'Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles' by Artist Duccio di Buoninsegna via Wikimedia Commons

Educating for a More Human Society

"In 2003, The Avalon School opened its doors to 102 boys, and currently serves 220 students from grades three to twelve." An interview with Richard McPherson and Kevin Davern.
Michelle Riconscente

In 2003, The Avalon School opened its doors to 102 boys, and currently serves 220 students from grades three to twelve. Founded by a group of energetic teachers and administrators seeking to bring the spirit of adventure and friendship to the educational experience, The Avalon School strives to cultivate in its students a sense of intellectual freedom and personal responsibility; to foster the gifts of faith and culture; and to help students fulfill the deep human desire to live a noble life.
Traces met with Avalon President Rich McPherson and Headmaster Kevin Davern to learn firsthand about their vision of education and the challenges faced in starting up a new school.

What vision of education did you have in mind in starting a new school?
RM: There is this great body of work in Western culture that is being phased out in a lot of schools. There is even a movement in education, called constructivism, where you build your own body of knowledge. Instead, our job is to pass down these great things to the students. We teach Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and a lot of poetry. We have solid programs in math, science, art, and music. In history, we start with Maryland and U.S. history and then expand out to the rest of the world. We believe in a content-rich curriculum.

KD: You need a certain framework of knowledge so that you can participate in society and learn new things. We have our own version of the core knowledge series. In terms of curricular decisions, there’s give and take. It’s the whole idea of subsidiarity. Teachers have a lot of freedom within a framework.

RM: The other vital aspect is that the school should be more of a community than an institution. That’s why we want to have small schools. It’s essential to know the students and their parents, so throughout the year we have a number of events to bring people together. The structure of the school also builds community. We have four “houses,” with each grade divided evenly across the houses so that the older boys get to know the younger boys.

How do you respond to the popular argument that an emphasis on memorization results in students learning a set of isolated facts?
KD: Actually, we think that learning meaningless disconnected facts is more likely to happen in the progressive style that doesn’t emphasize the framework. In the progressive approach, the idea is that you learn how to learn—and there’s a kernel of truth to that idea of a liberal arts education. You learn how to teach yourself and you keep learning forever. But places that overemphasize that have such a lack of a unified framework that students don’t learn any content nor do they learn how to learn. E. D. Hirsch says that you don’t learn process unless it’s married to meaningful knowledge. For example, we cover most of American history, so they have a framework to attach that knowledge to. Whereas if you don’t have a solid grasp of content you just float.

As the students grow into their high school years, how do you foster the step from knowing all these things to developing an ability to analyze and critique?
KD: You always have to start by defining and suspending your reaction. It takes real maturity. In an argument, you need to let the person finish and to understand what they’re saying. Reality is nuanced. You have to listen and let the other person finish and then you can argue once you understand it. That’s a big part of life.

RM: We let kids argue with us. For example, students might say, “We think wearing ties at school is stupid.” “Well, why do we wear ties?” And they don’t know. “Ok, find out why we wear ties and come back and we’ll see if wearing ties is stupid. But until you know the reason why we have you wear ties, you can’t say it’s stupid.”

What aspects of the way you run the school facilitate the realization of your educational principles?
RM: We really work with the teachers, trying to educate them, too. We read a number of books together. The education comes through the teachers, so we really work not just on teacher development and how to teach a class, but on the humanity of the teachers. You can’t give what you don’t have.

KD: You try to have a culture where people are alive and then it rubs off on others. So we hire people who have an interest, and find good books to talk about at lunchtime when we eat together. It’s human formation, really, analogous to the way marbles polish each other.

RM: We all work together, and when we see that something is not working, we make changes. So not only do we take the kids from the known to the unknown, but we also look at what’s happening here. If something’s not right, we’re willing to change.

KD: We have many examples of learning from experience. It’s a matter of being open to throwing out your a priori stuff and being open to the reality that’s right in front of you, which is these people, these persons. The image of the teacher is like fishing. You bait your hook, cast, but they have to bite. So you try things and encourage them to be free to ask questions or interject things. It all comes down to a culture of respecting their humanity and the fact that they are persons! And there’s no substitute for trying to follow Christ through these people. It’s behind everything. You can’t have a truly human culture without having a real Christian culture.

RM: One of the lines we use is “a more human, more vital society.” Of course we want them to go to good colleges, get jobs, but above all to be more human!

How are you able to risk being open to the personal initiative of teachers and students?
KD: If you don’t take the risk, you lose. A teacher has to be alive, so that means you have to be able to make choices and also be very professional to make these judgments. The downside of that is that it’s a lot of work before you get to make these choices. So you have to kind of train them. Then, in the classroom with students, you make an honest effort to connect with everybody, then you go further with the kids who are actually responding. Education is a human process, not an automatic one. You’re not dealing with employees who do what you say because you’re giving them a paycheck. It’s really messy and I think that understanding that is really key to training your teachers.

What do you see as your biggest challenge as you move ahead?
RM: We still feel like we have a long way to go, which I think is great, that we’re not satisfied with what we are now. You talk to a lot of headmasters and discover that they think their schools are right where they want them and I think, how can the school be where you want it?! You always want to be better, you want more kids to recite poetry on their own, do math on their own. We come before school begins, and see kids in the library talking about their classes. That always gives me a thrill. Or seeing a kid sitting outside reading. But we have a long way to go.

KD: You’re trying to reach souls, right? And that’s not an automatic thing. So even if eventually in some ways we will reach our target enrollment, with a building and some property, the real task, daily task, is trying to connect with these people. You’ll never be done there.