The Waring School brochure contains no listing of course offerings. This is purposeful on our part. Lists of course offerings, course catalogues as they are commonly called, are primarily lists of subject matters. Perhaps such are appropriate for colleges where one elects ones course of study, where one decides to become familiar with certain subject matters, such as computer programming and art history. We believe strongly that the business of schools, all educational institutions prior to college, is something quite different.
We feel that we are not primarily in the business of teaching subject matters, and therefore the course catalogue is of decidedly secondary importance. Indeed, to be primarily concerned with teaching subject matter, with continually augmenting one’s lists of course offerings, is to put aside the real business of all elementary and secondary education which is on the one hand to awaken children to their own limitless possibilities as human beings on this earth, and on the other, to awaken them to their own primary responsibility for their education.
First on our list of “course offerings” are values. By this we do not mean courses in ethics, or moral philosophy, or how to make the difficult choices, resist peer pressures etc. Rather we mean those beliefs and ideals that we would live by, and rather than teach them in a course, we would structure our learning environment and our activities in order that they incorporate these values with the result that the environment itself becomes the teacher.
For example, one value we would have our students acquire is that of good citizenship, that they become public spirited. To this end we have frequent all school meetings at which students and teachers are encouraged to go “public,” to speak their minds before the community; only in this sense are we “teaching” this value.
Secondly, there is “cultural literacy,” not the same thing as values. We certainly intend that our students become familiar with the great achievements of science, with the great periods of history, with the great men and women of the past, with the geography of countries and peoples, with the history of art and music. However, we would not have them memorize, and then forget, dates, names and places.
Nor can course offerings bring this about the desired cultural literacy. Witness the endless papers that prove our high school graduates, and even the freshmen at our most prestigious colleges, to be culturally illiterate. There is simply too much to learn and retain in the traditional manner, and traditional high school courses in history and science are woefully inadequate to the task. Indeed, the proliferation of such courses implies that the ground can never be covered in this way. Cultural literacy, just as the acquisition of shared values, can only come about by the entire environment becoming the teacher.
Learning in this way is analogous to properly learning a foreign language by immersion. Language learning rarely happens in the classroom, but it happens every time that the student is immersed in the country, or other environment where the language is spoken. Thus we try to create a “culturally literate” environment, and immerse our students therein. For example, the entire student body has just recently immersed itself, participated in a simulation of the constitutional convention.
Then earlier this year we devoted an all school meeting to the pros and cons of the Bork nomination. And on a regular basis such things as the history of life on earth, the geography of the middle east how we know about the life and death of stars, become the focus of attention of all of us. Also, to the end of arousing our students’ interest in the world in which they live, we support a very successful college bowl team.
Ultimately cultural literacy will only come about from the students’ own efforts to acquire the same. Therefore, our job is not to have the student memorize facts, but to arouse his interest in acquiring such knowledge for himself.
Third, in addition to values and cultural literacy, we teach language skills. English to begin with. Reading, writing and speaking. These, also, should not be thought of as course offerings. Rather they are activities that go on constantly throughout the six years that a student may spend at the Waring School. In this context subject matters, such as history and literature, become means to the ends of reading and writing and speaking more effectively.
In particular, at this school, because one of the school founders was French, we teach the French language, using as much as possible while not being in a French language country an immersion method. In any case nearly all of our students become fluent in this usually second language, and often will spend some time, perhaps as long as one semester, in France while a student at Waring.
Fourth we teach a number of other “languages.”
There is Mathematics, or the language of science. Like reading and writing English, learning mathematics goes on year after year. Our mathematics “course,” the School Mathematics Project, is a spiraling sequence of essential ideas from traditional courses in algebra, geometry, and the calculus, combined with a range of “new math” topics including transformational geometry, vectors and networks, matrices, probablility, and statistics.
There is Music. Every student at Waring studies a musical instrument, plays in jazz, string, or wind ensembles, sings in a chorus, listens to great works from the classical repertoire, and may or may not study music theory and composition. Once again music is an activity in which we would immerse our students, not a series of unrelated course offerings.
And there is Art. All students learn to draw. All students are asked to keep a sketch book. Drawing, like mathematics and music, is an international language. Learning to draw is learning to see, and like all real educative processes there is no end to this activity. Once again, we have only succeeded, when, after we stop, the students continue on their own.
Finally there are the all important intellectual skills. We would help the student to think clearly and to understand more. To do this we draw on all the traditional subject matters, but perhaps most of all on the great works of literature, art, and music. Such works become through our efforts the common experiences of us all.
We attend closely to these works, study them, listen to them, and, in weekly Great Books seminars and frequent Humanities classes, we discuss them among ourselves. The goal of such activities is that we learn to think more clearly, that through their help we grow in our understanding of ideas and values.