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Put those teenagers out to pasture

For some months now, I have been consumed with starting this little school, Saint Anthonys' Academy. It is a place I first conceived of in graduate school twenty years ago while reading John Senior and James S. Taylor, but it took the necessity of my own children to finally see it founded. It is very young and just getting on its feet, and this venture is both scary and exciting. It is such a powerful, long-time dream, slowly blossoming at last.

I recently saw a film that offers a good analogy for our little school - "The Biggest Little Farm." The filming is gorgeous and the story inspiring as it traces the first eight years in the development of a traditional farm (which is very different from today's typical farm). It begins with a rock-hard piece of land and, very slowly, and through many trials, we see the land cultivated and developed into a beautiful, integrated, interdependent eco-system.

Like trying to recreate a delicately balanced ecosystem from a depleted, dry piece of land, we are trying to create the community to foster the friendships that will become the fertile soil for a poetic education. "As Senior says, a school first of all is a faculty of friends. Before buildings, before books, even before students, a school is a gathering, often just of a few friends, learning together, who love the same things and love to reflect and remark about them in conversation" (James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge). We have to build this environment from the ground up. It takes hard work to eradicate the false ideas instilled in us by the conventional, factory-style education that all too often sucks the life out of learning. Our current educational system is depleted and dry. Instilling facts into young minds with the hope of producing efficient workers falls far short of “learning to love what is beautiful” (Plato). It also fails to take into account the various stages of brain development, expecting people of all ages to behave alike in their absorption and regurgitation of information. It demands the impossible - that individuals all learn in the same way, at the same pace. It asks its students to work at a desk all day and then come home to more work. It instills a fear in us that if we do not conform, our children will not be able to function successfully in life or in work.

At St. Anthonys', we believe that school should not be a factory line, turning out students as products, but a journey to discovery through experience. We are not interested in just getting through an arranged number of books and materials. We want our students to recapture a sense of wonder, and great books and materials are assistants to that end, not taskmasters. Education at St. Anthonys’ is about pulling our students towards beauty by engaging them in it and reviving their natural sense of wonder, not just pushing facts and information at them. But contemporary society has no patience for wonder.

Our goal is to observe “the proper order of knowledge,” which begins with the poetic, as outlined by John Senior. Senior tells us that “in the poetic mode, one experiences things rather than examining them in any critical spirit.” This is the time to learn through “experience of two kinds, direct and imaginatively participatory” (James S. Taylor). In the poetic mode, “the stories [literature, history, poetry and philosophy] tell do not explain; they imitate or re-present their subject; they render it present” (Dennis Quinn). We experience wonderful books and memorize poetry aloud together. Frank Nelick said that, with the advent of the printing press, the poetic mode for studying literature began to be lost; “It was the end of an oral and conversational tradition and the end of the reliance on memory, which, as the Greeks believed, was the mother of the muses.” We are reviving that oral tradition in our own small way. Considering this along with the observations of Montessori (and supported by contemporary discoveries in neuroscience), we see that the 12-15 year old period is not the time for specializing or analyzing, but for connecting to particular, concrete instances of beauty in nature and art, working the land, experiencing the real, and building community.

The students must also be allowed the leisure time that will allow them to begin to reflect on the transcendent nature of things like friendship, integrity, and sacrifice. This glimpse of the transcendent nature of things “takes place, as all poetic knowledge does, in a setting of leisure of some kind.” (James S. Taylor) We want to create a space for leisure, which has been all but forgotten or replaced by recreation in contemporary society. This is the primary reason we have no homework or exams at St. Anthonys’. With classes of no more than 12 students, there is plenty of time during the school day for the work that needs to be done, allowing for leisure time in the afternoons and evenings.

We are also working to incorporate more of Maria Montessori’s ideas, particularly those in From Childhood to Adolescence, which coincide beautifully with those of John Senior. We hope St. Anthonys’ will sometime in the near future include things like offering the students more choices in their studies, working in an environment more connected to nature, using only source books, growing produce, keeping animals, selling the fruits of their labors and keeping their own accounting records.

We have a lot of wonderful ideas and dreams, and slowly, through many trials, we hope to see them realized. Please say some prayers for our little school and the reawakening of wonder in all of us.

I am in the process of adding a new page to our website, "How We Are Different", on which this blog post, along with a lot of other information and sources that help to define our educational philosophy can be found. If you are interested in reading more, please visit

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