An Interview with Miss Vandamme

This is an interview conducted with Miss VanDamme just two years after she founded VanDamme Academy. 

Interviewer (INT): Hi Lisa. Thank you for sharing your time with us.

Lisa (L): It is my pleasure.

INT: I want to begin this interview with a discussion of your views on education in general, and save until later my questions regarding your own school, VanDamme Academy. Lisa, what is education?

L: Education, in my view, is the systematic training of a child’s mind. A good education supplies a child with that knowledge which is essential for him to become an informed, mature, rational adult able to make his own judgments. This is in direct contrast with the view held most prominently by educators today, which is that education is primarily to “socialize” the child and to supply him with immediate, practical skills that help him to face the changing world around him.

INT: Do you agree with the view that education is primarily an issue of instilling the proper method, i.e. developing a child’s ability to think critically? Or do you think that a good education involves teaching the child a definite, particular content?

L: I believe that there is no dichotomy between the two. Method can only be learned through the proper presentation of the right content. If, for example, a good teacher guides his students through the process by which Newton discovered his laws of motion—if he offers them a clear, step-by-step presentation of this monumental discovery and demonstrates to them the practical achievements it made possible—the students learn by example (the example set by the teacher and by Newton) how to properly apply their own minds.

INT: Given your views on the purpose of education, do you think that a proper education is necessary to achieving a fulfilling life?

L: To me, that is equivalent to asking whether proper nutrition is necessary to achieve good health. The purpose of education is to take an ignorant, inexperienced, helpless child and provide him with the knowledge and thinking skills he needs to make his way in the world. A proper education supplies a child with the most important knowledge that has been gained throughout the history of man, and therefore prepares him to face his own life and experiences armed with this wisdom.

INT: What is the content of a proper education?

L: Because there is a limited number of hours in the day, a good school must determine which subjects are essential to the training of a child’s mind, and must ruthlessly expel everything else from the curriculum. In my view, the subjects necessary to a proper education are history, literature, science, math, and the language arts.

INT: In a general way, it’s clear that all of these subjects have value. But you are claiming that these subjects are necessary. What makes them necessary? In what way, for example, is an adult ignorant about history deficient or vulnerable in his ability to achieve success in his life?

L: History shows students on a grand scale the consequences of men’s ideas and actions. There is no better way for a student to learn how best to live his life, to learn right and wrong, than to study what men have done historically and what the results have been. When they study the Enlightenment scientists’ reverence for reason and their monumental achievements, when they learn about the Founding Fathers’ establishment of a free country and the resulting progress and prosperity, when they contrast this with the mysticism and tyranny of the Dark Ages—they learn principles that will guide their own decisions and shape the course of their lives.

INT: How about literature? Many young adults today lack what you would regard as a sound literary education. What is the value of literature?

L: The great works of literature take grand themes about the nature of man and the universe and present them in the form of a story. As such, they offer students abstract ideas in a powerful, concretized form. Students have the opportunity to see the virtue of independence embodied in Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, or Dr. Stockmann of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. They witness the essence of evil in the character of Iago, from Shakespeare’s Othello. They learn what it means for a man to be passionately devoted to his values when they read the novels of Victor Hugo. The characters and events of these stories become a lens through which students view their own experiences.

And reading novels and plays has another value independent of this strictly educational one. Literature provides children and adults alike with spiritual fuel: the heroes, adventure, and drama of great stories give them a glimpse of the best life has to offer. Exposure to great art shows them the intense and profound values that can be had from life.

INT: We’ve discussed content, now let’s go back briefly to the issue of method. In lectures you’ve given, you have emphasized the need to teach content hierarchically. Can you explain what you mean by that?

L: All knowledge is hierarchical—it is gained in incremental steps, building from simple observations and progressing to knowledge at a greater and greater level of abstraction. Before a student learns calculus, he must know algebra; before he learns algebra, he must know arithmetic; before arithmetic, he must know his numbers; and so on. This principle, though generally understood as applied to math, has important pedagogical implications for the teaching of all subjects. Politics, for example, is a highly abstract subject that should follow extensive study of history; yet many social studies classes today begin with hot-button political issues, evading the fact that the students do not have the prerequisite knowledge to judge them. Science classes dive in with such advanced, technical knowledge as the structure of the atom, or such abstract principles as Newton’s laws of motion, without first laying down the observations and principles that made these advanced discoveries possible. If a teacher’s goal is to ensure that his students have real, independent knowledge, he must teach hierarchically, beginning with principles at a simple level and building up as the student is prepared for the next level of abstraction.

INT: What are the consequences of learning things in the wrong hierarchical order?

L: If they are not learned in hierarchical order they are not really learned. Any child can be taught to recite the principle that “an object in motion remains in motion unless a force acts upon it,” but this only reflects knowledge if he himself understands the proof. In this case, that means he must know the series of steps by which scientists came to understand this far-from-obvious principle. Unthinking repetition is not knowledge. If a teacher wishes his students to have real understanding, he must teach his subject hierarchically, guiding the students incrementally through the steps necessary for a thorough grasp of the material.

INT: To what extent does today’s educational system approximate what you regard as a proper education? Does it, for example, respect the issue of hierarchy?

L: No. Schools today commit flagrant violations of hierarchy. At a high school in my area, the freshman social studies program begins with a study of the nature and value of the U.N. (before the students have even a rudimentary knowledge of history); the science curriculum begins with DNA replication (before students know about Mendel and Darwin and basic genetic theory); English classes begin with subtleties of literary style (before students have a basic understanding of plot and theme). Education needs to be totally reconceived with the principle of hierarchy in mind.

In my opinion, what is offered to students in today’s schools bears little resemblance to education. If education is a study of the core subjects with the goal of providing students with that abstract knowledge which is essential to a mature mind, then education was abandoned by the schools long ago. The integrated, essentialized study of history, with its sweeping generalizations about man, has been rejected in favor of the disintegrated, concrete-bound subject of “social studies.” The classics of literature, with their timeless themes and penetrating insights into man and the nature of the universe, have been replaced by whatever contemporary works happen to be in political favor. The world is in desperate need of an educational renaissance.

INT: Let’s turn now to your own career. Your website indicates that you left graduate studies in the mid-nineties in order to homeschool several intelligent children. Had you always intended to be a teacher?

L: I had intended to teach philosophy at the university level. But I lost patience with the standard academic approach, which treated philosophy as if it were irrelevant to real life. I decided to leave philosophy for a career in education, and went to Penn State to begin graduate studies. I signed up for a course on educational psychology, and it quickly became clear that the approach would be identical to that of my philosophy courses. So, when I got a call offering me a position as a homeschool teacher in California, I left college and never looked back. Mine has been an education of experience—it was in the course of my eight-year career as a homeschool teacher that I developed my unique curriculum and educational philosophy.

INT: Two years ago, you founded VanDamme Academy, a private school applying your philosophy of education. I encourage readers interested in gaining specific details about the way your school is set up to visit your website (www.vandammeacademy.com). Can you describe the experience of starting a new school?

L: After we found an appropriate facility, acquired a permit from the city, furnished and supplied our classrooms, and hired a staff of exceptional teachers, the burning question was whether or not we would find families who shared our vision of the ideal education. We are finding them. There are people who recognize the flaws in today’s educational system, and who long for a program in which their children read the great works of literature, learn the story of history, grasp the crucial discoveries of science, and learn how to write and speak articulately—and when they discover VanDamme Academy they feel that they have stumbled upon an educational oasis.

INT: Students in any classroom differ in terms of effort, persistence, intelligence, the quality of their prior education, and so on. Many modern classrooms are dedicated to discouraging or obfuscating these differences. What is your approach?

L: Ours is a highly individualized program. Upon entering the school, our students are given diagnostic tests, so that we can determine the extent of their knowledge and their aptitude. We then allow them to progress accordingly. Our school attracts many gifted students, because they have no place at traditional schools, where they are held back to the level of an average student of their grade.

INT: Compared to other kids their age, your students are far superior in the clarity of their thinking and the depth of their knowledge. That is a remarkable achievement, and one that more and more parents will likely notice. Tell me about your plans for the future – what lies ahead for the VanDamme Academy?

L: Right now, we are focused on the expansion of our current location in Laguna Hills, and documentation of our curriculum. Eventually, we hope to open schools around the country, so that other families have the opportunity to give their children an education of this quality.

INT: Thank you Lisa for you time and your enthusiasm. Your VanDamme Academy is a monumental achievement and an inspiration.