Atheneum’s Model of Education


By Kevin Holthaus - Faculty

Atheneum School offers a Great Works curriculum in a collegiate environment of small classes designed to increase your child’s intelligence. The kind of intelligence fostered by Atheneum includes academic excellence, but also strives for wisdom and good judgment in everyday life. The great questions about the individual’s role in society, our relationships to each other, scientific knowledge and ethical wisdom, world religions, the beauty of the Fine Arts, all come together in careful, rigorous dialogue at Atheneum. Struggling with these questions creates an exciting, active environment for students and teachers who constantly strive to better themselves. The dialogue includes diverse, often controversial ideas from times and places other than our own to give students different perspectives to see and improve upon their current lives. Atheneum’s active participation in sincere conversations about what is most important and relevant to us extends to the intense, scientific and poetic examination of our natural world. (Yes, many of the typical distinctions between subject areas are challenged at Atheneum). Students are motivated by direct and sincere study from original texts and primary sources as opposed to textbooks with watered down material for children at certain grade levels. Everyone is challenged at Atheneum by the greatest philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, and writers from around the world in their own words rather than secondary sources. Students and teachers then are called upon to stand by their own words in a careful, supportive environment; an environment not full of “experts” and petty competition, but with guiding influences that challenge one to think for oneself and act with integrity. Socratic questioning and critical thinking are sometimes interpreted to be an attempt to win an argument by looking for falsity, showing errors in reasoning, or negating the other person’s idea first in order to dominate. Judgment of each other and of the text at hand is often misguided by presumption rather than actually listening to the idea and looking for the possible grains of truth. A beginning student may prejudge a classic text and determine that the author is “stupid’ before they actually understand what is being said. Deeper in dialogue, a synthesis of grains of truth may be more valuable than pointing out apparent falsities. Listening becomes difficult when someone expresses an idea opposing our own and we might actually have to change our minds (at least a little) to absorb or create a new synthesis! At Atheneum we emphasize a careful, considerate approach to avoid prejudice and presumption and we treat one another respectfully, always seeking deeper truths. This distinguishes us from the debaters who argue for the sake of winning, and the sophists who may argue merely for personal gain, or from insincere “devil’s advocates” who argue only for the sake of argument. In our experience, more power comes from mutual inquiry than from displaying the intellect’s ability to put someone else down. The program at Atheneum has an integrity also by virtue of focusing on classical authors who embrace many fields of study at once. Pascal for example, who at a young age changes the world by his mathematics, writes so eloquently about parabolas stretched infinitely into ellipses, and at the same time warns about the destructiveness of self love and unbridled passion. The idea of a “renaissance man” is closer to the experience of Atheneum students. We don’t suffer the ill effects of too much specialization and industrialization found in other schools: classes that don’t relate to each other, people who don’t relate to each other, schedules that stop the flow of thought every 50 minutes, fragmented bits of irrelevant facts, scattered and frightened minds, perverse social pressures and behavior often written off as “teenage years”, et al. In all schools we ask students in middle school and high school to absorb all the different subjects at once. Can we expect adults or teachers to model this? This is one of the challenging roles of the Atheneum teachers who must be willing to teach all subjects in order to keep the resource for the students unlimited. At Atheneum, the true curriculum is the dialogue which is in the minds and bodies of the students and teachers. The emphasis on basic skills in schools is very important but often that emphasis tends to lower the standards of excellence. Nowadays this appears to be such a dilemma. But basic skills need a context in a great piece of work! Work on vocabulary, yes! The vocabulary found in the U.S. Constitution or Marx’s Communist Manifesto! Work on algebra, yes! In the context of questions about how mechanistic your human mind should become! Work on writing, yes! Write about how Simone Weil affects your soul! Study science and technology, yes! Read Newton’s Principia and Einstein’s own essays as well as Wendell Berry’s critique of modern technology! Do your “homework” yes! Because you won’t stop thinking when the school bell rings! Leave no child behind, yes! Because you do not know where the next idea that will help you the most might come from! In the context of the great conversation, the motivation for doing schoolwork changes dramatically and the basic skills are included out of necessity for one’s own understanding of the whole context, not from someone else (teacher, school, system, society, etc.) telling you what you should do for a payoff someday, maybe. Instead of watering things down, Atheneum keeps the quality and gives shorter selections, letting the students help each other figure it out (yes, talk in class!) with the teacher guiding them. Most students will respond to the challenges of educating themselves if the motivation is clear. The more external the motivation is, the more limited the study and the benefits will be. It may take external motivation at times: stern reminders by the teacher, fear of public humiliation, demands or challenges from other students, or fear of failing one’s role in the society. But again in the context of studying models of great courage, discussing overcoming fears and how to interact with communities and societies, we can internalize these questions and become more internally motivated to better ourselves. As students and teachers progress at Atheneum, the learning becomes more and more exciting and effective. We model a daily lifestyle that counters the unhealthy, confused, unbalanced, stressed, and hectic lifestyle faced by many teenagers. For example, we start each morning all together in a one hour, Great Learning Practice to awaken and balance the body and calm and center the mind. Many students report the benefits of studying after this practice rather than starting the day by rushing off to school only to be sleepy through the first classes. The Great Learning also provides an active, experiential way to study the relationship between physical and mental development. Various martial arts and paths to enlightenment are discussed and incorporated in order to give an experiential basis for a better understanding in the discussions of world cultures and classics of Eastern philosophy. Again, Atheneum goes to the origins and the source for deeper understanding. As a teenager, should you really learn all about hormones without being able to control your own? In this “age of information” and so many specialized fields of study, it may seem very difficult to sort out what is most valuable in education. Atheneum emphasizes understanding and wisdom through balancing and strengthening oneself, thoughtfulness based on very open discussions of classic and contemporary great works, and actively working with others for mutual benefit. With these principles in mind and practice, students are well prepared and excited to respond to the multitude of special fields of study because they have a more fundamental understanding of the principles behind the way things work. They have also tapped into the creative energy of the ideas closer to their origins and have a perspective beyond what is politically correct, or what are the common opinions of our time and place. A few examples may help illustrate the Atheneum difference. At Atheneum, students study Euclidean geometry in its original form. In Bk 1, Prop. 47, Euclid demonstrates the “Pathagorean Theorem.” While most of us memorized the formula A squared plus B squared = C squared to solve right triangles, few probably understood it. We simply applied the formula to solve the assigned problems. The beauty and elegance of Euclid’s Prop. 47 and the Propositions making that one possible escaped most of us. Yes, beauty and elegance! That particular rigorous understanding leads to many other beautiful and elegant ideas besides the narrow applications made possible by memorizing the formula. Even worse is that textbooks teaching Euclidean geometry now are very logically inconsistent so that students are lead to believe that a line is made up of points, or that a line is defined by going on forever, or that there is no definition of a line at all! Yes, you too would be told such absurdities in the textbooks trying to make Euclid easier! Most teachers missed the same fundamental understandings and therefore find it difficult to inspire students with the beauty and logic of mathematics! The “Liberal Arts” often conjure up softness, wishy-washiness, and a lack of rigor and exactness, especially when compared to the “hard” sciences and mathematics. This is not a new tendency. Seneca had to remind his fellow Romans how useless the method of teaching them was at the time: “Beware of the scholar who can tell you the exact rock on which Odysseus landed, but has nothing to say about stilling the wanderings of the heart.” In our time, most of us are unaware that the traditional liberal arts include mathematics and science with the same rigor throughout (the Seven Liberal Arts include the Quadrivium=arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, and the Trivium= grammar, rhetoric, logic). At Atheneum we study Seneca’s views and examine our own modern tendencies, and might ask, “What is liberating about these arts? Could we become more free through studying them?” Who will you find out on the beaches, “studying nature”? Elementary kids! So much science now is canned into cute packages that appeal to groups of elementary kids or tourists (especially in Alaska!). Aside from these there is the occasional oddball scientist fascinated with a particular mollusk. Is this the extent of our fascination with wilderness? Are we more fascinated by artificial inventions of our own than with a world of nature “out there?” At Atheneum we involve the students in an intense study of our natural environment with original Native myths, Aristotle’s ideas of nature with a telos, a purpose, modern texts with ideas of nature without purpose or with unknowable “whys” and a focus on “hows”, with religion or spirituality or without, with objective truths or subjective, and so on. We have winter wilderness trips asking, “Why go out?” What conflicts are there between civilization and the wild? Are they in you? In me? Einstein is a renowned genius in physics. How much of his own writing have you read? With the math or not? Too difficult for laymen? How do you know? At Atheneum we have been able to read Newton, Feynman, Einstein, and many others largely because the students haven’t been told they can’t do it! Einstein’s genius was in focusing on some very simple questions that many people of the day took for granted and raising those questions from different perspectives. Simultaneity and the velocity of light are prime examples. He also celebrated the classical authors such as Kepler and Newton and showed how their thinking moved from their ideas. This approach adds value and meaning to the study of science far beyond memorizing what a textbook says what Einstein said! Writing skills are lacking in students of today. Is it any wonder? Most students coming into Atheneum already dislike writing because their experience is either totally external to them emphasizing mechanics and five-paragraph essay form, or it is trivialized by writing about your room or what you did last summer. At Atheneum we incorporate all the skills, spelling, grammar, mechanics, styles of writing, etc. in each day’s preparation for the next day’s discussion. Students write about what they think of the great books with their models close at hand. They interpret and evaluate the texts and compare to their own life experience. Their own opinions are formed and reformed in a rigorous way using the reasoning of the greatest minds. Pigmies on the backs of giants may see a long way! Students read their own writing often in class for evaluation and discussion. They see how powerful a change in grammar or shifting styles can be in the context of the best writings and in struggling with some of their own translations of foreign texts. (At Atheneum, foreign languages are also studied for the sake of translating something great and going beyond ordinary conversational studies) Photography at Atheneum is studied in the context of the original and continuing controversy about photography as an art, “straight photography” of the f64 group, or highly manipulative reproductions. Students develop their own preferences and work on weaknesses to experience the whole range of possibilities. One reason photography provides so much student motivation and willingness to learn is because many students assume that picking up a camera immediately makes them a photographer. Students take it into themselves, give it ownership, and take pride in their work. Why is this not usually the case in all other subjects in school? It can be, if they throw away the typical, limited prejudices and get exposure to the “ really good stuff”! They will be the scientist when they read Faraday. They will be the mathematician when they solve the algebra problem. They will compose sentences like works of art! In every subject we strive to find truths important to the whole enterprise of refining ourselves both for future and current concerns. Rather than the canned, packaged set of half-truths provided by typical curricula and methods, Atheneum is the “live” aspect of learning.
Atheneum School is a non-profit 501c3 Corporation. All donations are tax-deductible. Atheneum School admits qualified students & staff members of any gender, race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, color and national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs administered by the school.