Providing a Thorough Grounding in Western Civilization
To appreciate the good that Western civilization has brought to the world, students must first understand it. And what better way to gain understanding than to read, and study, the classics of Western culture — works ranging from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
That principle — the conviction that students best learn about history by studying the literature, art, philosophy, and political thought of the time — is the guiding force behind the stellar humanities program at Asheville School, the South’s preeminent co-ed boarding and day school.
Nestled in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville School annually serves 275 students representing 25 states and 13 countries. The average class size is 12 students. One-hundred percent of graduates attend four-year colleges.
“There isn’t a single boarding school below the Mason-Dixon line that has these basic qualities: Academically rigorous, relatively small at just under 300 students, co-ed, with a particularly strong emphasis on character development,” said Arch Montgomery, Asheville School’s headmaster.
“It’s fairly easy to beat a kid up into memorizing a bunch of facts for a test,” he added. “A much more challenging issue is to teach kids in such a way that it influences the way they view life.”
Since 2006, the John William Pope Foundation has provided instrumental support — totaling $1 million — for Asheville School’s humanities department, with a specific focus on its Western civilization program.
The reason is simple: Too few students today — whether in high school or college — receive a firm grounding in the works of the Western world. Yet an understanding of Western culture is essential to understanding America and the modern world as a whole.
“Our goal is to give students the core educational foundation needed for productive American citizenship,” said John Gregory, chair of Asheville School’s humanities department. To do that, students are exposed to the original works.
“I’m not really the teacher here,” Gregory added. “Homer is the teacher, or Dante, or Milton, or Shakespeare. I want to get out of the way and let the great authors of Western civilization teach the kids.”
Commitment to Asheville School is personal for the Pope family and for the Foundation’s board of directors. Art Pope, President and Chairman of the Foundation, and David Stover, a member of the Board of Directors, are alumni of the school.
“In the early 1970s, Art and I benefited from Asheville School’s dedicated teachers and small classes,” Stover said. “Now, Asheville School students like my daughter Elizabeth (class of 2011) are further enhanced by the integrated team-taught curriculum of the Western civilization program.”
A systematic approach
Asheville School takes a methodical approach to studying Western history. Teachers and students begin in the 9th grade with Homer’s The Odyssey, the Greek myths, and the Old Testament before progressing to Chaucer, Dante, and the New Testament in the 10th grade.
Juniors must tackle the works of Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke. Gregory gives this guarantee: By the time students graduate, they will have been exposed to at least 10 Shakespeare plays, either through reading or performance.
Seniors wrap up their coursework with an American focus: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and the Federalist Papers and the U.S. Constitution, among others.
Although teachers place a heavy emphasis on literature, students also explore other facets of history, including art. For instance, when learning about the French Revolution, students study the poetry of Blake and the music of Beethoven.
One thing that students at Asheville School must become accustomed to is writing — and lots of it.
“Writing is a huge focus of the curriculum, because writing is so closely associated with thinking,” Gregory said. “Throughout the four years of high school, we’re trying to get students to write and think more critically and more effectively.”
Field trips are an important part of Asheville School’s curriculum. Their senior year, students taking the American Studies Unit go to Washington, D.C., to visit the Capitol, the Supreme Court building, the Smithsonian American History wing, the National Gallery, the National Cathedral, the Air and Space Museum, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress.
During the trip, students also hear from a guest speaker — often members of congress or senators — and hear lectures by experts on government history from Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, and other institutions.
In the Jazz Age Unit, focusing on the 1920s, students study Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, dress up as flappers, and visit the Grove Park Inn in Asheville (where Fitzgerald and his wife stayed), and learn to dance the Charleston and the Foxtrot.
In addition to Asheville School’s wide repertoire of academic excellence, the school also ensures that students pursue a bevy of extra-curricular activities. Each afternoon, kids are involved in at least one pursuit: playing a sport; mountaineering; or participating in drama, music, or dance.
Every graduating senior must present a demonstration. He or she picks a topic, writes two 10-page papers on it, and then presents an oral defense.
“It’s like a mini dissertation,” Gregory said. “It’s a big rite of passage. It demonstrates that they can write and think clearly.”
A community of learners
Gregory says that he was drawn to Asheville School because of its approach to learning: small classes, a warm community, and a heavy emphasis on the humanities.
To underscore the community element, faculty often pursue learning opportunities with students at off-school hours. For instance, each summer students, parents, and teachers may participate in the John William Pope Summer Reading Challenge, in which they read a daunting work — such as War and Peace or Moby Dick — and discuss it in a reading group.
“I can’t imagine a better place to teach,” Gregory said.