). The second is the record of the rise and fall of a classroom building at the same college, which bookended my long labor there.

#1: We are what we build. I asked the Board to imagine an alien put down in the parking lot of the Hillsdale Academy, a K-12 private school founded and run by the college; the alien then works his way generally to the west, arriving finally at the building dedicated to maintaining and fixing the structures that make up the learning community. The alien would see, I told the Board, a Children’s Palace, followed by a Sports Palace, and an Arts Palace (“earthlings clearly worship the little ones, and the body, and the stage,” he reports). Many buildings seem to exist for the comfort and sleep and recreation of older children, who seem to resemble mature citizens in many ways. Some of them are also quite palatial. There is a center for visitors, which seems to be a welcoming place for a wide variety of guests. It is not quite a palace, and therefore probably of slightly lesser importance. Of most interest to our visitor is the Middle Kingdom, flanked by a building (quite ugly, actually) that houses books, and seems to be rather well used by the older children. The Middle Kingdom has six structures. One is clearly the ancient capitol, in good repair. The others contain many rooms, some reserved for one or two persons, others having space for up to 40 or 50 earthlings. It is hard to tell what goes on in these dwellings, but the two largest are filled with many women and a fewer number of men who all seem to be tethered to machines with images on them. The four smaller structures have many older children moving in and out at rather regular intervals, and they are opulent, but what they may be palaces of is unclear. He has heard the term “campus” used often, which he takes to be a spiritual term, but there seems to be no building dedicated to liturgical things except perhaps what goes on in the ancient capitol. It seems to be a peaceful place, but its purpose is mysterious indeed.

I did give such a report, and the Board took it in good humor. I was trying to explain to them the need for a chapel.

#2: The Kresge Center for Traditional Studies opened two weeks after the start of the fall semester, 1975. It was a poster-building for how to make college education difficult. The architecture was early factory; red brick, flat roof, straight line two story box, with a storage basement that later became office and classroom space which grew mold. The main floor, connected to the library on one end and the science building on the other, was a logjam masterpiece. Every student and faculty member and most staff personnel walked its ten-foot wide hallway several times each day. One side of the hallway consisted of box-rooms for classes with one wing desks and blackboards, the other was a rabbit warren of faculty offices, five to a pod, averaging about 30 square feet. The heating/cooling system was designed to allow for no variation from room to room; the north side of the building was always cold, freezing in the summer, and the south side was always warm, except when the connection to my office failed and I spent an entire winter without heat. The windows would not open except when we discovered an enterprising student who had rivet cutters and knew how to use them. He was a Uper from Michigan, and for his ingenuity we moved heaven and earth to get him into a reputable law school. He has done well. One faculty member, drenched in sweat after teaching a class in 105* heat, offered to assassinate several people in the administrative offices responsible for building maintenance. The college spent more than the original cost of the building trying to solve these problems, but nothing worked. Having anticipated the ugliness, congestion, impossible faculty working conditions, and temperature problems (but not the mold), convinced that Kresge was a pedagogical monstrosity, I offered at the first faculty meeting in the fall of 1975 to drive the bulldozer that would knock it down, and I repeated the offer regularly for thirty years. When I retired from full time teaching in 2005, president Larry Arnn granted me my wish and I took the first swipe that resulted finally in the demolition of an educational house of horrors.

educational reformI am proud to be a hard-hat hero of educational reform.

America’s greatest architect of gothic buildings, Ralph Adams Cram, (designer of West Point and Princeton), understood that real education requires space that encourages teachers and students to speak to each other, and to listen to each other. Often this means nooks and crannies, simple chairs and tables amidst the “stacks” in libraries, out-of-the-way labs in science buildings, offset offices that close out noise, windows that let in joyful light and scenes of well-wrought campuses. Unfortunately, most schools today are copies of business parks or hotel complexes (or is it the other way around?), often less attractive than early industrial sites. There is one campus in Michigan that I have said for many years could be turned into a low-security prison just by adding fences, and nobody would know the difference.

But we work with what we have to work with. In 1980 I took some young women to Houston for the NAIA national championship track and field meet. I was “running” many miles each week in those days, and one day toured the Rice University campus, peeking in buildings along the way. I stopped at one window to a classroom that changed my life as a teacher. It was a high-tech room, but what fascinated me was that despite its small size (maybe 20’ X 20’), it had a functional podium facing three semi-circular ascending rows of table-desks, with three comfortable chairs behind the first, five at the second, and eight behind the third tier. Sixteen students, all within touching distance of the podium! It was an engineering classroom, and for the next few months I said special prayers for the practical hardheads of the elite school at Rice.

Working with practical people at our school, it wasn’t difficult to convert a hollow box into an EdBOX. At the corner of Kresge and the library, a nice symbolic point, we made what was the Sam’s Club of classrooms into a rhetorical concert hall. Three tiers, thirty-six seats, and for almost fifteen years I taught most of my classes in a place where students couldn’t hide from me, nor I from them. We are what we build, and this version of Russell Kirk in the front seat and the student driving worked so well for me (and more and more for others) that I got perhaps an extra decade of reasonably good teaching out of an increasingly old mind and heart. Hillsdale’s newer classroom buildings have a dozen more of these EdBOXes in various shapes and sizes.

As we consider this topic, that is, what classroom helps people to teach and others to learn, we also must keep in mind that there is more to teaching Latin or mathematics or literature than getting across enough stuff to pass examinations. Russell Kirk said that the “objects of the higher learning are wisdom and virtue,” and that such ethical goals are pursued “through intellectual means.” His guidelines are general, but good enough for me. Good men and women can discuss and disagree about how they want to strive for wisdom and virtue, but if they cannot fix themselves upon the approximate goal, they may as well seek a profession that satisfies some lesser or higher aim.

That settled, what may we wish for in an EdBOX? In the literature on teaching, and the experience I have had in classrooms as student and teacher and observer, there are remarkably few helpful insights into the geography of learning as it may affect wisdom and virtue. “There is a famous American definition of a good education,” writes Gilbert Highet. “It consists, says the epigram, of Mark Hopkins on one end of a bench and the student on the other. Mark Hopkins was a fine teacher, but he did better when he put ten students on the bench and stood in front of them.” Hopkins was the legendary president of Williams College (1836-72) who taught the signature course for all small college presidents from the 1780s to about World War I, “Moral Philosophy.” It covered a serious but homely theology and philosophy but also most of the subjects we now call “social sciences,” minus the quantification. Mark Hopkins seems to have understood something that, as far as I can tell, all great teachers have understood, what Robert Frost called “education by presence.”

Teachers and students must have claims upon each other. When I had already been teaching for about eighteen years, Gerhart Niemeyer, recently retired from Notre Dame, joined Russell Kirk as a part-timer on the Hillsdale College faculty. Gerhart taught two courses, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, always arriving in Hillsdale from South Bend by 7am. I made it a point to be in my office before 6:30am, so that I could bring to him a prepared question (that was beautifully disguised as conversation, of course) and to learn from him on the other end of the bench. He gave me my claim on him, I am now certain, because he knew what he had to offer me, and I him. The point of this anecdote is that responsible citizens of the res publica must take their learning seriously.

Bishop Fulton Sheen walked on to his television set in the early 1950s, dressed without shame as a priest, and had one prop—a moveable blackboard, on which he wrote “JMJ” at the top,and proceeded to give a half hour of theology on topics we could all recognize ( “Why We Don’t Like to Work;” What the Communists are Trying to Do;” “How Do We Know We are Happy?”) and never talked down to one of us. He is the only man I have ever known who could get away with being not present and seeming to be in our living rooms, at least on important topics. Few teachers can do this. I watch his programs every chance I get, and never tire of his voice, and the power of the Holy Spirit speaking through him. Most of us teachers, however, fail miserably when we try to project our message through a medium where we are only virtually present. I would go so far as to say that teachers who do taped, or “online” lectures are sophists, seeking money or fame for pedagogical tricks.

I have felt many times like a pedagogical whore. The purist things I have done as a teacher have been in the EdBOXes that put my students’ eyes in mine, and won’t let me get away with anything but the pursuit of truth. The reason that I am still nervous before every single class is that I hope I am there for the right reasons, and if I’m not, the students won’t find me out. When we pretend to teach, when we separate ourselves from the ones whose hearts and minds we are trying to stretch along towards wisdom and virtue, we know it when our eyes are on them and theirs are in us.

One last story about EdBOX. For many years I taught summer school classes on the deck behind our house just a block down the hill from the college. One summer we had a neighborhood rooster, a red monster that fraternity boys had purchased as a joke and found that they weren’t wise or virtuous enough to control. Rex, as my wife named him, lived in a tree next door, but took a great interest in my garden and in my classes on the deck. He learned that I should stop lecturing about mid-day, and took to walking into the middle of our discussion at high noon and crowing with his feathers held high, until I learned humility.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Well, you may take solace insofar as shoddy American architecture is concerned by reflecting on western Europe:

    So much wonderful architecture, so utterly shallow souls. Since I live in a city that was razed during the war, it has become a bit of a nice annual habit to visit Brussels: there I marvel at the wonderful mix of sessecionist, gothic and colonial architecture. But while outwardly still the tranquil Catholic town of Herge, I suspect that if I ever tried to engage in conversation beyond the polite and pleasant, I would find it a sad experience.

    Europeans are like ghosts walking amidst the ruins of civilization.

    One example: my fiance and I visited the Cathedral of St. Bavo in the midievil Belgian town of Ghent, which houses the magnificent Ghent Altar piece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.

    But to call it merely an altarpiece is to miss an essential point about religious icons; one which my fiance made note of: they are essentially spiritual objects. I am unfamiliar with Church practice and theory on the subject, but she, having taken courses in iconography (practice and theory), informed me that the more prayer rendered via the icon to God, the more of an almost living vessel of Spirit the icon becomes.

    This, by the way, has been an ongoing conversation between us since
    I quoted Luther to her a few years ago, on the subject of "needless" ornamentation in Catholic architecture and religious practice, to which she responded by lecturing me on the concept of the sacred as tied always to thing and place.

    Back to the point: the Ghent Altarpiece sits in a plexiglass cage within the Church, and tourists have the possibility to acquire headphones and recordings in various languages about the icon.

    All of this was somewhat disheartening to my fiance, who claimed it a sign of the spiritual crisis of the West, for Icons require constant prayer rendered towards them, and they are sacred insofar as they are repositories of generations worth of prayer.

    To have this great icon exposed like a museum piece in the Cathedral, and to realize that rather than being the aim of prayerful pilgrimages, it was at best a relic of history of interest to tourists, saddened her. It was clear that the thing was not part of the living Church, which is not an easy thing to find in Belgium these days.

  2. This is a great, thoughtful, and beautiful piece, John. I do think the culture of any college would be improved massively with some kind of faculty space/pub. But, maybe in the future. As to Kresge–thanks for never having me have an office in that building. I am grateful. And, please more stories about Niemeyer.

  3. Brad, I will write a long piece about Gerhart soon. The last time I saw him, at a PhillySoc meeting, I told him that he was the inspiration for all the preaching I did. He stood up and took my hands and pulled me to him and hugged me. I have never experienced such peace.

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