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What Makes SJI Distinct?

St Jerome Institute proposes to establish a high school program that fully embraces and embodies the liberal arts tradition.  In striving for a truly liberating and humane education for students in these critical, formative years, the members of the curriculum committee followed the example of the wise householder of Matthew 13.  We took from our storerooms treasures old and new. We have reimagined a classical approach to supply the students of our times with the background, context, and worldview that past students would have had simply by virtue of the culture they lived in.  At the same time, we have adopted the best of what has been achieved in education, psychology, and the arts and sciences. We have strictly avoided fads and so-called reforms that do not put students and teachers first, and which do not honor the dignity and freedom of each person.

Many fine institutions in the greater Washington area and beyond make similar claims, and so I would like to spend just a few minutes talking about what we think makes our program distinctive. Many schools embrace some of these ideas, and a few strive for almost all of them, but the high school we propose is deliberately and thoroughly based on them.  Most significantly, these principles will guide the selection of a truly collegial faculty who can fully embrace and realize them among both themselves and our students.

I will briefly explain our seminar style classrooms, our integrated curriculum, our approach to integrating the study of the faith, and a guiding principle of our vision.

In the seminar style classrooms, students are arranged to face each other rather than sitting in rows facing a teacher or board.  This one, simple classroom rearrangement fosters peer discussion, increases engagement, and reduces distractions.

Many students will arrive at SJI with little experience in the seminar style, although St. Jerome Academy graduates may have an advantage here, as they will be familiar with this room configuration and techniques like Socratic dialogue and disputatio. The teacher will guide and coach students in respectful debate, clear and logical argument, persuasive rhetoric, careful and thoughtful questioning, and confident self-expression.  The benefit to students in terms of character and virtue, peer learning, comprehension and retention of material, clear thinking, and effective writing are significant and will help them stand out in the college application process and beyond.

Although the seminar approach will be given pride of place, teachers will use the most appropriate methodology for the material and learning objective.  Lecture, presentation, lab work, individual exercises, and group work may be a significant portion of the seminars in mathematics and natural philosophy, in Latin class, and in fine art studio.

The modern educational approach isolates each subject and abstracts it from its context. This has the advantage of making class schedules very flexible and interchangeable, even to the point of being able to easily transfer from one high school to another with a reasonable expectation of equivalence. However, it has the serious drawback of turning every class into a self-contained body of dissociated knowledge that students must reconnect themselves.  For example, in a typical high school, students might read Dickens with only a brief nod to the history and culture of London during the industrial revolution. That history may be covered in another class, in a different year. At the end of each math unit, students in a typical high school will do some word problems that attempt to show how to apply the algorithm they just studied to real world problems. The average college prep science course might only be able to accommodate two or three labs per semester because there isn’t enough time to cover all the material and do the lab work.

Thoughtful liberal arts programs have partially addressed this problem of isolation and disconnectedness.   They combine literature, history, fine art, music, and writing into a holistic humanities program, where they might read about Ebenezer Scrooge at the same time that they study the economic, social, and political history that led to the class struggles of 19th century England.  They might also study and comment on the paintings, sculpture and architecture of the Romantic and Realist periods, discussing how the industrial revolution contributed to changing perspectives. They might conclude this unit with a reading of Rerum Novarum, and discuss the Church’s response to industrialization and governmental intervention.  But other subjects, in particular math and science, still stand apart from this integrated core, still follow their own internal logic, dissociated from the context and narrative whole of the humanities.  This creates two problems for students. The first is that the shift in ways of thinking and the disconnection from the rest of the educational framework makes these subjects more abstract and harder to master.  The second is more subtle and more insidious. It distances math and the sciences from deep inquiry into the assumptions and motivations that animate them, and stands up scientific conclusions as purely objective.  Ethics, worldview, means, and ends become separate concerns, only tangential to pure empiricism.

Our curriculum is designed to resist this unreflective approach by reintegrating math and science into the core humanities. We achieve this in two ways: we reorganize the subjects to introduce complementary topics together, and we take our theme from the core seminar so that all material remains grounded in a common narrative context.

By reorganizing, I mean that the curriculum is conceived as a single, four year program. This approach gives us the flexibility to build our units appropriately, and permits us to return to the same topics again and again to reinforce and deepen understanding. We don’t need to cover all of biology in one year.  Relevant topics from biology will appear throughout the four years, and as a consequence, the last time a student encounters biology won’t be spring of freshman year. Likewise, we will have four years to cover the Bible, so that we can select the books that are most appropriate to the theme of each unit. This is a pedagogically stronger methodology for the obvious reason that students re-engage with the material multiple times. We will provide guidelines and support so that students will be able to transfer in and out of the school, but the full power of the curriculum is manifested when the program is completed in its entirety.

The second differentiator is narrative context. Humans build their world around narratives.  Our ability to remember complex stories makes it possible for us to receive detailed information and retain it. Great literature, history, culture, art, music, and architecture are already amenable to narrative, but mathematics and science can also be introduced this way by thinking about and exploring topics that have meaningful relevance to the rest of the curriculum. For example, the unit I just described about the industrial revolution might be a good place to explore linear optimization, growth and decay models, and predictive statistics. It might be a good time to cover energy, work, and power, or to study heat, mechanical efficiency, and the ideal gas law.

Beginning within a context gives students a motivation and intuition from which to begin exploring the abstractions and formalization of these fields. This narrative approach is governed by the themes that dominate each year.  In the first year, we consider human life as a journey, quest or pilgrimage, to develop students’ sense of longing and adventure. In year two we consider nature, the created order as a gift, and as a composition of wholes elegantly suited to their world.  The third year engages the question of the human person, our changing conceptions of what it means to be human, human thought and freedom, and human love. Finally, in the senior year, we will consider society, the origin and purpose of the political community, and its relation to God, human nature, and the Church.  

Within each year, we will consider the whole sweep of human history through the lens of the animating theme.  This naturally suggests the questions, literature, art, science, mathematics, Scripture, and truths of the faith to address, but it will also ensure that at the end of four years, students will have strong mastery and deep understanding of all subjects.

This integrated and thematic approach extends to religious education as well.  It is perhaps even more important to ensure that the study of man’s response to God interpenetrates every subject, so that religion is not merely one subject among many, but the preeminent activity of the heart and mind. The Exodus of the Israelites, Paul’s missionary travels, and Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle are exemplars through which we understand the journeys of Odysseus and Aeneas, Marco Polo’s exploration of the Silk Road, and the personal and spiritual growth of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

If I could leave you with one principle by which to interpret what SJI is attempting to achieve with this high school, it would be the recovery of beauty. It is almost completely absent from contemporary secondary education, and largely considered by our culture to be purely subjective, irrelevant to truth and the pursuit of the good.  However, it is inseparable from learning to love. It transforms the learning process from a tedious chore to a joy. It motivates and drives us to know deeply and with care. Beauty enkindles in us a passion to share our joy, our wonder, and our appreciation with others. If we achieve nothing else, at least let us give our children something better to love.

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