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Education | 23 Minutes

Insights from a Veteran Teacher

Marlin Detweiler Written by Marlin Detweiler
Insights from a Veteran Teacher


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What mindsets ought we to instill in our children to prepare them for the real world?

Meet one of Veritas Scholars Academy’s first-ever and longest-standing teachers, Al Keller. He has been passionately teaching history, theology, and literature through the Veritas Press Omnibus program since nearly the beginning. Join as he shares great wisdom and perspective that can only come to fruition through age and God’s grace.

Do you like Al’s passion and drive? Consider signing your student up for a live online class with him or one of our other amazing Omnibus teachers!


Episode Transcription

Note: This transcription may vary from the words used in the original episode for better readability.

Marlin Detweiler:

Good morning or good day! Today on Veritas Vox, we want to welcome you to our podcast, Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. And we have the one and only Al Keller with us today. I say one and only because you're going to hear some things about him that are truly remarkable. Al, welcome.

Al Keller:

Well, it's good to be here and it's the one and only. But my wife has a totally different take on that. So does my sister and my daughter!

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, I think you're the one and only with her, too. She's not been married to somebody else. Ha!

So tell me, Al, how did you get involved or how did you become aware of classical Christian education initially?

Al Keller:

Initially, I was a pastor in Fort Wayne, Indiana, during the eighties and nineties, and I retired in 2008 and we were going to build the school. We had a school already going and I heard a little bit about this, had some friends in Seattle I was talking with, and they made me aware of it. And I was first interested in trying to get the school to go more to a classical environment.

And that's how I got interested in it at least. And that would have been, like I said, in the nineties when we started school.

Marlin Detweiler:

So with that, then somehow you became aware of Veritas. How did that happen?

Al Keller:

Well, my daughter went into homeschooling, and she found out I don't know how, but she found out about I think she probably had one of my granddaughters at that point registered in Veritas. And she mentioned she thought it might be a good fit, so I should see if I could maybe start teaching there. And I sent in the initial contact and then received a welcome!

The other thing that happened though, was when I did that before I was supposed to get into class, they found out I had some major heart surgery, so I had to wait two weeks. I went through the surgery and then got in two weeks after that. And so I've been here ever since.

Marlin Detweiler:

Okay. What year was that? Around 2008 when you retired?

Al Keller:

2008, I believe. Or ‘09. Not sure which.

Marlin Detweiler:

Very good. So we have, at this point, just finished. We're about to start our 17th year of offering online classes, and you started about 13 years ago, maybe 14. So you were really early on. Do you remember how many teachers we had at that moment?

Al Keller:

No, I don't. My main contact at that point would have been Rick Davis.

Marlin Detweiler:

Okay. He’s one of our teachers. Yeah, that's remarkable. So I suspect back then you were one of the first 20 or 30 teachers. And now we've got for the coming school year, I think, over 165.

Al Keller:

Yes. That's a lot of growth.

Marlin Detweiler:

What classes are you teaching this year?

Al Keller:

Well, I have all the way through Omnibus. It's Omnibus IV primary, V Primary, and VI Secondary. However, I taught for the longest time IV Secondary.

Marlin Detweiler:

Okay. What have you taught in prior years? What other things have you taught over those 13 or 14 years?

Al Keller:

Nothing else.

Marlin Detweiler:

So that's it?

Al Keller:

I had a request for teaching a language, but I felt I have to speak the language before I can actually teach it. So that's why I didn't go into it.

Marlin Detweiler:

We're going to talk a little bit about your background in language and other work in just a moment. But what is it about the Omnibus that gets you up in the morning?

Al Keller:

Oh, it's the class starts at 7:00am here. So that gets me up!

Marlin Detweiler:

I don’t mean, literally, ha ha. I mean, what are you excited about?

Al Keller:

I know. I know! The reason is what I felt about this classical education. It was I got I started in a classical education- a poor one, but it was that environment. And when the changes came about and I thought, they're not good changes. And when I was working at the school, I thought, we've got to somehow… The students we are producing aren't thinking. They don't know how to think. We haven't done that. And classical education would be the way to do that, I thought. When I was in grad, when I was at university in my undergraduate years, I went in there with the idea: I wanted to learn how to think and what I did was take philosophy. And also I had to take - at that time you had to take a language.

So I had a junior college year, a couple of them, and I had to take Latin, Greek, and German in those first two years at the little junior college.

Marlin Detweiler:

So you took Latin and Greek as well, and German?

Al Keller:

That was required.

Marlin Detweiler:

Wow.

Al Keller:

When I switched into the secular school at this time, I decided to go into science. So I needed a language no matter where I was going. So I took I said, well, I got the German, we’ll go into to the German. And those two, as I went into that, I always remember I had my Greek and my Latin, and I was always involved in the church, and I decided it was so much fun when I was reading we start off in Saint John, read that and Corinthians and things like that.

Part of it that I decided, you know, this is very interesting. And then, with philosophy, I thought this is going to flow. So I started when we had the read Plato. I remember looking at some of the Greek. They had to try to understand it and stumble my way through it. But I became more aware that the students today are missing so much because we had - this, some of this, in high school - not the Greek, the German, or anything like that, but the English.

And I thought when I read the foreign language, it is different than the translation. The other thing is it required me to think differently. Now you hear me going on, I'm sorry, but you asked.

Marlin Detweiler:

That’s fine! Well, the so that all of those things kind of conspired to get you interested in teaching for us. And you believe that the Omnibus, which is for those who don’t know, that are listening, that is an integrated humanities curriculum. It teaches history, theology, and literature together, going through the great books of Western civilization over all of its history.

And you made a comment that one of the things that intrigued you about that was that it teaches kids to think. Tell me in your class how that comes about. How do kids learn to think and learn to think better because of taking your classes?

Al Keller:

That's not fair.

Marlin Detweiler:

I said these would be easy questions, I didn’t say these would be fair questions.


Al Keller:

No, the reason why I'm laughing. What I do see is one of the things I have felt I have to say this with classical education, if there's any hope in America, classical education is at the top of it. It's the one thing and the only way we're going to change anything is to get into the hearts and minds of our students.

That's the thing that's got me motivated all the way through. Once I got into that education in Fort Wayne, I realized we got to get the heart and minds of the students. Now what I found out, and I usually get sometimes, I was getting called on. We were never on topic. You know, I told the students, you know, I have to get them to think.

So what I would do is let rabbits loose in a class. Now, what a rabbit is, is a student brings up something, I'm a follow it, and I might get him on it and get them on it. But then I'm a bring it back to the main topic.

Marlin Detweiler:

What a great strategy. You're, you're allowing them some rope to talk about what they want to talk about, but you're making sure that it's within the context of why you're there to begin with.

Al Keller:

Right, right, right, right.

Marlin Detweiler:

Very good.

Al Keller:

Once in a great while, once in a very great while, a student will bring up something that is really troubling them. But I know it's interesting, and it’s going to be helping the rest of the class. So I will follow that. I'd say about once or twice in a semester that will come up, but only under special circumstances. Now, if a student wants to take a rabbit and make a joke out of it, you know I will follow it, but I'll make sure when it's over, he's caught in the trap, not the rabbit.

Marlin Detweiler:

I love that!

Al Keller:

I'd like to tell my students any question’s fair, and I don't want you getting angry at anything, you know, and perfectly, I'm as good a shot as anybody else, you know? Shoot me if you have to because I want them to be challenged and to think at the same time if that makes sense.

Marlin Detweiler:

That does make sense. There is an incident that I want to get on the record with you that I really don't know the truth of. I've only heard it as hearsay. You mentioned when you first came to teach with us that you had a heart condition and ended up in the hospital, which delayed some things for a couple of weeks. But as I recall, subsequent to that, having taught for us for a few years, you ended up in the hospital with a heart attack and needed to be tended to. That's not true?

Al Keller:

No, no. I've never had a heart attack.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, here's what I've heard. And this is what I need to have you tell us. Somehow with. And I don't want to tell the story too much because I want you to tell it, but I at least need to give you enough information so you know what I'm asking. Yeah, but somehow, when you were in the hospital, you were so concerned to not leave your students hanging that you insisted on teaching from a hospital bed. And the doctor agreed to let you do that because he believed that you would be more relaxed doing it than not doing it. Tell us the whole story! Tell us the truth.

Al Keller:

Well, that one is so far off, I don't know!

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, it took on a life of it’s own. And so I want to know what the truth is.

Al Keller:

Yes, this is what happened. When I was preparing for the class, I had to go in– I exercise a lot, never had a heart attack. And I, I had up I can't remember the term for it now. But somehow in my exercise routine, I put my heart out of rhythm a little bit, and I fainted briefly.

The doctor wasn't worried about it because I was still going ten miles, you know, on some of this and running and everything. But he decided he wanted to do a ventriculogram on me. So I went to Saint Francis. I was in Greenwood at the time in Indiana, and whatever they found, they were worried about.

So they asked my wife, could she - they have everybody there and a brand new and not a brand, but that one of the top surgeons in the area, in a country there, they had just hired him on, and he was available. So I went in then for the surgery. My wife said, go ahead and do it. You know, the one thing that was in that story that kind of fits in a little bit was– you have to find a topic.

The nurse told me later that I was joking about things, and I was all just nutty because they were wheeling me from the ventriculogram now to do surgery. And she wanted to know why I was so happy and I didn't want my wife worrying about anything, you know? And she was really touched by because I'm out of it. Totally.

Okay. Now, we went through the surgery. I came out very well. The doctor, when I was finished, came in, and he was talking. He said, “You know, you came through this very well.” The key in this, I had never had a heart attack.

Marlin Detweiler:

Okay.

Al Keller:

So he said, what will happen with this? He says, “If the healing progresses, you will be healthier in many ways than you will before, and you'll be doing things that you want to do weren't able to do before.” And that's exactly what happened. The only thing I wanted to do, I remember talking to him about that. He said two weeks is a little early for that.

And I said, “No, I want to do it. If I can do it, I'd like to do it.”

Marlin Detweiler:

And that’s the teaching of your students?

Al Keller:

Right. So in the home I went right into the class, and I was in the healing process. But that's the story yeah.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well it's funny how folklore works in passing stories down the line. I appreciate you getting us straight on it. And your dedication was not at all any different in that story than the one that I was thinking was the truth. But that's a real testimony to your commitment to this.

Al Keller:

Other people do the same thing. You know, from our generation, you know, when you had to do the job, you did it and you enjoyed it. You know, I actually, Marlin, in today's world, you know, if you got a little headache, you can't do it. But if we took the responsibility. You've got a lot of responsibility with what you're doing and the work you're doing, which is much more than what I'm a do, because you're giving opportunity for this and you know, the hazards and the problems you have to go through to do it, but you get the job done.

Marlin Detweiler:

Well, yeah. This morning I ended up with some really interesting challenges. We've got somebody defrauding us through online orders, and I needed to work with our operations and how we put a stop to it. And you never know what the day is going to bring.

Al Keller:

Oh no, never do. Yeah, and this is what I want the students to know. You know, I try to help them when they run into problems to solve the problems and look at what they have. Because a lot of times, the problem covers the actual problem, if you understand what I'm saying.

Marlin Detweiler:

We had you speak at commencement, the graduation of our students a few years ago. As you prepared for that, as you thought about addressing the senior class and the parents and relatives that were there, what were the things that you really wanted to make sure you got across? What did you think was important?

The reason why I want you to share that now is because I was there for it and I think the wisdom that you applied to it was very effective. But I want to know how you thought about it and what really motivated you to say what you did.

Al Keller:

Well, I'm one of these that really believe that God does a lot, does just about everything in our lives. And I've been a part of the church, no matter what I've done, you know, and that's it's always been a major part. And I remember praying a lot about that. I almost turned it down several times. I thought, you know, there's a lot of guys out there better than I am. They are a lot more experienced, and I have watched some of this. They can do a better job, but I thought, no, the Lord's given it to me. But the one thing I wanted to do, I want I wanted to be up there as the students saw me in the classroom.

That they didn’t say, “Wait, this Al Keller is totally different,” you know, I wanted them to hear, and that's why there, 1) I introduced humor because I think that's a relaxing thing for the students really, particularly for teenagers. The other thing was that I wanted, I know the parents have great anticipation for them, and when I did, I thought, okay, they're chickens.

And I used this- there was an American history book about 1840 or something somewhere, or it might have been ‘60. But anyway, they had a picture of it, of a colonialist feeling feeding chickens. I still use it on my site. I copied and put it right up there because I know where they are right now, and it's even worse now, I think. They have a grandiose idea of who they are and what life is. Their parents have the same thing. But as problems hit in lives, it tends to bring us down and make us think a lot more. It sobers us, I would say. Now what I wanted the students to know is, okay, I tell them that, but I tell them that in a way that I think it may stick, but it's not going to depress them.

And more than anything, I want you all, and I said that “You all are very, very important. You're the next generation. What you do with your life now is going to determine what we do with it later and what you do with it later and how other people are able to survive it -”

Marlin Detweiler:

Gotta plug my computer in here. Hang on just a second. There we go. Okay. Go ahead.

Al Keller:

So that's why I did what I did. My main goal was to encourage them to go out. But I wanted my students that saw me there and the others, too– I was hoping that my vision that I have of these students going out and making big changes in the world because I am firmly convinced, Marlin, that these classically educated students, when they get into the world, they're going to make a major change because there's none of them thinking out there.

Marlin Detweiler:

They're capable in ways that others aren't.

Al Keller:

Absolutely. The only thing I worry about now, I tell them this all the time is when you get in a university. The university wants to take that mine and sidetrack it and put it on their terms, and it is happening with some of the students we have when they go out, you know, they're engulfed by. But I warned them all the way through. That's what I wanted to do there, too.

Marlin Detweiler:

Yeah. One of the things. Yeah, we're not our students are not immune to the influences of the world. Voddie Baucham has cited that students as high as 70% coming out of Christian homes lose their faith in college. Now, some of them do get it back. They get married, they have children, and they have this conservative shift. They have this shift back to their Christian roots and that sort of thing.

But 70% in college is a huge number. I'm very pleased with the fact that classically educated kids are far less. I wish they were zero. It's not zero, but they are far less. And it is such a significant thing for the training that comes out of classical Christian education to not only help kids keep their faith but develop it in the context of challenges and hardship that unfortunately comes sometimes at the hands of their teachers, and their professors.

Al Keller:

Yes. One of the things I had is I told you before, I went to a two-year junior college, it was a Lutheran one, but it was classically educated. That's where I had those three languages. But there they were making a change that year, and they started having us read things in English. One of the things I had to read, I remember very clearly they wanted us to read the book Peyton Place. I read about the, I'd say maybe a chapter in to and I realized, “Wait a minute, this is not something my mom would want me to read. She doesn't even know this is going on.” And none of the parents know these other kids are getting this and things like this. And so what I did, and I tell the students it's I don't mind saying I went to IU Texas, it's an Austin library and I want to know how to write a book review without writing, reading a book and the old librarian thought I was terrible when I told her why, she gave me somebody, and I started doing that. So if I have to go through here, I'm going to have to get this material. But I'll write the book, you know, I'll get the book reviews.

But it made me realize, and I've been doing this all the way through, and I keep telling parents and that's what I've done at Fort Wayne as a pastor, you know, you have no idea what's going on in that classroom.

You have your children, and you're raising them. You have all your views. But for 8 hours a day, you're putting them in a totally hostile environment, which you don't realize it's going to get worse when you get into a university, and you have to gear them and prepare them to answer the questions. And this is what I've done all the way through.

And I've seen, and this is what I love about Veritas, it gives me the opportunity to prepare the students for the university, what they're going to get, how to play the game. Forgive me. You know, they get through it and come out clean. And I'm doing this now with Veritas, with one thing I've wanted to do, too.

I wanted students to look at research. The main thing they have to validate their information. The thing we have right now in the world is the information they're putting out there is not– you can't validate it. It's just a personal thing.

Marlin Detweiler:

Oh, I was just going to say, when it comes to knowing what's going on in the classroom, one of the things that I enjoy so much about what we do is that we have a perfect record of what goes on in the classroom because it's recorded and we have that recorded record of it the whole way through. And, of course, we have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of. Unlike appears to be the case in so many other places, right?

Hey, you have a real background in Russian and Chinese history. How did that come about?

Al Keller:

Oh, my, my! Okay, this is how it came about. You got you have to have the time. When is when you're. I was I first interested in a ministry, and then I decided when I went through that, I thought, wait, this is terrible. They did things that I'm thinking, “I can't teach the Bible. Like it's a story that only relates to now and doesn't at least related then.”

So I got out of that, and I went into science. I took almost all the questions about one of them in physics. I decided when I was going through this, I was always kind of bothered about what I wanted to do because I always I'm a person that does what I like to do.

And I got into the military, and I started tracing into security, and I was stationed in Adak. I had had a little Russian because what I was thinking of Russian history, they had one of the that there anyway, when I got it when I was in the Navy and thinking about this, I thought, you know, this is very interesting.

We were chasing Russian submarines all over the Pacific at that time. And I think this is very interesting. So and when I came back, I thought I might go into history. Well, everybody thought I was nuts for not going into science- which I did do, I was just, I'm probably the original lost full life student. But negative, not positive, on that one.

But anyway, I started going into history. One of my teachers, I had a Russian language teacher at N.O. here and a teacher who graduated from the University of Washington, and he thought I should go in for my history degree for a doctorate at the University of Washington. When I got and, I was surprised I got in, really, but I got to the University of Washington.

Now, I've already had Russian because my master's degree was on the Russian influence in the Second World War and First World War. When I got there, I found out about Chinese, and I thought, you know, this would be an interesting one. I don't know much about it. So I started working in Chinese, and I was going to go for a Russian Chinese double Ph.D. It was going to be a lot of work. But as I got into that university world, and I’m speaking the language I got, most of my friends were either Russian and Chinese at this point. You know, at the university. And then I this is where the language actually came in, and my background on that came in. But I realized I, I was not a good fit at a university.

My advisor, I remember he was using a book, and I'm thinking, and I made the point, you know, he's wrong. You know what he said there? And I remember him telling me, he said, Well, what did you expect him to say, Albert? Would you expect him to say that? You know, I don't think this is right, or maybe this is not quite right.

And I said, “You know, it would have been a lot more helpful if you would not been so proud about it. And having some stupid guy like me, an undergraduate, come in and be able to tear his book apart without any problem!” Well, he was one of my advisor's friends. He didn't like that a whole lot, but it did- There was a number of them there. They had a Russian teacher there that I got along very, very well with, and one I taught Byzantine history, and I got along. He was from Hungary, but I decided to get out of that, and I said I got to do something else. So I went into that's when I got into Boeing.

Marlin Detweiler:

Very good. That's awesome. Do you have any stories here in the closing minutes that you think would be good for us to hear from you related to the topics we've been discussing?

Al Keller:

Yeah, what I would do is encourage the kids. You know, when we get when you look at social media is one thing I play a game with, I like to listen to it a little bit, but I notice one thing. It's the one thing it's it diverts the students away from thinking. It puts them in, “Ah, here I am. Look at me.” Rather than saying, “Here's the problem, let me look at it.” And so what I try to do is encourage them, and I irritate them to a certain extent like they love Harry Potter. And I go, I call him Harry Potty because - what I and I tell them is, I said, you know, “You notice how mad you get? This is a fantasy character. He doesn't exist. And look how angry you get. Now what you need to do is get that anger at reality. And if you focus that on reality, which you have there, you're going to be very much surprised and you're going to find out life is really a lot of fun. I hope that helps.”

Marlin Detweiler:

And is a wonderful story. Well, it's been so great to visit with you. Our conversations have been limited. Obviously, you work in an area that's slightly removed from my opportunity to interact with you on a routine basis. But it has been really fun to just talk to you during this time. Thank you so much for joining us. The folks, this is Veritas Vox, the voice of classical Christian education. And our guest, Al Keller, has been a real delight. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have.