New classical high school St. Jerome Institute set to open 2019
By HEATHER WRIGHT — Another brewer is headed to the Hyattsville area. This one won’t be working at any of the coming breweries, like Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. or Maryland Meadworks, but will be taking charge of a new classical high school with informal ties to St. Jerome Academy (SJA), which serves students from pre-K to eighth grade.
On May 24, board members of St. Jerome Institute (SJI), a classical liberal arts high school founded by a group of SJA parents, introduced headmaster Peter Crawford to a standing-room-only crowd in the SJA library and officially announced that SJI will open in fall 2019. The school will be “in or very near Hyattsville,” and tuition is estimated to be $12,000 per year prior to financial aid.
Deborah Ruddy, chair of the SJI board, said that SJI cannot call itself a Catholic school until it receives archdiocesan approval, a process that takes approximately one year. Ruddy also said that although SJI is an initiative of SJA parents, it is not officially affiliated with SJA or the St. Jerome parish.
Michael Hanby, an SJI board member and professor at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies, introduced Crawford and noted his roots in this area: Crawford grew up in Manassas, Va., and his father is a colleague of Hanby’s at the Institute, which is located at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Hanby described Crawford as meeting all the criteria the SJI board sought for its headmaster: someone who had launched a school, had a solid administrative background and had experience teaching in a classical setting. He continued, “Someone who would be a teacher of teachers” and “who had the heart and spirit to grasp and create the culture of joy and of wonder and of adventure that we have envisioned for this school, and that are intrinsic to true education and to a life lived nobly and well.” Handby ended, “Someone who loves children and remembers what it’s like to see the world through their eyes.”
After noting that “SJI is going to be in excellent hands,” Hanby quipped, “Rumor also has it [Crawford’s] a pretty good brewmaster.”
Contacted via email after his talk, Crawford explained, “Alas, I can in no way claim to be a brewmaster … I am merely an all-grain homebrewer who enjoys making Belgian and Scottish style beers as a hobby.”
In his address, Crawford noted that education is a very controversial topic in American society. He said, “And yet beneath the clear lines of contention … there is a striking consensus in today’s culture surrounding education, and that is that the state of contemporary American education is one of alarming failure.” Crawford indicated that there was no consensus, however, on what the problem was or how to move forward, other than “a general trend of trying to throw more money and technology at the problem, even if schools have declined at almost a similar rate as technology has been injected,” said Crawford.
Crawford said that parents and educators need to ask themselves, “What is it we truly want for our children?” In the U.S., there is a widespread industrial view of education that sees the child as an input-output machine to load with facts in a push to attain rapid content mastery and specialization as quickly as possible. Crawford, in the classical tradition, holds a different perspective: He views education as rooted in the broader task of raising a child, helping a child to know that “they have a purpose not created by themselves but built into their humanity, their nature.” He continued, “Their task is to embark on the adventure of coming to know this purpose, coming to realize it and receive it as the greatest of gifts.”
Crawford cited Robert Spaemann’s essay “Education as an Introduction to Reality” in its assertion that education is not primarily about knowledge acquisition but about introducing a child to reality. If education is technical knowledge mastery, the student is placed in a position of dominance and their job is to master the facts. Crawford said, “Questions about the purpose of life, beauty or almost any question starting with a ‘why’ are irritating to a teacher because they are distractions from the purpose [of mastering facts]. The why doesn’t matter … The standard for fact assimilation is correctness: Do the recited facts correspond with the textbook?”
In contrast, if education is an introduction to reality, the student is placed into a position of humility. Crawford said, “The teacher’s job is to remove prejudice in the child, to ask them to consider carefully the world, which they receive in the structure of gift as a whole, to see the language of reality, to be convicted by it, to ask, ‘why?’” Crawford quoted Plutarch, “The mind is not a container to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”
Crawford spoke about the classical approach, which will be implemented in SJI classrooms. This approach incorporates the Socratic method of questions and discussion, which promotes a spirit of inquiry. Crawford said that when a student walks into a classroom, he wants them to relinquish their prejudices and approach the subject matter with a receptive and humble attitude. He said, “This humility unshackles the reality for the student, and, in turn, frees the student to see the reality as it is. The reality is infinitely more interesting than the student’s prejudice, and it fills a student with awe.”
This humility is not just essential to the subject matter of the class but to the formation of the community of the classroom. Crawford said, “It does not take long to discover that the full richness of whatever we are learning, whether in a science lab, Crime and Punishment, or a discussion on functions, that I, by myself, encounter only part of the full spectrum of this reality.” A student learns to be humble before others in the class, said Crawford, “as I realize that they, more often than not, see many things that I do not.” However, a student also learns “that [they] must be courageous and generous with [their] own thoughts.” During this process, Crawford said, “Each student is donated the full wealth of insight that belongs to the community,” while the process sets the stage for them to be active in their own formation through ever-deepening inquiry.
During the Q&A session that followed his address, Crawford said that the most important factor in a child’s education is the faculty. He said, “The student culture will always reflect the beauty or dysfunction of a faculty.”
Crawford described a headmaster’s main job as being not an administrator or a bureaucrat, but a teacher of teachers. In his current job as the headmaster at Great Hearts Monte Vista North, for example, Crawford observed his first-year teachers once a week, and gave them written and verbal feedback on each occasion. About one of his master teachers — “One of the greatest Latin teachers I’ve ever seen” — Crawford wryly noted, “He gets observed only once every two weeks.”
SJI will be hosting numerous events between Crawford’s July start date and the fall of 2019. To learn more about the development of SJI and upcoming enrollment events, visit http://stjeromeinstitute.org/.