Yesterday, I saw my youngest of four children dash onto the bus for his first day of kindergarten. Having stayed home for preschool, this was his big moment. For most of the year prior, he had been begging to join his older siblings at school. Seeing the hopeful anticipation in his eyes brought me great joy as both a father and an educator. What was he looking forward to? Was it new friends, fun activities, independence? As I reflect, my hope for my son is that he will grow to expect from his education what I told my students at The Stony Brook School they should expect from their education at our first academic assembly.
1. I want my children and my students to go to school with a purpose, and that purpose is to grow in knowledge, skill, and virtue so that they can eventually serve the world. If they set their vision beyond accolades to love of God and neighbor, they will find joy in the struggles and peace in the failures that are sure to challenge them on their path.If they put their focus on extrinsic goods like grades and college admissions, they will find fear and anxiety around every bend, but if they put their focus on growing in knowledge, skill, and virtue, not only will they become wise scholars, faithful friends, and loving spouses and parents, they will probably get good grades and get into a good college as well.
2. I want them to recognize that there are no shortcuts to knowledge, skill, and virtue. They can’t plug into the matrix (or their smartphones) and get the goods without the effort. Just as an athlete or a musician must put in the hard work day after day and do all the repetitions the right way to perform well in front of an audience, so a student must struggle through difficult concepts and problems to acquire excellence.
3. I want my children and students to be courageously vulnerable. Pretending to understand something one does not may be the single greatest barrier to growth in knowledge, skill, and virtue. I want my children and students to admit when they don’t understand something, ask for help, and then tenaciously pursue understanding until they arrive at it.
As a parent and an educator, I know it is all too easy to focus on my students’ grades, to try to make their difficulties disappear, and to accept a masquerade in place of genuine understanding. I’m going to need reminders throughout the year to help the students in my life to stay focused on their higher purpose, to press on when things get tough, and to be courageously vulnerable with those who can help them understand what they don’t.