“What!?! I love you guys!!”
The seniors were clustered together in the shadow of the Basilica of Santa Croce, and the local guide in Florence, Italy, could not contain his enthusiasm for our students. I was afraid he might hug me.
What would be so amazing that a total stranger in a city 5,000 miles away would profess his love so openly for our students? Simply this: our students were the guide’s first group ever who not only knew who Dante was but had read The Divine Comedy, and our seniors were interested in learning more about Dante and seeing the site of his home.
As our guide in Florence this year made clear, literacy, intellectual curiosity, and a refined aesthetic are exceedingly rare qualities in modern teenagers. It was the kind of comment I have heard from guides countless times now.
For example, our tour director, the guy who spends two solid weeks with our group leading us around Europe — a brilliant Englishman who has been leading student tours for 25 years, is a dual citizen in France and England, and speaks 3 languages fluently — has given up doing student tours with the exception of two schools: a private, catholic school from Nebraska and The Ambrose School. He refuses to lead other student tours simply because he grew tired and exasperated from dealing with apathetic and ignorant teenagers who could not stand to have Michelangelo’s Pieta or Brunelleschi’s Duomo come between them and their Wi-Fi.
We have had a London guide, accustomed to American students, apologize that our group might be bored to tears while touring through Westminister Abbey, only to be shocked when our students were excited to see Wilberforce’s tomb and Poets Corner.
I have seen a Rome guide joke that he took it as a personal challenge to find stories or bits of information that our students did not already know, and then rejoice when at last he found something.
Our Paris guide found our students so warm and engaging that she jumped in and joined them as they sang a beautiful rendition of the Les Champs-Elysees while driving down the actual Champs-Elysees in the rain.
Our students affections are dramatically different than most teenagers, and it is never more apparent than when we are out on tour with people who have made a career out of working with young people. The local guides quickly recognize in our students something rare and refreshing: our students appreciate and feel inspired by good and beautiful things whenever they encounter them.
Drawing on his own experience as a teacher, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Lewis’s point is this: the challenge of the modern educator is not to tame wild and erratic interests or loves in students, or what he called “a weak excess of sensibility;” instead, the challenge is to awaken our students from “the slumber of cold vulgarity,” brought on by the world that numbs them with intoxicating effect from loving the Good, True, and Beautiful.
Lewis wrote those words almost 75 years ago. With the rise of the Digital Age and the destructive influence of social media and video games, and all the distractions that accompany them, the situation has not improved. But all is not lost. Much of what we do at The Ambrose School is done to awaken our students from “the slumber of cold vulgarity” that Lewis spoke of. There is an intellectual curiosity latent within Man as created in the Imago Dei, a love of learning, and an affection for things beautiful and praiseworthy that simply needs inspiration to awaken. We hire life long-learners with a passion for the liberal arts to teach, we read great books and guide our students into deep discussions, our classrooms are full of beautiful art and music, exposed wood and wrought iron, and we take our seniors on a 12 day tour of Europe, all with the express goal of inspiring within students a love for the goodness and beauty in God’s creation.
The comments of local guides on our Senior Trip — strangers from far-distant lands who know a thing or two about teens in the 21stcentury — are evidence that irrigating deserts still yields a rich harvest.