Q&A — 3 Minutes With Charter School Principal Stephen Lambert on Classical Education, Building Character and Saving Our Republic

(Tim Polelle)

This is one in an ongoing series of brief conversations with education innovators led by Greg Richmond, founder and former CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Today’s edition: three minutes with Stephen Lambert, principal of Treasure Valley Classical Academy, a second-year charter school in Fruitland, Idaho. 

Richmond: How does the classical education your students are receiving differ from what students receive in other schools?

Lambert: Our mission is to train the mind and improve the hearts of our students through a classical, content-rich curriculum that emphasizes virtuous living, traditional learning and civic responsibility. That mission statement is deeply rooted in ideas that have existed in Western civilization for thousands of years, beginning with the ancient Greeks. And it is that citizens have to be prepared to take on their role in a civil society. In order to do that, we need to form and shape character and to provide knowledge.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, said that in order for us to keep our republic, we need citizens of virtue and knowledge. He said that in Federalist 55, in defense of the Constitution. Plato wrote that even a just man will do unjust things given the right circumstances. That’s negative inertia if you’re trying to build a civil society. So, you have to form and shape character. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, said it takes a lifetime of hard work to become a person of good habits. So, we’re in the daily work of shaping virtue and building good habits in these future citizens.

I think that is probably one of the biggest points of departure from other public schools: Our school culture and ethos has character-building deeply embedded in it. Another difference is the part about training minds. We use a content-rich curriculum that is overseen by the Barney Charter School Initiative and Hillsdale College [in Michigan] in order to build in our students what Dr. E.D. Hirsch has called cultural literacy. In other words, to become American citizens, you have to have a lexicon and the background, the idiom, the vocabulary, the knowledge to understand what these things mean in context.

Hirsch says that by eighth grade, roughly, students should have an 80,000-word working vocabulary that helps them understand what it means to be an American citizen. It lays the foundation for the great work that is in our scope and sequence for the high school years. We read the great books, we read the great minds. This is a liberal arts and science education that truly is well-rounded and prepares students to, at the end of their senior year in high school, have lots of opportunities at their fingertips.

How does a classical education speak to the challenges our country is facing right now?

If you observe our civic culture, it is brittle, it’s fragile. We’ve forgotten how to have a civil discourse. Instead, we yell at each other, often in individual echo chambers. We have forgotten what the national motto means. It is “E pluribus unum” — out of many, one. For us to be able to live by that motto, we have to have a common base from which to work. That is not to say we all must be ideologically in lockstep and in agreement with each other. In fact, the Western tradition has a healthy record of lively discourse and debate in pursuit of the truth.

I don’t think we can repair our society overnight. The so-called civic institutions that are the bedrock of our society and culture — family, schools, churches and other types of civic organizations like them — they’re all under assault. Families are struggling. Schools have lost their way. Churches are no longer the moral conscience of our society. So, it should be no surprise that it is tough out there.

One of my favorite lessons from history is of a 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln. I believe the year was 1838 in which he gave his first notable political address. It’s known as his Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. Think about what was going on in the 1830s: the Western expansion. And the political question of the day: whether Kansas and Nebraska were going to join the Union as free states or slave states. This is pre-Civil War, and it’s ugly out there. There are agitators in the territories. Houses are being burned down. People are dying. Sound familiar?

Lincoln looks across this messy landscape and he looks back at the American founding, and he says, our country was founded based on an experiment. It was an experiment about whether we could govern ourselves. If the answer to that question was no, we would remain subjects to a king, to a crown, to a tyrant. But if the experiment in self-government worked, we would become something else. We would become citizens of a republic, with rights and responsibilities.

Schools used to understand how you prepare young men and women to be citizens of our republic. They used to understand that teaching self-governance started at those early ages. And that if we did that well, we would provide the citizens that Madison calls for in Federalist 55. But we’ve lost that. So our schools — it’s not just this one, but other schools in this network across the country — are deeply wedded to rediscovering that duty to prepare and shape citizens. And hopefully, over time, we’re planting the seeds for a recovery of the civil society that I think we all yearn for.

You had a distinguished career in the Air Force. What did you learn there that you’re now applying in your current role?

On May 30, 1990, I took an oath of office to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; to take that obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I was about to enter, so help me God. And I served for over 24 years.

When I retired, I realized I wanted to continue to do that. I wanted to help perpetuate the Constitution and the republic. What I figured out is, I am doing that. It’s not by training and preparing to fly airplanes into combat. Rather, it is by raising up the next generation to protect this fragile experiment with liberty. Because here’s the thing: A famous president of the previous century once said, liberty is only ever one generation away from extinction. That it’s not in our bloodstream. The generation that loses it shall never recover it. We need to teach generations how to protect this fragile experiment with liberty.

We have in our school a historical timeline. It’s downstairs in one of our hallways, mounted on the wall. It tracks all the different traditions and histories that we are aware of about humankind. It has all the different ages — the Iron Age, the Bronze Age. It’s 27 feet long, and the United States doesn’t show up until the last 8 inches.

We show this to our students, and it creates a sense of appreciation for how young we are and how long mankind existed without this kind of blessing, without this liberty. It’s not guaranteed in perpetuity. If we don’t raise up the next citizens to protect it, we will, like the warning says, lose it forever.

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