Why a Portsmouth education?

It is hard to imagine a more critical time in the educational process than in the formative adolescent years. During this period, students have the potential for tremendous intellectual growth, particularly in the areas of independent inquiry and critical thinking. Because the education received in these years provides the foundation for so much subsequent learning, it is crucial that students stay engaged and curious while developing a disciplined mind. Consequently, in choosing a school for one's child, it is important to understand what comprises an education that is both academically excellent and appropriate for secondary school students.

A Complete Education

We at Portsmouth Abbey School take it as a given that the human person is a spiritual person. We believe that the origin and destiny of every human person begins and ends in God and that, however any one individual defines his or her spiritual life, the human heart is made with a deep longing for connection with God. The discovery, nourishment and guidance of this spiritual hunger is one of the main tasks of life. It is our conviction, therefore, that a complete education must address the spiritual dimension of a person. At Portsmouth, a Catholic Benedictine school, we are in the enviable position of doing this explicitly and confidently.

Intellectual Formation

The past few decades have witnessed a trend in education that views students as consumers and, consequently, academic courses as commodities to be tailored to the desires of the consuming market. A notable victim of this trend has been the study of classical languages and thought. Because a Latin requirement was not considered an attractive commodity to students, it was uniformly abolished with little thought given to the question of whether this was pedagogically sound.

Portsmouth Abbey School has chosen a different path. Study of classical languages, literature and history provides students an excellent opportunity to engage and measure themselves against fundamental truths, beliefs, and texts that have challenged every generation since the ancient world. The powerful endurance of classical literature and thought over the centuries is testimony to their perennial relevance and importance.

Our curriculum is designed to foster greater fluency in the written language while creating a shared historical sense among students. To that end, all Third Form students study Christian Doctrine, English, Latin, ancient history and mathematics, and choose two electives from offerings in art or music, science, and modern languages. Students continue to take several required core courses in subsequent years. This approach is grounded in the belief that the study of a classical language and the development of a solid historical sense give students the most effective foundation on which to build further learning, both at Portsmouth Abbey and beyond.

The curriculum addresses three fundamental objectives:

  • to develop a common background of knowledge among students;
  • to use the study of a classical language and ancient history to train students in disciplined thinking; and 
  • to give students a thorough grounding in and appreciation for the written and spoken word

It is no coincidence that this curriculum is being offered at a school founded and operated by monks of the English Benedictine Congregation. Valuing the word, both sacred and secular, is a means of valuing truth and is an elemental part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is also an explicit part of Catholic Benedictine tradition, where a love of the word has always been connected to a love of learning.

In the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks saved vast stores of knowledge from destruction in their active preservation of manuscripts. Now, early in the 21st century, rather than risking any scarcity of documents, we are, instead, bombarded by words and images, and run the risk of having this multitude of words fail to retain any real meaning. In the face of this indifference and even hostility to language and the notion of truth, Portsmouth Abbey is reaffirming its commitment to fluency in reading, writing and speaking.

We expect several results from our curriculum. During their stay at Portsmouth Abbey, students will be continually expanding their common base of knowledge and honing their verbal and analytical skills in complementary subjects ranging from science and mathematics to art. This will lead to their greater success as they move through an increasingly demanding curriculum and will deepen the level of discourse and inquiry. Finally, as our students depart for college, they will take with them the liberal arts education once assumed for incoming college freshmen but now the province of those few independent secondary schools willing to accept the task. The current and quite explicit expectations of higher education and professional disciplines cannot be ignored. Elite colleges, top graduate schools, and the most highly skilled professions demand of high school graduates what they have always demanded -- outstanding skills of literacy, numeracy and reasoning, an ability to master content in core academic disciplines, a fluency in the cultural literacy of our Western tradition, and the initiative to work hard and confidently manage one's own learning.

Portsmouth Abbey has chosen this path because we see it as the correct one. It has been encouraging, however, to see the increasing validation of this approach from a wide and diverse range of sources. A brochure from Harvard University's admissions office outlined many of the same arguments for offering a curriculum such as that at Portsmouth Abbey School, encouraging high school students to focus on core subjects in the humanities, science and mathematics, while saving elective explorations for college. Additionally, in an editorial entitled "Disciplinary Learning," Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote, "If the schools are failing our students... it is because we are satisfied with the shallow kind of knowledge that comes from insufficient grounding in the basic disciplines."

An Invitation

You are invited to visit Portsmouth Abbey School to see for yourself our learning community of monks and laypeople. Whether you are new to Portsmouth or a former student, parent, or friend, you are encouraged to spend a day with us, so as to better experience what a Portsmouth education has to offer.


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