Reflections on Starting Up a Winning Catholic High School
By Natasa Zambelli-Wilkie
Dale Ahlquist is all things Chesterton. Not only is he is an author, public speaker, Evangelical convert to Catholicism, and Catholic apologist, he has written, edited, or contributed to more than fifteen books on G. K. Chesterton.
Dale is also the co-founder of Chesterton Academy, a Minneapolis-based high school rated one of the top 50 Catholic schools in the United States. It was the school which fascinated REGINA writer Natasa Zambelli-Wilkie, a Croatian writer based in Malaysia. Here, she interviews Dale at length.
SCENE FROM ‘THE MERCHANT OF VENICE’ performed at the Chesterton Academy
REGINA: What is your background?
DA: I had a fairly wide and varied experience in business, lobbying, non-profit work, writing, speaking, and television, all of which would prove to be useful in getting a school going. But I’d never been involved in education!
REGINA: Why did you decide to start a school?
DA: Mostly for selfish reasons. I was looking for a high school for my own children and couldn’t find the right one.
REGINA: Why Chesterton? What did you find in him – rather than some other Catholic thinker – that inspired you?
DA: On the practical level, I was already running the American Chesterton Society, which had a national profile. We were immediately able to draw on a broad base of support and give the new venture some publicity. On the philosophical level, Chesterton is the model thinker, the kind of thinker we want our students to be: inter-disciplinary, articulate, creative, joyful, evangelistic, and faithfully Catholic.
REGINA: What are the Chesterton principles that underpin the school ethos and its mission?
DA: Chesterton aligns perfectly with the classical pillars of truth, beauty, and goodness. He was prophetically pro-life, and he epitomizes what it means to be “in the world but not of the world.” He was a secular writer who stood up for the Catholic faith in all aspects of his thinking.
REGINA Tell us about the early years of the school. Were there any particular challenges you encountered?
DA: One of the best ways to make enemies is to start a new school. You will find enemies you didn’t even know you had!
REGINA: Was it difficult to attract students?
DA: We figured we must be doing something right when everything was going wrong. It helped to be blissfully unaware of the fact that we were walking on water. It’s only when we took our eyes off Christ that we were threatened with sinking. We were blessed to have parents who were willing to be pioneers in the first years. We were never afraid to be small. We found creative ways to save money. We found lots of ways to laugh. The right people kept finding us. We grew slowly and steadily. We had no marketing budget in those early days, but we got some good publicity.
REGINA: How is a Chesterton school fundamentally different from a regular American Catholic school?
DA: Three things set us apart. No, four. Daily Mass, a truly integrated curriculum, four years of philosophy, and an excellent arts program, where all the students learn to sing, act, and paint.
REGINA: Let’s talk about classical education. To quote Chesterton: “Every high civilisation decays by forgetting obvious things.” These days education tends to be defined in rather instrumental ways as a means of preparing the youth for the workforce. Such an approach tends to be quite ideological as well and schools support a worldview that is radically different from the one of our ancestors. Can you tell us how the classical approach, in its philosophy and its methods, differs from the mainstream and what its aims are. How do you answer critics who call this model outdated and out of touch with reality?
DA: It is the modern schools that have lost touch with reality. They have become totally electronic. The students don’t know the reality of the book anymore, much less the reality of creation, and the greatest reality of all: the Eucharist.
DA: As for the Classical approach, the goal is to get students to think for themselves, precisely the opposite of the small narrow worldview that is forced on them in public schools.
REGINA: How so?
DA: Our students have a complete education when they graduate and are often ready to pursue a trade immediately. Some go one to pursue specialized interests in college, but their general education is already in place. And as for the mainstream, the one line everyone learns at our school is from Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man: “A dead thing goes with the stream; only a living thing can go against it.”
REGINA: How do students adjust after having attended regular Catholic schools or public schools?
DA: Some adjust more easily than others, and some, frankly, do not adjust. But there is not much correlation between their backgrounds and whether or not they adjust. Home-schooled students often come with different strengths and weaknesses from public and private-schooled students, but, as in every school, the students’ greatest adjustment is to other students.
REGINA: Do you have international students?
DA: We have had the great benefit of international students who gain a great experience as well provide a great experience for everyone else.
REGINA: How does the school relate to the community in which it is situated?
DA: We have not done nearly enough to connect to our local community. We’re still their best kept secret.
REGINA: Tell us about the Chesterton Schools Network. Future projects? Is there a plan to open Chesterton schools abroad?
DA: There are ten schools in the Network, with four more opening in the fall. All of them are self-started. We only provide the curriculum, the templates, and a lot of advice on how we’ve done it. Once a school is up and running, there are regular conference calls among the administrators as we share information and encourage one another and work together to strengthen the schools for everyone.
There is a school in Italy, and there is always talk of schools starting in other countries. We’ll see.
REGINA: After Chesterton Academy: getting into college and the workforce. How do you guide your students and their parents?
DA: We get a variety of help in guiding students, including a full-time college counselor, a priest, and other administrative staff. We’ve had several young men go to seminary. The greatest challenge is helping students avoid a mountain of college debt. It is a scandal. And it is a bubble that will burst.
REGINA: Many people these days believe that the renewal and revival of Catholicism will likely be shaped by young people embracing the tradition, which includes a more traditional education. How do you see the Chesterton school network contributing to that?
DA: Education is all about tradition. It is not about fads. Chesterton points out that in our schools today, children are exposed to educational philosophies that are younger than they are. The classical approach is an antidote to the toxic fads that have destroyed so many schools today.
REGINA: Chesterton’s legacy – in what other ways can Chesterton’s work influence a wider culture beyond education?
DA: Transforming a culture is a grassroots project, happening from the ground up, not the top down. We start by influencing our own families, then our neighbors, then our communities. Eventually our leaders will figure it out and follow. We are hoping to see G.K. Chesterton’s cause for beatification opened soon. As he said, “The age is often converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” I think he could help convert the age.
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