Ben Ciavolella, now a Junior at Patrick Henry College, used Tapestry in high school, and graduated in 2011. He went on to win the Herodotus scholarship, which is the only specifically History-related scholarship available at Patrick Henry College. It consists of money granted each year to help pay for tuition, and requires that the student maintain a 3.2 GPA. Ben sat down with me recently to reminisce about Tapestry and explain the effect it has had on his life so far:
I like history. School was not always my favorite occupation, but I remember enjoying the Tapestry curriculum. I absolutely loved the history. Every chance I got, I was reading extra history.
I was sure that I wanted to do something with history after high school, but I don’t honestly know how I wound up winning the Herodotus scholarship at Patrick Henry College. I might have applied for it, but it wasn’t like I entered a contest or anything to prove that I deserved it. I guess I won the Herodotus scholarship because I had a great interest in history and made it clear to the people interviewing me that history was what was driving me to Patrick Henry College. I also submitted a writing sample, a prompt that my mom gave me specifically for college applications.
Mom said, “What do you like?” and I said, “I like Russian history.” She said, “Okay, why don’t you do some research into the causes of the Russian revolution.” So I did some research and that’s what I wrote about. I think the professors here appreciate a paper where you write not only about what happened, but also try to understand it and why it happened. That’s the kind of paper mine was.
I never considered myself a good writer. Mom agreed. She sat me down once and said, “You need to work on your writing skills.” So I took that as motivation and worked on it. Both my parents were an encouragement the whole way. Imagine my surprise when I got the Herodotus scholarship, because I didn’t think I was that good of a writer. But the reading inTapestry showed me what good writing looks like, and how to think critically about writing. Looking back, the reading in Tapestry was highly influential.
When I was a teenager taking Tapestry, we met with others who were doing the program once a week for History discussion. The questions and discussion provoked by Tapestry helped refine my thinking and communication skills. I’d formulate my thoughts, put them into words, and then deliver them in class, and then we’d discuss it. I think that had a beneficial effect. I also took a writing class online, but it didn’t help me a ton. I think I learned more about writing through reading for Tapestry than through anything else.
It makes sense that I did Tapestry growing up, because Mom took a huge interest in the classical liberal arts education and really wanted it for me. Initially, Dad and I were less convinced. I had mixed feelings when I visited Patrick Henry College, which, in my opinion, is one of the best liberal arts schools. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be a good place for me. Now I’m even more certain of that.
Different people are called to different occupations, but all of us should strive to live well, and I think the classical liberal arts help a person understand what living well actually means. They allow you to dabble enough in different areas to give you an idea of how everything fits together, and maybe discover the one thing (or more than one thing) that you can do really well. Classical liberal arts was the education designed to make a Renaissance man, and that appeals to me. I’m not claiming to be a Renaissance man, but I want to be one.
A Renaissance man is one who understands something (not everything, but some insights) about more than just his one narrow little area of expertise. He can connect other fields to his own field. Seeing how things connect is so important, and that’s what a classical liberal arts education gives you. When I’m in American history class, I know roughly what was going on in Europe during the same time period, because of Tapestry. That helps a lot.
Through Tapestry I learned not just what is going on at the same time in different parts of the world, but also how literature and history connect. When I was little I read science and history textbooks and news articles. I never read fiction. Actually, it was through Tapestry and through an online course that I first developed a love for reading fiction. After that I really enjoyed the literature aspect of Tapestry.
Almost every history class I’ve had here at Patrick Henry has had some literature component, because literature always either reflects or reacts to the history that is going on. One of the incredible things about literature, that always drew me in, is that it can take you into other people’s lives in other historical time periods.
Looking back on Tapestry literature, I do wish I had paid more attention to poetry. Sometimes you hear a lot about poetry and how great all the poets were, and you figure it is hype and they are actually boring. Honestly, I think that you just need to get over yourself and realize the beauty that poetry can convey. Now that I’m in college and have matured a little more, I wish I had paid more attention to it, because there’s a lot of amazing stuff there.
I like the late nineteenth and early twentieth century literature. It’s not the cheeriest, but I like it. I’m interested in modern history, but I also like the classics, and reading classic works like the Iliad helped me a lot since I was coming to a classically-minded school. I’m certain that Tapestry encouraged my appreciation of classical literature. I enjoyed the Tapestry government studies too, though I’m not terribly interested in the practical aspects of government and law. But most of all, I enjoyed the history.
Understanding History as a Christian is something I’m still struggling with. On the one hand, it’s easy for some people to say things like, “Obviously the American Revolution was God’s judgment upon Britain.” When you do that you try to tie theology and history together in ways that I think are irresponsible. It’s like trying to play God, or trying to play at knowing exactly what God is doing. But on the other hand, God does have a sovereign plan in history, and the Christian cannot deny that God is both the ruler and sustainer of the world. So there is a tension there that I’m still trying to understand.
One of the most fascinating things about history is that it’s a story and God is the author. He’s writing this story and there are all these people—it puts a meaning behind history that gives me an incentive to want to know what happened. Without a meaning behind it, I’m not sure I would be interested.
History also presents me with the painful reminder that all humans are fallen, myself included. I can judge the papacy in Italy in the 1500’s, or the Israelites in the wilderness, but the truth is I realize I’m not any better. That’s something you learn from history.
There is new vigor given to me in my study of history when I realize that these are people living their lives in a history of redemption, centered on the cross. Being a Christian gives me such a perspective on things: without that, I don’t think I would view history as one whole story, but rather as a scattering of unrelated pieces.
Another of the things I appreciate about history, but it’s also kind of frustrating, is that you need to tell a true story—but doing so requires an immense amount of quality investigation and judgment, and even then you never seem able to tell the whole story. I think education itself is similar: you’re never there; you’re always trying to get there. You never come to the end of it. It’s a lot like the theology of sanctification. There’s always another layer to be added. That’s frustrating at times, but it’s exciting too, because there’s always movement.
I’m still not sure about what I will do after I graduate, but I’ve realized that a classical liberal arts education, which helps me to connect all those pieces and understand what is good, will benefit me whether I become a worker in a factory, or a professor, or a rock star (the rock star is what I want to be currently). I realize that most proponents of a Classical Liberal Arts education make that argument, but it’s true. It’s historically proven. It has certainly proven true in the history of my life so far.