Planner intends to start elementary school focusing on critical thinking.
Professionally speaking, there's not a lot a person can do with a philosophy degree. That thought wasn't lost on Michael Williams when he attended the University of Northern Colorado on a partial tennis scholarship in the early 1980s. He eventually chose a double major in philosophy and finance, appeasing both his pondering and practical sides.
Williams put his finance degree to good use as a certified financial planner, and today he's president of Altius Financial, a registered investment advisory firm in Denver.
As for his other undergraduate major, well, that came in handy for deep conversations. During one of those discussions a couple of years ago, he and a tennis buddy concluded that there was a dearth of individuals with whom to have intellectual talks because current education systems don't give people the knowledge base or structure to think well. "We both had an idea in the back of our minds that we'd like to start a school someday, and things got serious from there," says the 41-year-old Williams.
Williams, his wife and his friend are in the process of creating an elementary school called Aristotle Academy. Still a year or more away from opening its doors, the school's intended goal is to foster critical thinking skills that promote intellectually independent and self-reliant people. To accomplish this, they've patterned the school after two main concepts. The first is based on the ideas of Leonard Peikoff, a professor and lecturer who succeeded novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand as the foremost advocate of objectivism. At its core, objectivism is the philosophy of the individual, that a person's own happiness is the moral purpose of his or her life.
"One of the problems with Ayn Rand's philosophy is that it's easily distorted into being a hedonistic thing where you can do whatever you want," explains Williams. "Peikoff made it clear that it's about having the right to exist for yourself. That's not taught in public and private schools today, where the education philosophy is based on benefiting society or the parents and not the child. Our approach is that anything we teach a child, we have to show them there's a connection with their own life."
The curriculum's bedrock rests with something called the trivium concept, a classical education system based on history. Classroom time is spent integrating various topics from a historical perspective. For example, the first grade is driven by the ancient world, where students would be introduced to geography and the beginnings of arithmetic by learning about ancient Greek, Roman and other cultures relevant from that period. The second grade is based on the Middle Ages, followed by the Renaissance in third grade and modern times in fourth grade.
The process is repeated during grades five through eight, then repeated a third time in grades nine through 12. The three Rs and other basic learning would advance in complexity with each grade. But, explains Williams, infusing students with a repetitive exposure to historical periods presented in logical sequence integrates both old and new material in ways that enable the brain to make better connections.
"Students will get a liberal arts education and be more well-rounded, and that's the point of having a pre-college education," offers Williams. "College should be more about specialization. In many cases we defer a liberal arts education until college, and that's a waste of time, money and resources."
According to the business plan, Aristotle Academy would start small, with a single first-grade class of between 15 to 20 pupils. Then, hopefully, word-of-mouth advertising would help attract new students, and after a few years the school would hold classes for grades one though four. If the concept is successful, the partners envision their school eventually comprising grades one through 12. Another goal is for the school to be profitable.
But that's getting way ahead of things. For now, creating a school from scratch requires overcoming several logistical hurdles. To help get their school off the ground faster, Williams and his two partners researched the possibility of becoming a charter school. These are experimental schools that can get money from public school systems if their standards and methodologies meet the approval of state or local boards. But they rejected that route rather than compromise their educational mission.