VanDamme Academy: A Culture of Dignity
by Lisa VanDamme
I have always regarded VanDamme Academy as having its own culture, distinct from the culture outside its walls. I loosely define this culture in one word that captures many aspects of the school’s environment: “dignity.” This includes:
- The dignity of the physical environment. The school is clean and orderly, and decorated with beautiful, classic works of art.
- The dignity of the curriculum. Students read elevated, timeless works of literature; the topics covered in history are serious and profound; we emphasize the importance of logical, clear, mature expression in speech and writing.
- The dignity of the staff. From the way they speak, to the way they dress, to their attitude toward their subjects, to the way they treat the students, our teachers earn the respect of the students.
- The dignity demanded of the students: We encourage maturity, consideration for others, and self-respect among the students, in their attitude toward and presentation of their work, in their manner of speaking to each other and to their teachers, and in the way they conduct themselves in class.
I. The Basic Source of This Culture
The basic source of this “dignity” is our belief in the profound value of education. We believe that what we are teaching the students is indispensable to a fulfilled, happy, successful life, and our conduct and manner reflect this deeply held belief. In every aspect of the school, we convey the idea that what the students are learning is important, that it is meaningful, that it is to be taken seriously, and that it deserves their respect.
This culture is distinct from the outside culture in certain important ways. In this country, there is a prevalent anti-intellectualism, a contempt for abstraction. This cultural problem manifests itself in phenomena such as the idea that reading literary classics is at best a duty, and at worst to be avoided at all costs. Another prevalent cultural trend is the association of intellectualism with cynicism. Many who respect intelligence view it more as a tool for social criticism than a means of achieving happiness, and wit and cleverness are used to mock and criticize, not to positively pursue values. This manifests itself in the “Simpsons” brand of TV humor, which often cleverly spoofs social ills, but never presents a positive alternative. At VanDamme Academy, education is regarded as deeply satisfying and as indispensable to the pursuit of a complete, happy life.
II. How We Work to Create This Culture
A. The Physical Environment
The culture of the school is created in many, varied, and often subtle ways. One is the nature of the school’s environment. Our walls are adorned with great, inspiring, beautiful works of art, not with cardboard cut-outs, juvenile, cutesy decorations, or hokey motivational slogans. It is an atmosphere that demonstrates an appreciation for great cultural achievements, that shows respect for the students (in the implied conviction that they can appreciate such achievements), and that sets a standard of dignity for the school.
Another important feature of the environment is its cleanliness and order. We demand of the students neatness in the presentation of their work, in part because to present their work neatly is to present it with pride, a sense of accomplishment, and an appearance that reflects the value we encourage them to place on the work itself. We want the form of their work to reflect their own high estimate of the content. We aim to do the same in regard to the physical environment of the school: we want the form of the school to reflect our estimate of its value. We want to demonstrate our pride in the school and our respect for the students by providing them with an environment that is orderly, dignified, and aesthetically pleasing.
These elements of the physical environment—the beauty of the adornments and the neatness of the school—work together to convey the message that we deeply value our work, this school. It conveys to the students the idea that we value the highest, most noble things the world has to offer, and that we value them, the students, and want to provide them an environment that reflects those important values to be gained in life.
B. The Code of Behavior
Another means of promoting an environment of dignity, of respect, and of reverence for education is through the code of behavior enforced at the school. For example, we try to consistently enforce a “no teasing” policy. Students are to address each other politely, by first names only, and are not to mock each other—however playful and well intentioned the teasing might be. We want all the children to feel safe and respected, so they can be openly enthusiastic about things they value. And we seek to elevate their interaction, to get them to bond over shared values and not over silly, mocking humor.
Part of education is the learning of good social skills, learning the most proper, mutually beneficial, satisfying way of interacting with people. Children, largely ignorant of how to relate to others, will often descend into the shallowest sort of silliness and nonsense from the very healthy and positive desire simply to interact. We try to help them learn better ways of interacting by encouraging positive topics of conversation—fun experiences, shared interests and any other positive values that can be the basis for friendship. Homeroom teachers will spend time in the first month of school helping to direct conversations among the students during the various breaks in the school day. They encourage healthy, dignified interaction by asking them questions such as, “What did you do over the summer?” or by following positive leads established by the students, such as encouraging a discussion that had begun about Disneyland.
We promote this environment by helping the children to develop what we call “personal comportment.” We ask them to articulate clearly and to speak in complete sentences, we ask them to dress neatly and presentably, and we want them to speak in a positive, and not a critical or sarcastic, manner. All of these things both reflect and help to promote personal pride, a strong feeling of their own value.
It is interesting to note that when children are feeling self-conscious and unconfident, they will often speak in baby talk. Baby talk is a means of disowning what they are saying, so that if they are wrong, they can claim to have not been serious. Asking them to speak clearly, in complete sentences, requires that they think through what they are going to say, claim it, and utter it with confidence.
Though we have high standards for the children’s behavior and comportment, the environment of the school is in no way authoritarian. (I was once told about a young child who attended a dictatorial sort of prep school, and when asked what he did at school, replied, “We do this!” and assumed the posture of an obedient soldier.) On the contrary, the feeling in the school is one of warmth, respect, and joy.
C. The Teachers’ Manner
Our teachers project and communicate what they sincerely feel—which is a reverential respect for their subjects, and a belief in its indispensable value to the students. This is conveyed through continual, open enthusiasm for the material, and through explicit discussions of the nature of its value.
I, for example, love literature. I speak excitedly about the novels, read poetry to the students with sincere emotion, and even cry on occasion in discussion or readings of my favorite scenes. I also remind the students periodically of why I believe literature to be of such great importance to their lives. I once had a discussion of the value of literature, centered around the play Antigone. We had talked about the essential difference between Antigone, a woman of strong, independent convictions willing to do anything in their defense, and her sister Ismene, a weak woman with no strong beliefs of her own, easily swayed by negative consequences or the decrees of an authority. I told the students that though I did not expect they would soon be faced with the decision of whether to bury their brother against a king’s orders, they would be confronted by a situation within the next week that would be governed by the principles underlying these character traits. The very next day, after a valuable insight regarding our next novel, a student volunteered excitedly, “Isn’t that the value of literature?”
Mr. Lewis and Mr. Steele love history, and both the explicit content and the tone of their lectures always conveys the idea, “Isn’t this fascinating, and don’t you grasp so much more about the world now that you know it!”
D. Method of Motivation
The means we use to motivate the students reinforces this atmosphere of dignity, of reverence for education. We do not motivate the students by dangling rewards in front of them, nor by alternating work with silly diversions—we do nothing that suggests work is an unpleasant chore that must be pushed through for some unrelated payoff. Rather, we motivate them by demonstrating the real value of the knowledge they are working to acquire—its sincere relevance to their happiness.
In the early days of the school, we discovered a mistake we had been making in regard to motivation in the Montessori K-1 classroom. These young students, who work hard and legitimately need time to recover from periods of intense concentration, were given the opportunity to do “resting work” when they had completed some “challenging work.” Slowly, without our noticing it, “resting work” became the goal of all activities. They started to regard the “challenging work” as something they had to get through in order to make it to the reward of resting work.
This attitude is not inherent in childhood, but was our doing. Our solution was to go cold turkey on “resting work”—to banish it from the classroom altogether. It went off without a hitch, because, as we suspected, the students were as enthusiastic, if nor more so, about the more fulfilling, challenging work, and we had simply unintentionally sent them the wrong message about it. My daughter Lana’s report was, “I am glad we got rid of resting work. I never thought it was as much fun as the challenging work.” And that was the end of that.
Contrast this with the approach taken in a school I once visited—a school for children with attention disorders, no less—and consider the inevitable consequences. At this school, students were rated daily with a behavior point system. The more points they earned, the greater the reward. The last period of the day was defined by the student’s behavior on that day. Those who earned the most point got to play video games in the last hour. Those who scored fewer points were required to play educational games. Those who earned the least points were required…you guessed it…to do more work.
This clearly sends the message to students: “We know work is a chore, is boring, is irrelevant to your enjoyment of life, but if you just do it for us, we will give you something as a reward.” What could more effectively turn a child against learning?
E. Content of the Curriculum
The very nature of the classes offered at VanDamme Academy establishes an environment of dignity, seriousness, and reverence for learning. We select, as worthy of inclusion in the program, only that knowledge which we consider the most valuable, the most relevant, the most essential to the development of a child into a mature, informed, ambitious adult.
In our literature courses, for example, we select novels plays and poems with lofty, timeless themes, with a benevolent, reverential view of man, and with beautiful, elevated language. This can be a challenge when choosing children’s novels. Modern children’s authors often try to make their stories accessible to children by writing in imitation of a child’s manner of speaking, or by presenting everyday, petty, playground conflicts as the plot. We strive to find novels with language that is accessible to a child, but that is refined, grammatical, and intelligent, to set a positive standard for them to emulate. (When my daughter was 6 years old, she read a “Junie B. Jones” novel, from a popular children’s series, and remarked, “She makes all the grammar mistakes you correct me for making!”) We teach novels with themes that are simple, and graspable to a child, but that are inspiring, benevolent, and teach a positive lesson about life, rather than serving as a pointless imitation of life. To find the novels, we must generally go back 50 years, because of the degeneration of children’s literature that has followed the degeneration of the culture as a whole. Given exposure to the best of literature for children and for adults, the students emerge with a seriousness and respect for life and values.
In history, students learn of the great heroes, epic events, and world-changing ideas that have shaped the course of man’s history. They are led to see the significance of these events, and ultimately to see how much of their life now depends on those occurrences in the past. This gives them a respect for the subject.
III. How Parents Can Support This Culture
Because the culture within the walls of this school is so much at odds with the outside culture, it is important that parents work to support our efforts. Many popular cultural trends threaten to undermine the culture of dignity we have at VanDamme Academy.
First, many popular TV shows encourage an outlook that is destructive to a positive, ambitious, reverential view of man and life. I consider shows like “The Simpsons” to be particularly destructive. “The Simpsons” is loved by intelligent children because it has a cleverness that appeals to smart kids. But the nature of its cleverness is a mocking, sarcastic commentary on conventional social ills. Its focus is on ridicule, on tearing down—and there is no positive presentation of an alternative, no promotion of better values. This attitude is typical of many popular TV shows, and, not surprisingly, of many teenagers. They begin to equate intelligence and education with armchair criticism, with sarcastic humor, with ridicule, rather than viewing them as an asset necessary to the pursuit of values, to the realization of a happy, fulfilled life. I urge parents to ruthlessly censor such forms of entertainment. They are too destructive to a child’s basic view of the world. I encourage you instead to offer them art that inspires, to offer them opportunities to pursue personal values such as sports and music, to spend time with them engaged in fun, memorable, positive activities.
Another phenomenon of teenage life that I think has the potential to be unhealthy and destructive is social media. The countless social media platforms available to kids change the basic nature of communication. First, in the days when kids chatted on the phone, especially before cell phones and even call waiting, parents would be painfully aware of the amount of time their children spent on the phone, and would strictly limit it. Now, kids can spend hours at the computer in conversation, and parents who do not make a deliberate effort to discover what they are doing may not even be aware of it. If they are spending long periods of time using social media, they are squandering hours of time on purposeless chit-chat, and often nasty gossip, when they could be spending their time engaged in much more beneficial activities. Finally, chatting on the computer gives children a feeling of anonymity, even when their identity is known, that can make them uninhibited in a negative way. Safe behind a computer, with no one directly before them to respond to their comments, they will often be more gossipy, crude, and vulgar than they would normally be. I recommend strict time limitations on the use of social media. Better, healthier relationships are formed with communication that comes from the pursuit of shared values, rather than countless hours of mindless chit-chat.
Do not adopt the attitude that “boys will be boys” or that “teenagers will be teenagers.” Cynicism, disrespect, and shallowness are not inherent in the teenage years—they are caused by upbringing, education, and cultural pressure. This is conclusively evident from my experience with the junior high students at VanDamme Academy, who, given years at the school and happy homes, are enthusiastic, intelligent, motivated, and love school and life in general. Whenever someone asks me what I do, and I tell them I teach junior high students, they look at me with profound sympathy, I always smile and assure them that my students are great, and a delight to teach.
If parents support the culture that we create within the walls of the school, by limiting the negative influences of bad TV and movies, by encouraging the pursuit of personal values like music and sports, by spending quality family time together engaged in memorable positive activities, then the supposedly inevitable crisis of the teenage years can be entirely avoided, and children can be set on the path to a happy, fulfilled life as an educated, ambitious, dignified adult.