Headmaster’s Thoughts – February 2007

It is a simple proposition: Character trumps Algebra. By which I mean that it is far more important to be a young person with empathy and responsibility than to be gifted intellectually. Of course, as parents we want everything; we want brilliance and kindness, talent and compassion. No question there. But what is in question is our priorities.

We exist in a highly competitive society in which we want our children to succeed. If you believe the media, you would believe that an Ivy League education is the most important gift you can give your children. I disagree. It is far more important that they gain a sense of responsibility, a sense of self, and—most importantly—a high ethical standard. As it happens, this year one of our students was accepted early to Harvard. His parents (and his teachers) were proud of this. And they are right; it is an accomplishment. But, and this is the key factor, far more important is the fact that the young man is a really decent, kind, and good person. Character trumps Algebra.

How, as a parent, one helps one’s child develop an ethical sense is something I have wondered about in my thirty-eight years of headmastering. I am not sure I have any answers except to say that I know what does not work. Protecting a child from every mistake, rather than holding them accountable, does not work. Allowing a child to present his or her own side of the story to school administrators does work. Self-advocacy is a skill best learned early and is a very valuable skill.

I remember, at about the age of thirteen, looking under the stage for something in my school’s auditorium. I heard a voice, which I thought came from an acquaintance or classmate, asking me what I thought I was doing. My reply was immediate: “What do you think, looking for gold?” Unfortunately, it was not a classmate but the voice of my headmaster. He was not happy with my reply and thought I was being impudent.

We went to his office, and I experienced my first “case” of advocacy. It worked; he gave me the benefit of the doubt and agreed that I was not being rude to him. He saw that I was mistaken in assuming that I was replying to a friend. In the end, he saw the funny side of the whole thing.

At that meeting, two professions presented themselves as possible and even attractive futures: lawyering and schoolmastering. Having done both, I am not sure that there is not a bit of the first in the second, and I am sure that the second is better for me. That is not meant to cast any aspersions on lawyers, but I was getting too cocky when I was a barrister in London, getting acquittals for clearly guilty clients. I was losing my sense of ethics in my ambition.

When asked, commonly by old English friends, if I miss my practice at the Bar, I usually say that it was so long ago that it seems another age. What I don’t tell them is that I was getting afraid of what I was turning into. I was identifying with my clients (as a criminal lawyer, a terrible mistake) and taking personally their success if they “beat the rap.” Now, thirty-eight years later, I am guilty of feeling equally cocky about the Harvard acceptance (which is the triumph of the accepted young man and not of anyone else). Still, if I do have the sin of pride, it is a better false pride in helping a young man with his education than getting criminals off. I just have to remember: Character trumps Algebra.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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