NEOCA Chats with Dr. David Baum

Northeast Ohio Classical Academy (NEOCA) is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. David Baum as Head of School. Dr. Baum brings a wealth of experience from his background in education, both from his role as a teacher and as an administrator. As Head of School, Dr. Baum will administer and supervise every aspect of the school’s daily instructional and academic functions. His job will be to foster a constant atmosphere of civility, trustworthiness, respect, and concern for everyone in the NEOCA community. The NEOCA community operates like a large “family.”’ This large family includes all students, their parents, the teachers, staff, the NEOCA board members, and the community at large.

We’re sitting down with Dr. Baum to ask a few questions about his vision for NEOCA.

Q. Dr. Baum, NEOCA is a new school opening in September 2024. It is being developed from the ground up, as we speak! I’d like to ask you to think of the big picture, the future, and the main goals for the school. What are the key ideas you use to guide your decisions as you develop all the different parts of NEOCA?

A. Thank you for the opportunity to have this discussion! The short and sweet answer is to focus on the “Three C’s” – community, curriculum, and character. We have a great curriculum thanks to our partnership with Hillsdale College, one that focuses on the interplay between intellectual and moral development. It is now up to us to build a community on these foundations. It has been a core belief of mine since I entered elementary and secondary education that great schools don’t just enroll kids, they enroll families, and we intend to be a great school.

Q. Initially, the school will begin with grades Kindergarten through 5th grade. What are the benefits of NEOCA’s American Classical education specific to young learners?

A. The old saying goes, “As the twig inclines so grows the tree,” and in the service of that old adage, we will stress two things from the start: building specific math and language skills and introducing great and edifying works of literature and history. We’ll employ Singapore math, the world’s premier elementary math program; we’ll teach reading through phonics (why we ever abandoned this in the first place is a “where’s Jimmy Hoffa?” level mystery); and we’ll teach literature and history through classic works and original sources. Our curriculum is rigorous and serious but retains the playfulness and delight Plato admonished as the necessary core of all education, especially for the young.

Q. Speaking of American Classical education, what is it, and how might children experience this kind of educational environment at NEOCA?

A. A few generations ago, American public education entered a sustained period of experimentation and innovation intended initially to respond to two separate challenges that redirected its traditional focus to that of the education of citizens. The first of these, was the shock of the Soviet Union launching Sputnik, the first man-made object in space. This event produced an obsession with what we now call STEM, a brilliant intellectual odyssey but one unmoored from the traditional goals of education, one that shifts us toward the development of self-governing and self-sufficient humans. The second challenge to traditional education in America came in the late Sixties and early Seventies during the broad cultural reckoning associated with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Mistrust in America’s established institutions, including public education, became the norm across the political spectrum and tossed out the baby with the bath water. The curriculum that had sustained American society since its inception, founded on classical practices and theories, and that had produced the majority of America’s leaders and innovators was all but gone almost in a minute.

The result is what we see around us. Public schools, despite abundant resources and the efforts of dedicated faculty, struggle even to do the basics, that is, teach what we used to call the “Three R’s” – Reading, ‘Ritin’ and “Rithmetic. And they are far from being the classrooms of democracy envisioned by Horace Mann, the great founder of public education in America. At NEOCA, we’d like to recover the purpose and revive the program of classical education intrinsic to American democracy, and to remind ourselves that the purpose of true knowledge, is, as Francis Bacon reminded us four centuries ago, “to increase human felicity.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what public education is doing these days, apologies to Horace Mann, and it is definitely what we’re committed to achieving here at NEOCA.

Q. Dr. Baum, you have a rich background in history. Imagine for a moment you could invite any important historical figure to NEOCA! You would want to choose someone in the American Classical tradition, someone who you feel would leave a lasting, positive impression on NEOCA’s young learners. Who would you choose and why?

A. I don’t want to appear frivolous here, because I feel like I should choose some profound historical figure – a great philosopher, political leader, an artist, or a writer. And there are literally hundreds of such figures to choose from. But I’m going to choose the Hall of Fame baseball great, Willie Mays, and I’ll tell you why. One of the most influential books I encountered in college was the Iliad. For much of the book Homer treats us to an inside look at the unrestrained striving and violence at the center of his heroes’ world. But in Book 23, right near the end of the poem, we take a break from the savagery of war and through Homer are introduced to the origins of the Olympic Games, the funerary games for Achilles’ fallen cousin and friend, Patroclus. For one book and one book only, there is no death. Competition, certainly. But the games are organized around an enduring classical ideal – the importance of limits in human life. In one thrilling scene Antilochus, a young warrior and brilliant charioteer is engaged in a fierce competition with the acknowledged master charioteer, Menelaus, the brother of the high king, Agamemnon. They ride neck and neck hurtling towards a constriction in the course through which only one chariot can pass safely. Neither charioteer yields until at the last second, Menelaus recognizes that both riders might die and pulls up. Antilochus races to victory and claims his prize. Menelaus arrives a minute later, fuming. Arguing his case to Achilles who presides over the games, Menelaus demands that Antilochus be disqualified for his recklessness and lack of respect for both the spirit of the games and the status of his competitor. Achilles agrees and strips Antilochus of his prize which he awards to Menelaus. Antilochus storms off to sulk. Eventually, he comes to understand things more clearly and returns to Achilles and apologizes, for which he receives a smaller but more appropriate prize, and all is restored to harmony even in the midst of fierce competition.

So, what does this all have to do with Willie Mays? I’ve never seen an athlete more competitive, exuberant, humble, and full abandon than Willie Mays. His game was literally beautiful in the classical sense. And what made his game so worth watching, so worth remembering, and discussing and describing, was what the Greeks through Homer were trying to teach us – that rules, limits, restraint, that is, the very things that make games games and not warfare, are the things that make humans most human and give purpose and meaning, beauty and goodness, to our lives. Between the lines, we must achieve our victories according to rules all have agreed upon. I’m not sure that today’s kids are learning that lesson, certainly not consistently. I’d like them to meet a person who is arguably the best that’s ever picked up a glove and witness a man whose excellence – what the Greeks called arête – was tempered by humility, and whose greatness is somehow more than just the sum of his achievements.

Q. NEOCA is very excited to host open houses, provide tours of our new school, and to hold meet-and-greet events in the community. You will have direct contact with the NEOCA family and prospective family members at these events. At the end of the day, when everyone goes home after these events, what do you want them to know and remember about NEOCA?

A. I’d want everyone to see that NEOCA is going to be a special place. Everybody says this about his or her school, of course, but we’ve got the goods! Aristotle said, “Man by nature desires to know,” which is just another way of saying that we’re born curious. NEOCA will continue to build on this. We don’t assume that kids are resistant to learning or that they need to be bribed or cajoled or threatened into learning. We believe that they want to learn, that Aristotle was right. So, we’re creating an environment for them in which the playfulness advised by Plato and exemplified by Willie Mays, find its way, through structure (expertise) and discipline (the rules of the game) to the joy found in doing something well.

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