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Thinking Greatly by Dean Jonathan Ezell

There is only one course at the secondary school level that seeks to introduce its students to the most intellectually insightful breakthroughs in Western Culture each week through the genius of the creator or discoverer.  Imagine the first week’s instructor is Socrates; the next week’s is Archimedes; the third is Thucydides, the fourth is Sophocles, the fifth week’s is Aristotle.  You can begin to see the course take shape, I believe.

The Great Thinkers course challenges every student to think mathematically, scientifically, historically, philosophically, spiritually, and symbolically through an historical figure who made the discovery or created the art or developed the theory or had an insight that helped shape Western Culture.   

Figuratively, it can be said these are just a few of the teachers the students work with through The Great Thinkers course:   Socrates, Archimedes, Plato, Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, Mozart, Beethoven, Newton, Locke, Stravinsky, Dali and many more.

Relying on some of the towering intellects of the past, the students are also treated to some of the very best teachers at Randolph-Macon Academy—each of whom brings his expertise, understanding, and passion for the “great thinker” of the week. 

Let’s take Mr. Barr, Chairman of our Mathematics Department, Advanced Placement Calculus teacher, and adjunct professor at Shenandoah University as an example. 

  • In the ancient period in the first nine weeks the students study Archimedes with him.
  • During the Renaissance in the second nine weeks it is Leonardo Fibonocci.
  • Then, beginning the second semester and the third nine weeks there is the incomparable Isaac Newton of the Enlightenment.
  • And, ending the year in the fourth nine weeks it is Benoit Mendelbrot during the contemporary period.   

This is the vertical picture (through the year) for one instructor.  It may be instructive to look horizontally through the time period of one nine week grading period.  Let’s take the rough time frame covering the Enlightenment/Romantic/Baroque periods (the third nine weeks):

Newton (mathematics), Kierkegaard (philosophy), Caravaggio (art) , Locke (political philosophy), Newton (science), Beethoven (music), Goethe (literature), Napoleon (historic figure) make up eight weeks of study with one left for synthesis.   

Consider the student’s experience through the year as the parade of great thinkers matched with our best teachers enter the classroom to stimulate thinking, curiosity, and wonder.

A week’s concentrated study on each historic figure, examining their writings, discussing their ideas, pondering the threads that may still be current in contemporary society give students a rich experience with the thinking of each and an appreciation of the enduring contribution each has made to our culture.