Unintended Consequences: How Four Kids’ Classical Education Affected Mom and Dad
by Kyle Swartz, the parent of four students at Founders Classical Academy of Leander: Anna (Class of 2019), Emily (’20), Jonah (’23), and Michael (’26)
We all want what’s best for our kids. What our kids to be happy in this life. We want them to live well. But what is “good,” and what do we mean by “well”? What is “best”—and what does it mean to “live”?
I was educated in the public schools, and so was my wife. We were both teachers. I taught in a program modeled after the Peace Corps in inner-city Chicago and my wife taught middle school in Houston, Dallas and Chicago. We were fine with a public school education for our children in the early primary years. But there came a time in our family when the public school was missing on some key things for our children, four kids among 42,000 in the Round Rock Independent School District. We started to have second thoughts after a series of events taught us about what the public education system is really trying to achieve.
Emily was asked to sing a song about Columbus and the infection he inflicted upon the indigenous people in the new world. Anna, our eldest, was confused several times with “Anna Schwartz,” whose last name was similar but who was a grade ahead. Our Anna was mistakenly placed on the high honor roll and then enrolled in the National Junior Honor Society because the school didn’t know which Anna she was. As part of the talented and gifted program, our son Jonah was assigned to work in a group of students to make a poster and a cardboard dog house. Anna and Emily were asked to sit alone on the bleachers and to run after teacher-thrown beans on the blacktop to “feel” like the people during the time of the Spanish Missions in Texas. Michael, in Kindergarten, brought home an unsigned letter on RRISD stationery announcing that he and all of his fellow Kindergartners were now going to have Gmail accounts, parents’ permission granted or not, to help them get a head start on being “digital citizens.”
The middle school kids watched movies during lunch. All of the kids held mobile devices while walking past each other during passing periods. When Tanja and I asked where the textbooks were, we were told that we could buy one for ourselves, as the school only had one and it couldn’t leave the classroom.
We started to have second thoughts about public school after a series of events taught us about what the system is really trying to achieve. …Eventually we concluded that our children were part of the mass education phenomenon and we lost hope that that was a place where they could really be educated.
To try to get a better result, my wife and I served on parent committees, went to trustee meetings, addressed the board members, sat in classrooms, volunteered, and met with teachers and principals. It was all shoveling sand against the tide. Eventually we concluded that our children were part of the mass education phenomenon and we lost hope that this was a place where they could really be educated.
We talked about other options including homeschool, private school, and other local charter schools. Then we received something in the mail: a postcard telling us about an information night for Founders Classical Academy, scheduled for a Thursday night in October 2013.
During the information night, the presenter shared a some portions of the early chapters of To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout is bumping heads with Miss Caroline, a young teacher and the product of a new and cutting edge approach to education. Scout comes to school in the first grade, after learning to read at home by looking at newspapers with her father Atticus. Meanwhile, at school, Miss Caroline is using progressive methods of teaching that she has learned in college. These techniques are mystifying to the students, and when Ms. Caroline sees that Scout doesn’t understand she tells her to go home and tell her father to stop teaching her, because he isn’t trained for that. Ms. Caroline has difficulty coping when Scout’s reading and writing exceed first grade standards: “We don’t write in the first grade,” she said, “we print. You won’t learn to write until you’re in the third grade.” Finally, the precocious Scout becomes convinced that the “treadmill of the Maycomb County School System” was making sure “that she was being cheated out of something.” Even as a child she could tell that this wasn’t right, that “twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind.”
The presenter at that information night spoke about teachers being master experts in the subject they are teaching, and about education for its own sake. We were interested, and we took a trip to Lewisville to visit an operating Founders campus. We observed an upper school seminar discussing Shakespeare. There were Christmas decorations on the wall, and throughout the school there were cheerful children, sitting attentively at desks and wearing uniforms. We liked what we saw, and it was time for a big decision—do we attempt to enroll into Founders Leander? We discerned. We prayed. We applied. Then, we got in.
The summer before the first semester in August 2014, we found the reading list. All four of our children were asked to read books. My wife and I thought that it would be “fun” to read with them, as encouragement. They had never had summer reading assigned before. Tanja read Great Expectations with Anna, our 8th grader, and I read Frankenstein. These books, the first in our journey into the classical tradition, provoked conversations with our children unlike those we’d had over schoolwork before. What should we make of Dickens’s character Miss Havisham, we wondered. Who was this strange character who would do awful stuff to kids while sitting in a wedding dress from a ceremony decades before? Why does Frankenstein’s monster read Paradise Lost, and who is the real monster in that story anyway?
With our younger children we read Guns for General Washington from the fourth grade list, and If I Perish from the seventh grade list. We marveled at the military maneuvers of the Revolutionary War and the brilliance of our first president. We learned about the patience and hope that people are capable of during war, and we were inspired. Reading these books gave our family something real to speak about in that summer leading into the opening of the school.
When the first semester wrapped up in 2014 we took stock of what we had just experienced. There were more male teachers for our sons to look up to, and less project-based learning to cut into our evenings together. There were more books and fewer electronic devices, text messages, selfies, and ear buds. There was less drama, less bullying, and more conversation, discussion, and laughter. My children’s friendships were based on the characters of those around them. Our kids were organizing themselves on their own for trips to church and social activities; they were participating in sports and embracing healthy competition. Our discussions at home were richer, and we had a deeper appreciation for our faith.
There were more male teachers for our sons to look up to, and less project-based learning to cut into our evenings together. There were more books and fewer electronic devices, text messages, selfies, and ear buds. There was less drama, less bullying, and more conversation, discussion, and laughter. My children’s friendships were based on the characters of those around them.
When we received our first report card, we were amazed at what the comments showed. The teachers knew our kids very well. They knew the dignity of our children and what made each of them tick.
For four years we have continued to read and ride along with the kids on their journey. Of course we wanted to make sure they were doing their work and earning good grades, but we were also in it for the fun. We enjoyed reading great things with our children and feeling the satisfaction that comes from thinking about something truly interesting. Through the discussions we have at home, we know our children are prepared at school to think rationally, understand arguments, and they had learned a deep desire to understand.
Now in 2018, looking and reflecting with the benefit of perspective, what we saw in public school was a lot like what Scout and Atticus experienced with Miss Caroline. In that public school setting, the bar is set so low and the emphasis is on the cutting edge methods of teaching rather than the things actually being taught. Children take in information, spit it out, and repeat. Parents are told not to interfere, because they’re not trained as teachers. They are supposed to stay in line and not disrupt the order of things. What do our students learn from all of this? Score high on a standardized tests, and get those high school credits out of the way in middle school. Then, when you’re in high school, get those college credits out of the way. The point is to get ahead, be ambitous, be busy, enroll in a variety of activities, complete as many AP tests as possible, but do not stop to ask what we are actually achieving or what we’re learning along the way.
All of this frantic activity covers up the answer to these questions:
What kind of person should I become?
Where did I come from and where am I going?
What is this life for and what does it mean to live it well?
This education is about how my kids are going to be good and happy people and citizens of our country. I see this school and the others, and I feel that my kids are part of a unique opportunity to rediscover our history, and the good and true and beautiful for the benefit of mankind.
As my wife and I have been thinking about this change in our family because of our children’s educations, we are struck by the significance of the decision we made four years ago, and what that decision means for our future. Why did this school, one of only eighteen in the Barney Charter School Initiative, open up just ten miles away from our house? Why, out of hundreds of applicants, were our kids able to get in?
“To whom much is given, much is expected,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. We have no choice but to recognize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and to dig in to the challenges that will be set before us. This is about something more than a GPA, then getting into a “good” college. This is about how my kids are going to be good and happy people and citizens of our country. I see this school and the others, and I feel that my kids are part of a unique opportunity to rediscover our history, and the good and true and beautiful for the benefit of mankind.
As C.S. Lewis says in The Abolition of Man, the task of modern educators is to irrigate deserts, not chop down jungles, and I think that we are in the process of doing that for our children, for ourselves, and perhaps someday for the education system itself.
Kyle Swartz’s Founders Classical Academy Bibliography
A bibliography of what I have read, listened to, and otherwise consumed since being a Founders parent.
The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher
Hillsdale College Convocation Address for Groundbreaking of Christ Chapel, by Dr. Michael Ward
“What is the Good Life?” senior thesis presentations by Emma Wall and Basil Inman (Class of 2017)
“You Are Not Generation Z,” Founders Classical Academy 2017 Commencement Speech, by Pat Sajak
“How Dante Saved My Life,” by Rod Dreher
Hillsdale College 2017 Commencement Speech by Dr. Anthony Esolen
10 Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Dr. Anthony Esolen
Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, by Dr. Anthony Esolen
“The Christian Imagination,” by Dr. Anthony Esolen
The Narnia Code, by Dr. Michael Ward
Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom, by John Robert Heath and Victor Davis Hanson
School of Athens / Disputa, by Raphael
The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Talk with the Director of Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Washington D.C.