Welcome to the Headmaster's Blog where you'll find updates, thoughts, and events regarding Saint David's School, the education of boys, and other items of interest. This is by no means meant to be a complete account of all that happens at Saint David's. Please refer to the school's website for more complete details -- it's more a Headmaster's musings.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Deliberate Moral Introspection: Opening Letter

     
“To live in the presence of great truths and eternal laws, to be led by permanent ideals, that is what keeps a man patient when the world ignores him and calm and unspoiled when the world praises him.” (1)

Dear Saint David’s School Community,

Sitting atop the highest peak in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, I opened my summer; the season closed with me sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Buddhist Temple in the Hudson Highlands of New York.  It was a summer of profound contrast, setting the stage for Saint David’s 65th year.

Experiencing the architectural beauty of Monticello for the first time, one can’t help but admire the genius of Jefferson—a founding father of a nation and a university.  One also can’t help being struck by the incredible paradox Jefferson’s Monticello represents.  The very ideals of the Enlightenment that informed his authorship of a Declaration stand in stark contrast to the policies and practices of his day.  Although he was trapped by the prevailing culture of his time, Jefferson could see what others could not—a different moral country ahead.

Deliberate moral introspection, this year’s school-wide theme, comes from the first line of Saint David’s mission.  Falling between “rigorous academic pursuit” and “critical analysis of ideas and issues,” it demonstrates the wisdom of our school’s founders.  By placing it in the middle of the first sentence, they show us its primacy, while also revealing it as the glue that bonds a critical mind and rigorous pursuit with the moral, “the good.”

In our Western (classical) tradition, introspection is valued.  Etched in stone on Apollo’s Temple at Delphi are the words “know thyself,” and St. Augustine, in the school’s faith tradition, certainly wrote extensively about introspection; that’s largely where it has stayed—on walls and in books.  Not widely practiced in today’s popular culture, introspection has given way to having needs and desires met now, on having the fastest, latest, and best immediately.  If we want to teach our boys introspection, we have to reclaim the tradition.

Eastern philosophies and religions have not lost this practice.  Introspection, they tell us, begins with the mind, and like any skill it must be practiced.  To know, shape, and liberate the mind, we first have to teach our boys to filter out the noise around them so that they may see what’s really there and develop mental qualities that weaken and undermine distractions.  We then need to teach them to reflect inward to find that quiet voice within.  When our boys learn to do this effectively, they can see more clearly what is truly important.  None of this is easy; it takes sustained effort to strengthen the moral core.  It’s our experience and what we repeatedly do, that leave a residue on our souls. (2)  What we choose to do, especially that which becomes routine, shapes our inner moral core.

To help our boys develop and expand this moral core, we will ask them to reflect on the virtues, both cardinal and theological.  They will also examine traits of character, not so much those that the culture prizes today—self-control, grit, resilience, tenacity—that all feed the drive to “succeed,”(3) but the ones from a generation or two ago—selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice, and, my favorite from the Buddhists, egolessness (humility).  We will also address the moral through the importance of civility.

“Morality,” the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville said, “is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of inner life, a code of duties.”(4)  Moral action is the foundation for training the mind.  An easy exercise I learned at the Buddhist Monastery is to ask oneself the following while reflecting: Will my action be harmful to myself?  Will my action be harmful to others?  Will my action be harmful to both?  If the answer is yes, don’t engage in the action.  This exercise is then repeated for the present and the past, with the forced repetition focusing the mind.

The first of the three words of our theme, deliberate, is the most important.  If we want to be a moral community with a strong set of virtues guiding the lives of our sons, then we have to be purposeful about it.  It can’t happen by chance; only by design.  The deliberate act, it has been said, must precede the virtue.  It is through the exercise of “drill that one becomes self-regulating; through the expression of courtesy that one becomes polite; through resistance to fear that one become courageous;”(5) through egolessness that one becomes humble.  This is how character is formed.

At Saint David’s, character is the main object of education, and so, we are critically reflecting on our practices.  In the Upper School, we will be overhauling the Seventh and Eighth Grade Advisory program with an eye to making it even more comprehensive.  Associated with this is a complete review of our curricular programs that focus on the social, emotional, and physical health and wellness of our boys as they enter their adolescent years.  Changes made to both these programs will help our curriculum remain relevant and consistent with best practices and our mission.

The outcomes of the Curriculum Initiative and their impact on the program will continue to unfold this year.  Extensive work over the last several years to develop robust partnerships with cultural and scientific institutions has not only enriched the experiences of our sons, it has helped us attract and retain exceptional faculty.  We now have fully developed partnerships with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New-York Historical Society, Cold Spring Harbor DNA Learning Center, the Frick Collection, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  To these we have also added a first-of-its kind partnership with the American Museum of Natural History: Hayden Planetarium. 

In this new sixth grade unit, which we’ve titled The Digital Universe, we blend English, science and technology curricula into an interdisciplinary unit.  Boys access research-grade tools and the deep discipline expertise of the museum’s educators and astronomers to identify, research, and present a high-tech Planetarium Presentation on one aspect of their study of astronomy.

Other new programs include an embedded course in the seventh grade math program that provides the boys with an intensive coding unit.  Working with MIT’s visual programming language, boys will learn and apply essential programming concepts, practice thinking systematically, and debugging as they test, observe, and revise code.  Boys will create variables and write mathematical equations to define functionality while gaining a deeper understanding of algebraic thinking.


This year we will be offering additional in-school support for emerging readers in Kindergarten through Grade Two in a new program called Boost.  Our reading specialists will meet with boys in small groups several times each week, in addition to their regular reading classes, to literally boost literacy skills.


Several modifications to the Upper School schedule have been made to better support our educational program. The longer one-hour blocks implemented last year have allowed us to design more project based learning experiences.  This will continue.  We have also revised the fifth grade schedule to allow boys to be grouped based on facility with reading, math, and language skills.  For English, history, Spanish, and science, boys will be grouped into three cohorts.  For math, boys will be divided into four groups.  All core academic classes in fifth grade will now be taught in small groups.

As we enter the seventh year of the Spanish roll out, the lead cohort of boys will be entering sixth grade.  Based on our critical review of the program, two key adjustments have been made to better meet the boys’ needs.  Students in third through eighth grade will be grouped based on their facility with the language.  We are also introducing two new textbooks. Fifth and sixth graders will use a middle school text, helping them to consolidate and refine their understanding of grammar and linguistic patterns and structures.  Seventh graders will use a second-year high school Spanish text.  The aim is for the boys to complete the second-year Spanish text by the end of eighth grade, allowing boys to place into Spanish 3 in high school.  The progress of the boys has exceeded expectations.

Implementation of Strategic Goal Three continued apace this summer.  Pre-construction work on Graham House included asbestos abatement of the roof, the capping and replacement of water mains on Madison and 89th, and the reconfiguration of the fire safety systems.  Air conditioning was added to the Chapel, the stage in the small gym was removed, and purging and reorganization of storage space continued at both campuses.  Final applications for a NYC Building Permit for the main construction phase of the project were submitted to the City.  Project financing is in its final round of negotiations with a lender, and all principal contracts regarding construction are being finalized with our construction management team, their sub-contractors, and our owner representatives.  We are on target for major work to begin June 2016.

Scaffolding and sidewalk bridges will be erected in January 2016.  More pre-construction work will continue through the winter and spring of 2016.  Over spring break the Business and Development Offices will transition to 94th Street.  Throughout this academic year teachers will be using professional development and meeting time to prepare for the “Great Compression.”  This year’s program will be unaffected.  Next year we will compress the school program into buildings 12 through 16.  More information on this will be provided under separate cover in the fall.  School will close for the summer on Friday, June 3, 2016, at which time demolition of Graham House will begin.

The campaign to help support this strategic goal will remain in its quieter phase this year.  We will continue to reach out to families and friends of the school to raise the necessary funds.  To date we are on target with all our goals.  What an exciting place to be!

Men of character challenge the thinking of the day—they are, to some degree, counter-cultural.  If we want to develop character in our sons, we have to teach them to think, to analyze and critique the world around them, to question their reality, and to respect themselves and others through deliberate moral introspection.

Before being able to relate well to another, our sons have to understand and respect themselves.  Self-respect isn’t based on IQ or mental or physical gifts.  It’s not comparative.  It is not earned by being better than other people at something; it’s earned by being better than you used to be.(6)  As we focus this year on the inner lives of our boys, on training their minds to resist the temptations and distractions of our current age and, like great leaders before them, to imagine a different moral country, we will be helping them gain a deeper insight into who they are.

“The person, then, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down under adversity nor crumbles in fright, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.”(7)  That’s the Saint David’s boy we are educating for as we embark upon the most noble of callings—the education of our sons.  Ut viri boni sint.

Let the 65th begin!
                       


Notes: 1.  Often attributed to Honore de Balzac or the Stoic philosopher Epictetus; 2, 3, 5, 6. Brooks, David.  (2015).  The Road to Character.  Random House: New York; 4.  André Comte-Sponville.  (2001).  A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues.  Henry Holt and Co.: New York; 7.  Marcus Tullius Cicero.  Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3 and 4, #37.  (2002).  Trans. by Margaret Graver.  University of Chicago Press.



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