104: Classic Orthodox Education in America
Kevin Allen · March 6, 2009
There is a growing movement afoot to create elementary and secondary "Orthodox schools" in the U.S. Kevin discusses this development with veteran educator Bryan Smith, the Director of the Orthodox Schools Association and the Director-Headmaster of Saint Peter's Classic School in Fort Worth, Texas.
Kevin Allen Welcome to this edition of The Illumined Heart. In a world where educational values and norms are quickly changing to reflect the world’s standards and values, rather than classic values, we’ll be discussing a very important subject today – Orthodox Christian Education and especially the idea of what a Classic Orthodox Education means.
My guest is eminently qualified to speak to this topic. He’s an expert on Orthodox Education; he’s an educator; the director of St. Peter’s Classic School in Fort Worth, Texas and the director of the Orthodox School Association. Bryan Smith, it’s my great pleasure to welcome you to The Illumined Heart.
Bryan Smith Thank you.
Kevin: Good to have you on today. Bryan, just to kind of establish some of your creds, so to speak, what is your background in education?
Bryan: Well, I’ve been in education for about 25 years, initially as a teacher and then I’ve served as History Department head, a curriculum director, a middle school head and assistant head, and I’m now the Headmaster of St. Peter’s Classical School. I studied at the University of Dallas, which is a private, Catholic liberal arts school, and then I took a Master’s Degree in political philosophy.
Kevin: Now, you’re also the Director of the Orthodox School Association. What is the Orthodox School Association? And what’s your mission and how did it get started?
Bryan: Well the Orthodox School Association is coming into being out of SCOBA’s Orthodox Christian commission. This was an attempt to have a pan-Orthodox network of Orthodox schools. SCOBA established a subgroup called The Orthodox Christian Independent School Project. It’s rather a mouthful. And they were simply trying to determine the status of Orthodox Schools in America and what their needs might be.
And two summers ago, we conducted the first Orthodox conference and got in touch with a lot of people around the country of all different jurisdictions who were working in schools, and this network just emerged. The project has evolved to the point that the organization, renamed as the Orthodox School Association, is becoming a separate 501(c)(3), and we’re in conversations with SCOBA about becoming a separate endorsed group.
Kevin: How many Orthodox schools, either in the Association or not, do you know of that exist out there in the world of Orthodox Christendom in the States?
Bryan: I know of about 80 schools, if we define that really as day schools with a full academic program. Now some of those may only be schools that go up to 6th grade or through middle school, but at their level they have a full academic program. That’s what I’m defining as schools.
Kevin: So a full academic program, okay.
Bryan: In other words, that they’re teaching math, science, languages, and so on.
Kevin: Are most of these schools, Bryan Smith, Church connected or affiliated or supported schools?
Bryan: All the schools that we’re talking about that have some relationship to the Orthodox School Association are related to a parish or a group of parishes. There’s great variety, but some schools are actually parish schools; some have been started as a cooperative effort between three or four parishes in the town.
Kevin: I noted on your website, as I was doing some background, that it seems to me at first glance that a lot of these seem to be GOA, that is Greek Orthodox Church affiliated schools. My question is, how much emphasis is there then on, what I would describe as “Hellenic culture and language,” and would non-Greeks be comfortable in many of these schools?
Bryan: Well first of all, let me clarify that within our group and within our network of schools, there’s great variety at a superficial level. In other words, there aren’t a lot of schools that were started within the Greek Archdiocese. Different schools will have different missions.
For instance, we have a couple of monastery schools out there. And the focus is going to be very different than a school like ours for instance. There are some schools that serve a specific immigrant Orthodox community, and their focus would be a little different. And there are two schools I know of that deal with troubled teens.
So there’s this kind of variety within the underlying Orthodox theology and understanding of the purpose of man, both ultimately but also here in society. So that’s Part A of my answer to that question.
As far as the role of Hellenic culture, the school that I’m Headmaster of, St. Peter’s Classical School, is not directly associated with a Greek Orthodox parish. However, we do teach Greek and we do teach the classics of Greek civilization. We do that because they’re fundamental works of our civilization, and I would say of all time. So what defines a classic is that it really transcends its time and its culture. It’s something that’s going to be of enduring value to people of all ages and all places. So in our school, we certainly do a whole lot more Greek than your average school does, but we’re certainly not a Greek school.
Kevin: And I think the difference there is one more of orientation toward a particular demographic as opposed to the idea of a classic education. At least, that’s where I was coming from in terms of my question. And I think you answered that well, thank you.
Now the Orthodox Church, again reading through your materials, views education as being more comprehensive than maybe we do in our contemporary educational culture. What does that mean exactly?
Bryan: It means that education or paiedea, which is a word the Cappadocians used a lot in referring to the formation of young people; is not simply talking about either stocking the intellect or preparing someone for a trade or profession. It means forming a person toward his proper end, which ultimately we would say is theosis. But in the meantime, it’s also being a good parishioner, being a good citizen, being a good family member, and being a good friend. It’s being a good person and ultimately, through imitation and prayer and participation in the life of the Church, becoming like Christ.
So this is paiedea overall, and that’s why we like to clarify that an Orthodox school can participate in the formation that we think is necessary for a young person, but we certainly can’t claim that it’s solely our job. We’re participating in the effort of the Church more broadly and leading people toward God.
Kevin: Now, Bryan Smith, your material asserts that schools can be structured in their content and even in their methods to complement the broader project of Christian paiedea, how do you do that?
Bryan: Well assuming that you are training a child in all the areas, in literacy and numeracy, all of those things that are important to be a well-educated person in our culture and time and simply to open to him all the ways of knowing and ascertaining the truth, assuming that, an Orthodox school would do things like accommodate the Church Calendar for instance.
Easter, for us, has to be a season of Lent. Pascha, we may want to free people up more, for participation in their local parish services, than another school might do. So we accommodate the Church Calendar. Most of the Orthodox schools that I’m familiar with have Morning Prayer services. Sometimes students participate in Liturgy on feast days.
One thing is an active participation of the clergy in school; the presence of icons and their use in instruction. These are ways that we don’t simply teach a class in dogma or simply teach children a simple catechetical question and response, but rather bring them into the life of the Church.
Kevin: So it’s really about, as I heard one of the keywords, formation and living the Orthodox life. That’s wonderful.
I don’t mean to sound incredulous, but we don’t have a lot of them out here in California. Is this actually being done? It sounds too good to be true.
Bryan: Well, yes in fact. There are some schools in California that are doing a wonderful job, and I don’t claim to know of every single school. But in San Francisco, I’m rather familiar with the St. John of San Francisco Academy as a wonderful little school there. And the children have Morning Prayers; the children go to their academic studies; they have Bible and Theology classes; they end their day by standing and praying before the relics of St. John in the Cathedral. And it’s a wonderful little Orthodox school there.
Kevin: Was that particular school formed when St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco still living?
Bryan: I believe it was afterwards.
Kevin: Okay. Well, what can you tell us about the curriculum of a model Orthodox classical school, in terms of Great Books and in terms of language and so on?
Bryan: Well, I’ll give as an example our school. And the only reason that we would say that we have a classical curriculum is that we’re trying to make it clear in our city and in our town, within the educational climate that we find ourselves, that we, being Orthodox Christians, are interested in things that are enduring, rather than the things that might just be the popular thing right now or addressing some political issue or some social issue that won’t be of interest to people years from now.
Kevin: Right, or that wonderful word relevant.
Bryan: Yes, yes! Sometimes we glory in not being relevant at times. But we do want to engage our culture. We are not interested in circling the wagons. We want to engage our culture and change our culture, but we believe that one of the best ways to prepare our students to do this is really to have them spend their time and their thought on the best of the best; the best that has been thought and written, and that is almost the definition of a classic.
We’re interested in introducing them to The Great Conversation, from Socrates down to our own time, where people have asked the most important questions about human life and human potential and whether it’s philosophical, theological, or imaginative literature, but the best of the best; the things that people will still be reading 500 and 1000 years from now.
So it really is an approach that seems very consistent with the Orthodox understanding of where we take our bearings from those things that have always been held dear and profound. In fact St. Justin the Philosopher and Martyr once said, “Any truth spoken in any age, by any man, belongs to Christians,” and we find that spirit articulated throughout the Church Fathers.
Although we discard much from the pre-Christian world, because of the presence of Eternal Logos and every human soul, much has been said that’s true, and we find it, cherish it, and build on it.
Kevin: Now what do you do with subjects like science and math? You’re obviously not teaching pre-20th Century versions of those subjects, I would think.
Bryan: No, and clearly when you’re dealing with natural studies, because of the improved ability to observe has continued to revolutionize what we call science, you have to be up to date with that. And the students have to know, we’re not interested in teaching a geocentric view of the Solar System. But as Orthodox Christians, again, we respect and revere the physical world and believe it’s good as God said, and they need to know it well.
And even some theories that could be controversial, about human life or bioethics, we believe that as Christians, we should teach them the truth. But they also need to know what’s being said. They also need to be introduced into the conversation, and some parts of the conversation may involve premises we don’t agree with.
But part of educating our children to be active and engaging the conversation of their society, is they need to know the arguments. They need to know not parodies of them, but they need to know the arguments, both sides, and they need to know them well.
Kevin: I’m so glad you said that. I think that is so important. I truly do. And you mentioned the idea of not circling the wagons, and I think that’s a very important idea. Do you do that as well, Bryan Smith, in religious studies? I’m a big fan of comparative religion. I try to teach my grandkids.
For example, I come out of an eastern religions background, and I want them to know what Hindus and Buddhists, what Jehovah’s Witnesses, what Evangelicals believe, both in terms of what assert to be true in them and what we assert not to be true in them. Does that come into play at all?
Bryan: It does, and there are two very natural places for that in the curriculum. One is, as you said, in a comparative religion course. Another is in history, when they encounter different cultures, and you introduce that very important part of a culture, which is religion. So we have students read significant passages from the Koran when they’re studying medieval history, and again, we try not to give a parody of it.
And another thing I think is important here is that as Orthodox Christians, we believe in the unity of mankind. We believe that all people in all places are made in the image of God. So one thing that you can do in a multicultural or even a comparative religion course is rather than simply noticing the differences, you can actually discover the evidence of a natural law in the hearts of men of all cultures and all ages.
Kevin: I love that. That’s great. That puts a smile on my face. As opposed to simply condemning everything that non-Christian traditions and cultures and religions have come up with. I was so polemical as an Evangelical, and I feel so much freer to explore and understand world religions in particular, without sugarcoating or whitewashing the differences. That’s terrific.
Bryan, I want to quote something back to you that I found very interesting. And let me quote you to yourself. It’s very interesting.
Unfortunately, we now have behind us several decades of professionally sanctioned educational practices which, in their methods as well as in their results, could be called an education to narcissism. Child-centered learning, whole-language practice, and multiple-intelligence theory have taught countless children that nothing matters which has its origin outside the self.
I find that thought and that quote so interesting. How does your observation get worked out in an Orthodox classical education context?
Bryan: There’s an old allegory about education, which comes from Plato, that describes education as finding someone sitting in a cave, staring at shadows on the wall, and you have to force this person to turn around, come up out of the cave, and see things the way they really are in the sunlight.
And part of this understanding of the education is there are truths that you may not be aware of. There are things to look at that you may not want to see, but there is an objective world of truth and beauty that is outside of you and is not dependent either on your opinions or on your personal inclination that the educator must actually turn the child out away from himself so that he can see these things.
Now having said that, I refer in that passage you quoted to several aspects of current educational pedagogy that really seem to me to turn the child inward, to actual focus the child on himself. And today you’ll hear parents and even students say, “I’m not a natural writer,” or “He’s a visual child,” or something like this.
And here is where I think Orthodox Christian educators might differ from people who buy into the multiple intelligence theory. Multiple intelligence theory accurately says children have different natural inclinations. Some are mathematically inclined; some verbally; some visually; etc. I think we would absolutely agree with that. Anyone who has had kids knows that they just have these natural inclinations.
Where we would disagree, I think, is in pulling the verbal realm down to be on an equal level with movement and visual-spatial things. I think that somehow we would view language as a much more powerful tool that brings us, in a way; that formulates truth for us; that helps us to communicate in ways that the others never can with precision and grace.
And so we will accommodate all of those different natural inclinations, but we will also point everyone to truths outside themselves, because we believe that some things are true. We believe that we need to point everyone toward Christ. Different people will have different difficulties, but we’re pushing them all toward the Logos.
Kevin: How does the philosophy, Bryan, behind an Orthodox classic curriculum, other than in terms of ecclesiology or history or even some of theology, how does that education differ from what we might find in a classical or Great Books education program, say in a Catholic or Protestant context? Or would it?
Bryan: Well, I think it would clearly. Most of my experience in schools personally has been in private, Catholic liberal arts schools. And I would say, whereas you would have an emphasis on authors like Augustine, both in Protestant schools and Catholic schools, we’re going to pay an awful lot of attention to St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzus, St. John Chrysostom. And we do in our school. Our students read all of those Fathers in the course of their theological studies.
As far as the classics go, again Virgil is something that probably everyone should read, but we love the classics of the Hellenic Tradition and we think that they are works that are for the entire world. And everyone does know them, and everyone will know them and love them. So there are some works that we will focus on that maybe some other people might not be aware of.
St. Gregory Nazianzus, besides being one of the great Fathers of the Church, was an educator. He wrote works to be used in schools. He wrote poetry. And we’re trying to make as much of that possible part of our curriculum here, and a lot of people just don’t know who Gregory of Nazianzus was.
Kevin: Well, where do I sign up? I’m ready to go back to high school. Boy, I missed out on all that good stuff. How do you feel about homeschooling, where there are no Orthodox schools available or maybe even where there are?
Bryan: Well, I think homeschooling is like any other type of schooling. It can be done well, and it can be done poorly. You can have a great facility and building and 150 teachers and have poor education going on. But I’ve seen homeschooling done really well, and I know there a lot of people in the Orthodox world who have been homeschooling.
And I think if a family wants to do that, it’s very good to make sure that you have a plan, that you have a network, and that you have good materials. There is an Orthodox Christian group that has a website. There’s actually several. One I know of is called paideaclassics.org. And they have materials, audio materials, and downloadable worksheets.
And so I think it would be good for a homeschool family really to be sure that they have a plan and that they don’t miss things. One thing that we find in our school, when we do receive homeschool students in as transfers, is often they have missed learning the ability to write. That’s the thing we most often find is that they may have read an awful lot and may have cranked through their math books, but nobody has actually taught them how to write.
So that’s something that people just need to watch out for and really get the kind of help they need. Co-ops are great. Homeschool co-ops can provide a lot of benefit to these families.
Kevin: So I’m hearing that the Orthodox School Association doesn’t provide support for homeschooling? That’s really not what your mission encompasses at this point.
Bryan: Well, it’s not. Although, we’ve had homeschool people who have come to our conferences, and we do have links on our website to homeschool materials, we are primarily a network of day school educators. Nevertheless, we have a good relationship with homeschool people.
Kevin: Would, in your opinion, it be appropriate for non-Orthodox Christian children to attend an Orthodox school?
Bryan: I would say yes, obviously. I think it would be great for them to go to an Orthodox Church. We have a lot of non-Orthodox families here at our school. And again, the schools that I’m familiar with vary on this point. And I think it’s fine to have this variation, because different schools have different immediate missions.
We are open to non-Orthodox families. We say it in our literature, but we also make sure they all understand who we are and that everyone will participate in chapel and everyone will take the theology classes. So we are spreading the Orthodox faith. We are declaring what we believe is true.
Kevin: How do you staff an Orthodox school? Are they all Orthodox teachers or do you allow non-Orthodox teachers to teach and provide them with the type of training you want them to use in their curriculum?
Bryan: Again, I know of some schools who really hold out for Orthodox teachers. I know of several schools that do that. A lot of schools will hire teachers that are not Orthodox. We do that here at St. Peter’s. We want to have the best education we can provide for the students. However, we want to make sure that the people that we hire, if they are non-Orthodox, understand who we are; what we believe about humans and their potential; about knowledge; the kind of formation we’re after.
And if that’s something they can buy into and participate in, that’s great. Clearly there are some philosophies and some religious views, even some Protestant views, that I think would have a difficult time working in an Orthodox school.
Kevin: That reminds me of a question that probably should have been asked earlier, but it just came to me, and I’d like to ask it. For an example, in the idea of Creation, how do you teach it? Do you teach Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Darwinism side-by-side? Obviously we know what we believe as Orthodox Christians, but I guess my question is how do you present that idea?
Bryan: I seem to be always having two answers here, because there is some variation here among the Orthodox educators I’m familiar with. But again, everyone seems to agree on this: the Earth is a creation, and we are the creation of God. We are not the result of arbitrary accident. And so that puts us in a certain camp to start with.
But on the other hand, as I said earlier, they need to know the current theories, even if they are theories we don’t agree with. So students need to understand Darwinism. Whether someone buys into it or not, or whether you think there’s some partial truth in it, students need to understand it, because it’s such a popular theory. It’s out there everywhere, and they need to know not a parody of it, but a strong understanding of it.
Kevin: I really appreciate that. I don’t think we have to be afraid of what the world presents as truth, when we are committed to Eternal Truth, and so I like your approach.
Bryan: Let me say this. One of the more extreme examples of this, in our philosophy courses with the older students, with juniors and seniors; we actually introduce them to Nietzsche. And this is a philosopher who said that there’s no God and there’s no truth. And we think that that position is something that is so influential in our time, they need to hear it and think it through. And they need to hear it before they leave us and go off to college.
Kevin: I agree, and Nietzsche is so influential in the minds of Fr. Seraphim Rose and many that were followers of his, so I think that’s fantastic that you do that.
Are the schools accredited where accreditation is needed?
Bryan: Most of the schools I’m familiar with are accredited through various organizations, and most schools get accredited through more than one. For instance, there may be an outside regional organization that accredits schools and colleges. And I think some of the schools, I have to be careful I don’t misstate it here, but some of the schools of the Greek Archdiocese may have an internal accrediting branch.
Our school for instance is entering its fourth year. We’re going to use the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits universities and private schools of all sizes. You have to be in existence for three years before you start that process, so we’re beginning it now.
Kevin: So there would be a challenge, perhaps then, in certain states in terms of doing a startup is what I might be hearing.
Bryan: Yes, usually your first couple of years you’re just really trying to get things established. It requires a bunch of pioneer-minded people, a lot of sacrifice, and a little tad of lunacy to get a school started.
Kevin: Bryan, is there any data on how children who have been educated in an Orthodox Classics school system compare academically with children? And you had a lot of experience so maybe if there’s no overt data, maybe you have some intuitive data.
Bryan: I don’t know of any hard data on that, but there have been Orthodox schools around long enough to have several graduating classes. One of the older schools in the country is in Houston, Texas called Annunciation. They’ve had several graduating classes, and students have gone off to universities across the country, good name schools.
Again, I’ll blow my own horn here at St. Peter’s. We just had our first graduating class last year of two students. These are students who went through our program, with not only our theology classes in Latin and Greek, but the science and math. And keep this in mind, we’re not even accredited yet. We start the process this year, but those students applied to four different colleges and got accepted to all of them with scholarship offers.
Kevin: Really? Just for the fun of it, what are some of the names that anybody might know of?
Bryan: Let’s see. Austin College here in Texas, which is a well-known liberal arts school in the state. Cornell College and Colorado College in Colorado Springs.
Kevin: So good schools, congratulations.
Well, we’ve talked a little bit about this, but as we’re starting to descend on our segment, Bryan Smith, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced, you mentioned St. Peter’s, in operating an Orthodox-based school? And then, tell us what are some of the biggest rewards and payoffs having jumped into this realm you call partial lunacy.
Bryan: Well obviously, there’s some financial strains at the start. You’ve got to pay some salaries, and you don’t really start out with the kind of tuition coming in that can justify that. So you usually have to have somebody who is willing to invest something in it. We had two people wonderfully qualified to teach. Anybody in town would have loved to have them. They were members of the parish here, and they just taught at a very sacrificial level here for several years.
So that is a big thing to overcome. However, churches tend to have educational buildings, and they sit dormant during the week. And those rooms can be used to start a school, and that’s a good way to start. And it cuts the overhead incredibly for a startup school, and it brings people to your church. So there is a nice way that that can work. It can be a nice marriage between the school and the church, so long as the entities stay legally separate, I think.
But as far as one of the greatest rewards, for me the greatest reward has been a sense of unity in which I am. Because I have worked in Protestant schools; I have worked in Catholic, and there’s always been a part of my identity as an Orthodox Christian that has just never been entirely invested in those projects. And it’s so wonderful to work in a school where we have icons in every room; we pray in the morning as Orthodox Christians; we’re reading the Fathers of the Church, and we just assume the truths of the Orthodox faith. And that’s a great blessing to me.
Kevin: Just off the subject a little bit, are you born into the Orthodox faith or did you convert in?
Bryan: I converted a little under 30 years ago. I also came out of an Evangelical background.
Kevin: Well, as we’re ending our program, thank you so much for it Bryan Smith, Director of St. Peter’s Classic School in Fort Worth, Texas and Director of the Orthodox School Association.
If people want more information, who are listening to this podcast, where would you direct them?
Bryan: We have a website. It’s www.orthodoxschools.org. It has a lot of resources there, and we can be emailed through that site. It has phone numbers there, and people are welcome to see what kinds of information we have up there. We’ll soon have some audio files up on that site as well, from our conferences.
Kevin: Terrific! Well Bryan Smith, again, thank you so much for being our guest on this edition of The Illumined Heart. It’s been terrific.
Bryan: Well, thank you for having me.
Kevin: You’re welcome.