The Importance of Virtue



While we seek to pursue academic excellence at The Stony Brook School, our chief concern is for the moral, intellectual, and spiritual growth—the overall character—of our students. We believe as an institution that without character, success is empty and meaningless. While within every person lies the ability to do good, that ability is a choice. It is a daily decision to not do what is easy, but to do what is right. At The Stony Brook School, we seek to not only set those examples for our students ourselves, but to integrate it into our daily curriculum. One of the main ways we teach this at SBS is by way of virtue.

“Virtues cannot simply be one lesson or unit in a student’s coursework,” said Science Faculty Danielle Davey, “but should rather be included as a thread pulled through the curriculum and their school experience.”

While there are many virtues, we focus on the traditional core virtues as a school: love, hope, faith, wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. During a student’s journey through an SBS, they experience a focal virtue in each grade.

7TH GRADE: COURAGE
Alicia Brummler, English Faculty

Courage is an important virtue for seventh graders—especially at a college preparatory school like SBS where many new experiences and unknowns present themselves. In my curriculum, students read stories that illustrate in some capacity the virtue of courage. The year begins with The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Students are transported to the Shire where they meet Bilbo, a reluctant participant to Gandalf’s adventure initially. Whether out loud or in their minds, students can relate to Bilbo on several levels. They know what it feels like to be thrust into unfamiliar situations. They know what it feels like to have others doubt their abilities. They know what it feels like to face challenging circumstances and not know what to do next. Throughout the novel, we have many group discussions around courage—both in the book and in their own lives. 

In Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary Schmidt, the students see firsthand characters whose courageous actions and choices seriously affect the trajectory of their lives. One of the culminating events of reading this book is a class trip to Maine. Unfortunately, last year’s trip was cancelled due to COVID. For many students, attending the overnight trip requires a certain level of courage. This may be one of the first times they spend the night away from family, as many seventh graders are only day students here at SBS. Others have never been this far away from home for a school trip, and visiting a new place feels uncertain. Overall, it’s always a privilege for me to journey alongside my students towards learning to be courageous.

8TH GRADE: TEMPERANCE
Erik Yoder, STEM Faculty

While science doesn’t tend to directly correlate with temperance, I pause with science content to highlight the class virtue multiple times throughout the year. I try to weave temperance into my lessons, but I believe taking a class period to focus on it entirely elevates its importance. 

For example, I took the time to discuss temperance with my class in early February. I asked each student to write down how they would describe or define temperance, and share some specific examples of how they could see temperance on display. Most descriptions centered on examples of self-control—controlling anger, appetite, etc. After reading through some of the answers we discussed the idea of temperance that we hold to at SBS: We have properly ordered desires for the finite goods of this life, exercising moderation so that we can achieve higher goods. In a world driven by appetite, we strive to be the sorts of people who love what God loves and hold with an open hand that which will not ultimately satisfy. This led into a discussion on both bad and good desires, and students took the time to reflect on what areas in their lives could personally use temperance. 

Another idea we’ve discussed as a class is the golden mean, or the “middle way”, as described in philosophy. This is the idea to always seek to find the middle ground—not too much or too little of something. For eighth graders that is an extremely important virtue to learn, especially as they are growing into teenagers who will be given more freedoms as they age. As John Piper said in one of the articles I shared with my students, “The very concept of  ‘self-control’ implies a battle between a divided self. It implies that our ‘self’ produces desires we should not satisfy but instead ‘control.’ We should deny ourselves and take up our cross daily, Jesus says, and follow him.”

9TH GRADE: JUSTICE
Danielle Davey, Biology Faculty 

Incorporating virtues into science curriculum challenges students to dive deep into the interconnectedness of the world in which they live. Justice, the virtue of ninth grade, enables us to assume our responsibilities and to give others their due. That idea takes many different forms in my classroom. For example , when investigating how the shortage of freshwater impacts communities around the world, it is important to discuss our roles in the equitable distribution of this precious resource. In studying the organization of living things and human systems, students deliberate the justice of commercial selling of organs. While acknowledging that allowing a commercial organ trade could put an end to needless deaths and suffering by increasing the supply of organs, the discussion raises important questions about whether adopting such a practice would create injustices or would violate the rights of individuals. In light of the current world pandemic, some students participated in a lecture and Q&A by scientists from Rockefeller University where Dr. Chibuzo U. Enemchukwu discussed how to use science to advance health equity.
During their time at SBS, students are taught to observe situations, consider all sides of issues, and then act justly. I have personally witnessed the fruits of this teaching in the mature manner in which SBS students discuss issues, even outside of the classroom, actively listening and considering the opposing views and responding in well thought out, respectful ways. 

10TH GRADE: WISDOM
Jason Radcliffe, English and Humanities Faculty

 O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures (Psalm 104:24). 

In my classroom, our understanding of wisdom is driven by the great saint Athanasius of Alexandria who says of Psalm 104:24, “Simply to be was not enough: God also wanted his creatures to be good. That is why he was pleased that his own wisdom should descend to their level and impress upon each of them singly and upon all of them together a certain resemblance to their Model.”

Throughout my curriculum—from Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in English class to Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo in Humanities class and everywhere in between–we focus on Jesus Christ, the incarnate wisdom of God and learn to permit the mind of Christ to shape our own. In each subject we seek to allow wisdom to inform our study as we emphasize independent research, civil discussion and debates, and analysis of texts. While what students learn is deeply Christological, it is also extremely practical. They sharpen skills to use in the real world by having civil discussions, informed debates, and taking time to critically think without distraction—all which require an understanding of, and tight grip on, wisdom.

In our wisdom-focused study of texts and subsequent collaboration and discussion we seek to, much like God reveals himself to us through Christ, unlearn our assumptions about others–whether they be people or texts or ideas–and allow others themselves to dictate our understanding of them according to their own nature; to first learn and understand before acting or judging.  

11TH GRADE: LOVE
Rachel Stone, English Faculty

Love is more than a theme in the books we study or the essays we read or write, however—it is the delicate but strong fabric that’s formed by the real connections students make as they share their ideas and learn from one another. Throughout the year, from summer reading to final essays, I look for ways to teach my students to explore what it means to love our neighbors. Traditionally, the study of rhetoric and composition has been referred to as the art of persuasion. This art has been criticized—sometimes justly—as potentially manipulative. However in my classes, I prefer to guide students to explore composition as the art of communicating and connecting with others, processes that can only proceed where there is mutual understanding and respect. Or, in a word, love.

As students read and analyze personal nonfiction writing from a variety of perspectives and cultures, they come to discover that many of their own struggles and worries are shared by people from other times and other places; and they learn that their own experiences are worth exploring in writing. Through novels such as Great Expectations and The House of Mirth, students observe how love can nurture human potential and bring it to full flourishing—and how the lack of love wreaks destruction on human lives and happiness. 

Love in action looks a lot like kindness, and that kindness has been characteristic of our students, especially as they’ve navigated the challenges of the past year. They have become deeply sensitive to each other’s needs, willing to help when help is needed, and eager to become people who live out truly loving our neighbors in the classroom, in the dorms, and on the fields.

12TH GRADE: HOPE 
Erik Johnson, English Faculty and Associate Director of College Counseling

The complex, challenging literature we read in AP English often seems more tragic than hopeful. After all, literature is driven by conflict, and more often than not, this conflict ends in failure. For example, we have been reading about the messy lives of characters in two contemporary novels: Wang’s Chemistry and Ward’s Sing, Unburied Sing. Reading such novels, we repeatedly see how people are trapped in cycles of brokenness. Reading older literature like Frankenstein or Hamlet, we again see how life is marked by anxiety or sorrow. Why does literature so rarely end with characters living happily ever after?

In the poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” W. H. Auden offers a reflection on what he believes the poet should do:

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Auden affirms that the task of the poet is to plumb the depths of “human unsuccess,” but doing so should not result in hopelessness. Rather, he hopes that art can be a “healing fountain.” How? As we encounter human unsuccess, we recognize that we are not alone in our brokenness. Further, while art alone does not give us the strength to break the cycles of unsuccess, it can make us more empathetic about them. I also believe that the unfulfilled longings we confront in literature point us to a solution beyond ourselves—ultimately, to the possibility that all of our stories are bound up with an ultimate “eucatastrophe,” an unbelievable good turn, as Tolkien put it. This does not mean living happily ever after, at least not superficially. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the last scene is a funeral, but the characters at the funeral are hopeful about the resurrection—that in death, there will be life. To whatever extent we can hope for life in the midst of death, we are opened up to possibilities beyond ourselves. In the words of Richard Wilbur, we are pointed to “that dreamt land towards which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.”

SCHOOLWIDE VIRTUE: FAITH
Mark Teitjen, School Chaplain and Bible Faculty and Department Chair

As a Christian school, our faith is woven into the fabric of who we are and what we teach. That being said, classes in the Bible department can sometimes be pegged in advance as something akin to Sunday school; as predictably soft in thinking and heavy on blind faith. But that’s not what our students get. Instead, we daily challenge one another to ask whether the beliefs we hold are reasonable and, importantly, whether they are consistent with one another.

Each year, I start the philosophy portion of our senior capstone course, Faith and Culture in the 21st Century, with this thought: Everyone has faith in something. Everyone holds beliefs with varying degrees of support, some of those beliefs carrying less support than others. And everyone puts their trust in sources that may or may not come through in the end. 

It is not uncommon nowadays for a student to say something like ‘I put my trust in science,’ only to miss out on how much science does not explain. Sociologists might, for example, offer good explanations why humans hold moral beliefs, but they cannot tell us whether taking up the sword for a higher cause is morally right or wrong. Cosmologists might tell us that the universe had a definite beginning, but they cannot tell us why there is something rather than nothing.

Ours is a world of deep meaning and value, of truth that exists independent of our opinions, of moral goodness that is real. At Stony Brook we challenge all of our students to recognize the faith they already operate with, to ponder how reasonable it really is, and to consider whether the most secure intellectual position is one that finds true wisdom in the incarnate word of God, Jesus Christ.

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