Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher;
perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was,
who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You;
your pupils; your friends; God.
Not a bad public, that.
—Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons
Last spring, students at Chelsea Academy performed A Man for All Seasons. Among the play’s many memorable scenes, the exchange in which Sir Thomas More advises Richard Rich to choose teaching over the pursuit of power, wealth, and fame foreshadows the choice that More himself will be forced to make when confronted by King Henry VIII. As More’s advice to Rich hints at the transcendent importance of education, the play has relevance for many a school. For a school that takes its name from More’s home at Chelsea, England, the play is especially meaningful.
As his title suggests, Robert Bolt captures the fullness of More, a man renowned in his day and since for his integrity, faith, and wit. After attending Oxford, More rose to prominence as a lawyer, but devoted himself also to his family, establishing a household at Chelsea known for its classical learning and Christian charity. His daughter Margaret excelled in the study of Latin, and More famously instructed his children’s tutor to teach them “piety towards God, charity towards all, and Christian humility in themselves.” Erasmus, who often visited Chelsea, described the home (according to one More biographer) “as Plato’s Academy on Christian footing” and referred to More himself as a man “born for friendship.” In A Man for All Seasons, we see More in his many roles—scholar, lawyer, statesman, husband, father, and friend—but, as Bolt shows, it was More’s role as God’s servant that most challenged his contemporaries. Nearly 400 years later, the life and writings of More inspired the founding of Chelsea Academy.
Situated in the storied Shenandoah Valley, Chelsea Academy is an independent school rooted in the classical tradition and the fullness of the Catholic Faith. While so many college-preparatory schools tout their commitment to “21st-century learning” and “global studies,” Chelsea seeks to pass on the great tradition of learning and human achievements that has been foundational to Western civilization. It emphasizes the importance of character, both personal integrity in dealing with others and the virtues of industry, perseverance, and self-discipline. The school’s motto, Domine ut videam (“Lord, that I may see”), is both a prayer and a reminder that education involves a growing awareness and deepening understanding of reality. By encouraging students to see clearly and fully, Chelsea teachers help them to overcome a narrow provincialism—of both time and place—in favor of the truth about this world and the next, and they seek to convey the mysterious interplay of God’s grace and human effort essential to human flourishing.
Among the academy’s distinctive characteristics is a curriculum that enables young people to develop their skills, imaginations, and intellects, and to acquire, in the words of John Henry Newman, “a philosophical habit of mind.” Math and science are taught as means of sharpening the mind and enlarging its grasp of the physical world. These disciplines, when taught well, have the capacity to instill wonder in a learner and an appreciation for the beauty of the created order. They also equip a person to speak the language of modernity and thereby engage with others on matters of contemporary importance. The wisdom to use this knowledge responsibly, however, comes from other sources. Theology, history, and literature open students to ultimate questions—Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is our end?—and convey essential truths about the human condition. In particular, Chelsea’s English program, built on John Senior’s idea of the “1,000 Good Books,” gives students the resources to ponder these questions and begin to answer them. Written by Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Austen (among others), these books include the stories, fables, myths, plays, novels, and poetry that enliven the imagination and provide the cultural literacy for full participation in the intellectual life enjoyed by educated adults. They are compelling to read, full of interesting characters, plots, and themes that resonate with young people. They provide historical and cultural reference points and prepare students for understanding the more theoretical or philosophical works—the “100 Great Books”—taught in good colleges. Far from dull, these works of literature draw students in and at the same time enable them to look out at the world with fresh eyes.
While transmitting a timeless tradition of learning that extends through Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, Chelsea Academy strives to give students a sense of the importance of place. Every autumn, the school spends a day in Shenandoah National Park, the younger students hiking a trail at White Oak Canyon to some spectacular cascading waterfalls, while the older students complete the circuit at Old Rag Mountain, with its granite rock scrambles and lovely views of the surrounding mountains and farms. In the spring, the student body paddles on rafts and in canoes down stretches of the Shenandoah River. Throughout the year, classes go on trips that take advantage of the abundant resources available in the valley and its environs, from the George Washington National Forest to Harpers Ferry, the many Civil War battlefields, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, and the museums in Washington, D.C. These experiences have vast potential for enrichment beyond the classroom. They give students a sense that they themselves have roots in a particular place, a place with a unique history, geography, and people, and that the flourishing of any place depends on its inhabitants.
Chelsea’s field trips and excursions provide as well an experience in adventure, an idea central to the mission and identity of the school. As a metaphor, it conveys something essential to what Chelsea seeks to achieve in the classroom and to cultivate in its students inasmuch as an adventure involves risk-taking, going into the unknown, and discovery. The school’s motto succinctly captures the idea of moving from ignorance to knowledge, from “I can’t do or understand that” to “Now I can.” That movement from blindness to seeing the world as it is and developing self-knowledge can be a mundane experience, or students can be engaged and made to feel enlivened, excited by it, and willing to risk what they think they know or know incompletely for the way things really are. Of course, in practice, there are things about learning that are simply difficult and require hard work and discipline. Nevertheless, Chelsea teachers strive for the ideal of making schooling, even classroom learning, an adventure. Given the innate desire to know and the wonderful things to learn, they hold that this ideal can be realized through skilled instruction and student initiative.
“An adventure,” G.K. Chesterton remarked, “is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” Some students are inclined to see anything they have to do, perhaps especially their schoolwork, as a laborious chore or an annoying inconvenience. Schools are involuntary institutions. Young people do not generally have a choice between school and something else; they have to attend school in some form. Yet they can be encouraged to see that they have control over their attitude toward the things in their lives that they find less enjoyable or desirable.
Arguably the linchpin of a student’s contentment at school is friendship. St. Thomas Aquinas’s assertion that “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship” is one that young people intuitively understand and demonstrably seek to realize. Without friends, few students would want to go to school; with them, even the greatest challenges and frustrations can be overcome. More positively, friendships at Chelsea, cultivated through shared intellectual experiences and involvement together on stage, sports fields, and outdoor excursions, strengthen the notion that life can be an adventure, particularly when lived in service of God and neighbor.
At the heart of Chelsea Academy is its Catholic identity. Prayers before class, weekly Mass, regular opportunities for confession, and annual retreats give the outward appearance and structure to what most significantly binds the school community together. Embracing the truths of the Faith and aspiring to live lives marked by Christian charity, even if imperfectly, reveal the inner spirit that animates Chelsea students, faculty, and families. In an unfinished portrait of More and his household at Chelsea, the 16th-century painter Hans Holbein captures three generations of a prominent English family at prayer. More’s daughters hold rosaries, a kneeler rests on the floor, and several family members clasp devotional books. In the turmoil of Reformation England, More’s family presented a quiet, domestic, literate, lay, and familial devotion and piety whose power to transform souls promised to form a new generation of Christian young men and women. As families like More’s were needed 400 years ago, schools such as Chelsea have a role to play today if the Faith and even the light of civilization are to be maintained in our own times.
Thirty-five years ago, Alasdair Mac Intyre concluded After Virtue with the observation that “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” The life and death of Thomas More remind us that no age is without its challenges. His advice to young Rich in A Man for All Seasons—“Why not be a teacher?”—reminds us of the importance of local institutions, most especially schools and the teachers, parents, and benefactors that sustain them, in keeping alive the virtues of faith, civility, and the intellectual life.