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Ideas and Ideals

At the Saint David's Kalina School in Tigray.
The Kukufto Village chief elder, an old, wise, weather-worn faced Ethiopian said only one thing to me at the end of our formal ceremonies at the opening of Saint David’s Kalina School in June: “I only wish I was young again, so I could attend this school.” An illiterate man, he sees the promise and challenge of the future as clearly as the Abyssinian sun shines brightly in his sky. Trekking the Horn of Africa at the opening of my summer with three student council presidents, their dads, and teachers was nothing short of inspirational. Eucalyptus, frankincense, and myrrh invaded my senses while the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness consumed my thoughts.

Along unpaved, rut-filled roads to villages and towns with no running water, indoor plumbing or septic systems, the Ethiopians are laying high speed Internet cable to earthen floored huts that leak in the rain. Forget the whole Industrial Revolution; Ethiopia is moving from the Agrarian Age directly to the Information Age. Like enlightened parents in New York, enlightened parents in Ethiopia see a dramatically changing world. Their children’s future as well as our children’s depend on accepting and adapting to this reality.

Ideas will be the engines that drive the future. With technological advances unfolding at speeds that not long ago would have seemed unfathomable, those who generate the ideas now stand to reap a greater percentage of the rewards. In a provocative piece in a recent publication of Foreign Affairs, the authors argue that digital technology is reshaping our economy and, by extension, our work and world (1).

What a large company employing lots of people and with a great deal of capital investment could produce not so long ago, distributing income broadly, will now be achieved with just a few people who conceive of the idea themselves and have the digitized technology to develop it at their fingertips, distributing income narrowly. This new reality is as exciting and promising as it is unnerving. Where it becomes particularly significant to a school educating boys to aspire to be good men is in the broader disruptive consequences of this shift.

Income distribution is just one, you can add deforestation, global climate change, geopolitical instability, and America’s place in a new world, to the list of challenges that will require bold ideas to solve. There is no question that exceptional schools like Saint David’s will produce citizens who can generate the ‘ideas’ that will drive our future, but what good will these ideas be if not informed by high ideals? Ideals are those principles or values that one actively pursues as a goal; a goal generated by an intrinsic moral sense.

High ideals do not always come naturally: they have to be taught, reinforced, practiced, and celebrated. Our school-wide theme this year is drawn from the final paragraph of the school’s mission, “Saint David’s boys distinguish themselves as young men of ideas and ideals, action and reflection … that they be good men.” Given the complexity of putting ideals into practice, and resolving the conflicts that often arise between and among them, they can easily be reduced to dogma, enforced by someone or something extrinsic.

For good men, the motivation is intrinsic. This year, we will critically reflect on precisely this: how do we cultivate an intrinsic sense of “the good” in our sons? How do we ensure that their ideas are guided by virtues like prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity? This will be the focus of our work and thought this year as we continue to reflect upon what we teach and why we teach it.

1. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2014. “New World Order,” Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Michael Spence. pp. 44-53.


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