Embarking on the Ultimate Quest

In preparing students for the new challenges of the 21st Century, Stony Brook’s Academic Dean borrows from the medievalists.

by Sean Riley, PhD

Chester at Class Challenges

As I reflect on the opportunities ahead this academic year–my eighth year at The Stony Brook School–I am awed and energized by the renewal and revival taking place here on campus. The 2013-2014 academic year included many firsts: Our first dinner in the Kanas Commons dining room, the first time we raised over $1 million in combined financial support for the annual fund and several special projects, and our first year with new Head of School Joshua Crane at the helm of our beloved institution. This fall, the 2014-2015 academic year has already added many more firsts. To name just a few: Two new courses, Engineering Innovation & Design and Mandarin I, both met for the first time in late August; our new teaching fellowship and mentoring programs are renewing and invigorating our commitment to professional development; and, on November 1, we hosted the first annual Long Island High School Philosophy Conference.

When I accepted Mr. Crane’s appointment to become The Stony Brook School’s academic dean, I faced many firsts of my own. My new responsibilities revolve around casting an academic vision for the School. From there, I’m developing a rigorous and exciting curriculum relevant to 21st Century learning and skills, improving the ways we use our time and space to implement that curriculum, and equipping teachers to inspire and challenge student in the classroom.

In describing my philosophy of education, which is at the heart of my academic vision for the School, I find that it’s useful to employ the medieval concept of “the quest.”

The medievalists viewed education as a quest, one that begins with wonder. As we move about each day, we experience small glimpses of the glory of God. For our students, such glimpses might include an early morning fog rolling in over the dewy football field as summer gives way to fall, or the tiny dimpled hands and feet of the youngest faculty children, or that “a-ha” moment in a challenging math class, when the numbers dance their proper steps and for a moment, everything is almost perfect. These small glimpses spark our sense of wonder. They are what motivate us to look outside ourselves, to head out into the world, to embark on our big adventure of discovery. We’re awed by what might be–the possibility of truth, beauty, and goodness. It gets us searching.

The 21st century quest is as arduous as the medieval one. Yes, there are ogres and dragons along the way: deception, ugliness, and evil. We find them not only out there in the world, but in our own hearts. We are bombarded with deceptive messaging in our popular culture; messaging that suggests we ought to love and serve money, sex, belongings, success. If we’re not careful, our own deceptive hearts will take over the job, urging us to doubt our worth and participate in injustice, all the while entertaining ourselves to death.  If we stay the course and battle those ogres and dragons, however, we will become stronger, more confident, more committed to our end goal and to taking the path that will lead us there.  We will not be wandering, but questing–thoughtfully putting one foot in front of the other, building each day on yesterday’s progress and mistakes. As we overcome the obstacles in our path, we grow in courage, temperance, and hope. We become ready to hear from wise ones who have travelled the same path, and can offer helpful direction, and then we ourselves grow in wisdom, aesthetic knowledge, and moral virtue.

Just as with the medieval quest, we discover the 21st century quest is all about the journey, and the way it challenges, impacts, and changes the quester. As we approach the end goal, we find that it’s not fully attainable. Education is not a process that can ever be fully consummated. True mastery evades us. The grandeur and mystery of creation is never exhausted by our pursuit of it. We discover instead that we are on a continual quest, that it will last a whole lifetime, and that while we do (with God’s help) make progress, we won’t reach our ultimate goal until we meet God in heaven.

Hence, the ideal Stony Brook education is a quest that will begin with wonder and end in worship. To educate a student toward any other end is to lead them into hazardous territory. This is what so many other schools fail to realize, and what makes The Stony Brook School such an appealing choice for Christian and non-Christian students alike. We know that when an education deals only in knowledge and skills, but leaves out Christian faith and virtue, there’s danger that it could be equipping the student for wrongdoing.  Perhaps C.S. Lewis said it best in The Abolition of Man: “”Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

We see, then, that learning and worship are and should be inextricably linked. Truth, beauty, and goodness in this world are reflections of our perfect creator, and are the only worthy pursuits for our minds, bodies, and souls. They point us in precisely the direction that God created us to go. This is why the tenets of the Christian faith are so well-integrated into every aspect of our academically rigorous curriculum. By continuing to operate according to the intent of Frank Gaebelein, our School’s founder–to communicate ”the unity of all truth under God“–The Stony Brook School counts itself among the foremost independent schools in the world.

This article originally appeared in The Bulletin of the Stony Brook School, Fall/Winter 2014 publication.


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