Literally, a capstone is the top stone of a wall or other structure, and figuratively it is used to describe the culmination of a certain work or action. Therefore, as a course for our seniors, Senior Capstone serves as the culmination of our students’ formal education at Westminster Academy. The two qualities that distinguish Senior Capstone are its content and its format.
The content of Senior Capstone is not simply focused on one subject. Rather, it is an integrative course centered around the foundational ideas that have shaped and continue to shape our civilization. These include ideas such as truth, goodness, beauty, love, justice and freedom. These ideas are approached through reading primary texts that are widely recognized as anchors or catalysts to the ideas. The authors of these texts include Plato, Augustine, Dante, Machiavelli, Burke, Kierkegaard, Mill, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. The students read essays, books, novels, poems and speeches in their other classes and come to Senior Capstone ready to discuss what they have read, which leads to the format of the course.
Senior Capstone is a team-taught, dialogue-oriented course. The students do not listen to lectures, take notes and restate those notes onto an exam. Instead, the students listen to and participate in conversations. The class meets three days out of the week. On two of those days, four or five senior faculty members who teach Math, Science, English, History, Bible, Theology, Logic and Rhetoric sit at a table and have a conversation about a given text. The students simply listen and perhaps write down statements or questions that they find to be compelling or interesting or even incorrect. The faculty members do not have a ready-made lesson plan to try to cover; rather, they simply engage in a thoughtful, passionate dialogue concerning the text. On the third day the class meets, it is the students’ turn to engage in conversation. In groups of four or five, they take turns discussing their own points of view regarding the texts. They take into consideration what they have heard from the teachers and offer criticisms or support or a different angle altogether. They do not merely mimic what they have heard; rather, they bring their own thoughts and their own perspectives into the dialogue. As with the teachers, their thoughts incorporate connections made in all subjects.
Dorothy Sayers (see essay by Dorothy Sayers) claims that the sole purpose of education is to teach students how to learn. The Senior Capstone course acts as a culmination of a Kindergarten through 12th Grade experience designed to do just that. Given the writings that are pivotal to understanding the origins of the great ideas, and given consistent demonstrations by teachers who passionately discuss the meanings and implications of those writings, our students are learning how to think properly through not only the great ideas but also the multitudes of cacophonous messages they encounter daily as young people in our modern world. These students are learning to synthesize all the learning they have experienced to this point and to evaluate it against and alongside the great thinkers of ages past and to draw that forward and apply it to the present.
They are learning how to learn, and they are learning to love that which is worth loving.