In 1960 Harper Lee published her Southern Gothic classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. In it, Miss Lee integrates several layers of human interaction and character development including the psychological and moral growth of the children who are central to the narrative. For example, Lee was able describe in a few powerful words the state of progressive education in 1936 Alabama from the point of view of a highly literate seven year old:
The remainder of my school days were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit in which miles of construction paper and wax crayons were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless effort to teach me Group Dynamics.
This little girl called Scout had been taught to read by her father who read to her every night, yet her first experience with school included her teacher declaring “Its best to begin reading with a fresh mind. Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now.” Reflecting on this experience Scout recalled:
I could only look around me. Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything – at least what one didn’t know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn’t help noticing that my father served for years in the state legislature innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship.
Already, this work of great literature has introduced two heroic characters, Atticus and Scout, who inspire readers to look at their lives differently, develop their own values and improve their lives through principled and rational behavior. That is what great art can do, that is what great teachers must do, and that is what Poetic Justice Warrior Lisa VanDamme is doing every single day.
Pygmalion of the Soul
Lisa’s story begins with her revelation about her own education and that of her grandparents. After thirteen years of public school, AP English and History classes, high grades and SAT scores, she knew that her education had been truly wanting and unenjoyable. By contrast, she observed,
Whereas my peers and I could crank out a passable five-paragraph essay, my grandparents’ writing was impeccably grammatical, exquisitely eloquent, and deeply insightful. They possessed the knowledge, the wisdom, and the depth of soul of truly educated people.
While pursuing her Masters in Education Lisa received a phone call from the parents of a gifted child who was bored with school, much like Scout. Home schooling was a career path Lisa had never considered, her intention was to teach literature to high school students. After a sleepless night of contemplation, she realized that her traditional education was a travesty, and “this job would be an opportunity for me to offer my students an educational experience utterly unlike my own.”
This led to running a home school business that grew through word of mouth, and eventually the opening of the VanDamme Academy in 2001. Its mission is simply “Raising Children with Exalted Ambition and Depth of Soul.” More specifically,
Our aim is to empower children with the lessons of history, to equip them with the tools of math and science, to provide them the fuel and inspiration of literature—to endow them with the wisdom that will give them the means to live a meaningful and deeply fulfilled life.
VanDamme’s favorite author and teaching inspiration is Victor Hugo who instructs: “It is a beautiful thing to mold a statue and give it life; it is more beautiful to shape an intelligence and give it truth.” To Hugo, teachers are The Pygmalion of the Soul.
The Scandal of Ignorance
As VanDamme explains, America’s schools are not teaching students the heights of human virtue or the depths of human depravity. Instead, our society is dominated by souls with no gravity. She then asks and answers “What has brought education to this state of disintegration, superficiality, and mindlessness? Bad philosophy. The philosophy that most influenced modern education lies in the writings of 18th century philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant.”
As Lisa wrote about them in The Objective Standard,
The role of the tutor was to protect students from the influence of society so that he could develop instinctively and spontaneously. Rousseau urged the importance of an inactive mind, Kant argued the human mind is fundamentally incapable of knowing true reality. It is limited to a world of mere appearances.
“Such a philosophy undermines the very concept of education. If education means training a child’s conceptual faculty in the process of gaining objective knowledge of reality, then education and Rousseau’s theories are fundamentally at odds. They upheld emotion over reason, “creativity” over knowledge, fantasy over science, and the sanctity of untouched nature over the “materialistic” world of civilized man.”
Rousseau’s and Kant’s thinking was further championed in American schools by John Dewey‘s idea that the function of the mind, or society’s collective mind, is to reconstruct reality from the material of subjective experience. Man cannot objectively understand reality; he can only subjectively reconstruct it. They regarded the mind to be cut off from the outside world. Hence, Scout’s frustration with construction paper and group identity.
The Principle of Conceptual Hierarchy
The VanDamme Academy, grades K – 8, is committed to teaching methods that allow students to grasp simple concepts before forming more abstract ideas. As her essay The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education explains,
There is a necessary order to the formation of concepts and generalizations. An abstract idea should never be taught to a child unless he has already grasped those ideas that necessarily precede it in the hierarchy, all the way down to the perceptual level.
And this is particularly true for the appropriate teaching of history, literature and their moral principles. According to VanDamme’s Teaching Values in the Classroom,
Extensive knowledge of the consequences of history’s ideas and actions; of the great discoveries of science, how they were made, and what they made possible; of the classics of literature and the characters and situations they describe; these are the raw material from which rational moral principles are drawn.
For VanDamme, “the basis of this educational reform is Ayn Rand’s revolutionary understanding of the relationship between concepts and reality, including the crucial principle of conceptual hierarchy.”
Literature and Lives of Meaning
In the VanDamme classrooms, every line of great literature is examined for its core principles and meaning so as to enlighten the students with their personal applications. As Lisa explains,
I LOVE classic literature. Hugo wrenches my heart, Rostand stirs me to noble ambition, Tolstoy challenges me to think on planes higher than I had ever known. Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Austen, Maupassant, Rattigan, Sinclair Lewis – all helped me to see, that life is bigger, sweeter, and more alive with meaning than I had thought. I love helping others to discover that meaning.
Lisa VanDamme has entertained the overtures of many admirers to franchise her school, but she has resisted in order to stay closely connected with her students and perfect the experience. Instead, a new YouTube documentary highlighting Lisa and her school titled A Little Candle is now available online, and it will hopefully shed light on American education’s badly needed philosophical reform. For that to happen, it needs to eradicate the dominant philosophy of multiculturalism, and replace it with decentralized politics, individualist ethics and concept formation epistemology.
When asked how she measures success Lisa says, “Our graduates have a sort of wisdom that is really rare in today’s culture. They have learned how to write clearly and eloquently. They have drawn inspiration from countless, beautiful works of literature. They have learned things in science where they can look at the world and see order and intelligibility. They have learned the overall stories and scope of history to understand some of the basic principles on which freedom and human flourishing depend. We don’t talk about college.”
Poetic Justice is a child who loves school, who loves to learn, who loves to read and sing her life’s song like a Mockingbird.