Integrated, Connected, Detailed, Alive
The education of The Heights is characterized as liberal arts; this suggests the basic categories of education—the seven liberal arts—and the approach of liberal as opposed to servile. This distinction indicates that the education is geared toward the end of learning for its own sake, not for the sake of something useful or servile. (Servile in this distinction is not to be understood pejoratively, but simply indicates that this type of education is for a useful end, such as carpentry or accounting). There is not one particular method to this liberal arts education, but there are defining characteristics to the Lower School program. Defining characteristics include the following four: detailed, connected, integrated, and alive.
Details and little things are aspects usually loathed by boys. There is a great emphasis and effort towards details academically: grammar, handwriting, spelling, vocabulary, drawing, scientific classification, math drills and homework, historical and geographical data, the Ten Commandments, etc. There also is attention to details in matters of personal development, from the dress code, neatness of lockers, and order in the classroom, to composure, manners, and so forth.
Connecting details and subjects is important in order to place information in context and to understand the relations of things. This is vital to any education and especially to boys who like to separate things into easy-to-study and easy-to-grasp parts. For example, there is much knowledge to be gained by simply studying the parts of trees and comparing trees to other trees, but the study becomes more complete when the relations of birds, insects, weather, and animals are connected to the life of trees and the life that trees support. Furthermore, the study of bluebirds is enhanced with writing a poem of them, and the study of a poplar tree is enhanced with connecting it historically with their use as masts of wooden ships because of their tall and straight quality.
Beyond connecting matters within a subject, and subjects with other subjects, there is a sincere effort to connect learning with present living and the self—this includes connecting emotions and reason, the heart and mind. This type of connection can better be termed integration as it strives to integrate what one learns of the world and reality with how one lives in and perceives the world and reality. For example, the study of history and the books chosen are to connect students with their own history and the historical stories and places that surround them. History is not simply a subject in books, but a story of which one is part and by which one is informed. Similarly, natural history is not merely a classification and observation of objects separate from the self. It is to be integrated as the student notices, understands, affirms, and participates in (even through simply more awareness and observation) his natural surroundings in which he sees himself a part. Furthermore, through quiet and humble observation he can experience awe and wonder at the mystery and power of creation—proper responses of the heart to the created world.
Integration is a conscious effort across the curriculum. Further examples include the development of compassion (the ability to imaginatively place oneself in another’s “shoes”) and understanding friendship in literature class, as well as fostering a real sense of being a loved child of God in religion class. Efforts toward true integration also necessarily involve action as a student takes the lessons and begins to apply them to the way he lives, whether this involves increased empathy, more daring in making friendships, or better work.
These aspects of connection and integration, in perception and action, enable the quality of being “alive”. It is a quality desired in each subject, but also often referred to as the end of a Heights education: a man fully alive. Education comes to life when it is connected to the world around us and genuine interests are fostered. The importance of the imagination for this end of helping the education come alive is clearly understood in the Lower School, from writing historical journals imagining oneself a colonial settler, to writing nature poems in natural history or imagining oneself in the mysterious scenes of Christ’s life presented in the rosary. Not only for fun and creativity, the power of the imagination is involved in all perception, for we think with images, and it is especially alive in the young.
Along with an understanding of the importance of the imagination to make things alive, especially with regard to perception, is a recognition of the importance of choice and action. It is understood that along with perceiving truthful realities, good choices and action are necessary for a full integration and to live more truthfully and wisely. The perception of the connection between choice, action, and well being is especially present in literature, as characters’ choices can be seen along with the consequences upon others and oneself. The small class size and homeroom teacher relationship enables this connection with action as the teachers get to know each student more personally and can observe the boys in many different settings, from the quiet and academic situations to the more vibrant and competitive.
Awareness of the above characteristics as well as the importance of the imagination influence the teachers’ methods and style, though there is not a particular method to the art of Lower School teaching. Marks of Lower School teachers include: an eye for details and the development of study skills and habits; the use of narrative across the curriculum; field teaching, which includes nature walks and a variety of field trips; and a personal mentoring relationship with each student in his class.
On Homework and Grades
It is worth noting the topics of homework and grades, and our implementation of a block system for a number of our classes. Homework is not simply to be busy work; it is not given for its own sake. On the average, homework ranges from 45 minutes to 1½ hours. Assignments are given to supplement and prepare for classes, but are limited so as to not diminish healthy hobbies, exploration, personal reading, as well as family relationships. Grades are given quarterly and range from A to F. They indicate performance and mastery of a course and do not reflect behavior. They are helpful to assess the student’s academic process but efforts are made to keep them in perspective. Interest, engagement, and academic habits are of higher importance than grades, especially at younger ages.