Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2008

I teach for partly selfish reasons; I enjoy teaching and always have. Actually, I suspect that most people would like to teach intelligent and curious young people. There is something uniquely gratifying in the teacher-student relationship when it works well—and I am the headmaster and have certain inherent advantages in this area—that I should admit right away that teaching makes me a happier person.

I teach philosophy to the eighth and tenth grade scholars for part of the year and ethics to all of the seniors throughout the year. My seniors get a fast survey of ethical philosophy. Very fast! One senior told me that he had to see my wife for a college guidance question, and by the time he returned to the class, we had begun and finished discussing Schopenhauer. True, but earlier we had discussed the ethical justification of punishment for several weeks. In some ways, it is frightening that this headmaster wrote his graduate thesis on punishment. Hmm? There is a “Headmaster’s Thoughts” for a future month in itself!

I try and teach issues of right and wrong. It does sound pompous although I honestly try not to be (but you would have to ask the seniors), and I do remember a time not so long ago when all heads of schools and colleges taught some sort of moral guidance course. There was the Aristotelian view that young people needed to receive instruction in how to be good people. That view has gone completely away since cultural relativism has seduced the media and public opinion. We are not supposed to pass judgment on others when we have not experienced their circumstances. I don’t buy it. No one has ever convinced me that Hitler’s willing executioners (to take the title of Daniel Goldhagen’s book) should get a free pass because we did not have to face what they did.

I understand that parents may be wary for valid reasons of a curriculum designed around character issues. Just as schoolmasters (and I use the masculine purely for convenience) have the power to improve and help children, they also have the concomitant power to hurt and damage. I recognize the responsibility but still believe that we should help young people face the ethical dilemmas that challenge them. We live in a society where temptations are thrown at us all the time (don’t I sound like an old fuddy-duddy?), and knowledge of how others have made decisions in the past is potentially valuable in that instant when a decision needs to be made. And teaching is always a two-way street. I get insights from my students as I hope they get some from me.

I have written before about the private questions students occasionally ask after our class. Sometimes I feel totally inadequate and wish they asked their parents the same questions. Sometimes I get questions that relate to their parents when they are searching for a neutral party’s view. Teaching ethics leads often to questions that have no easy solution. In an educational system where SATs are important, where we prepare students to fill in the right box with a number two pencil, ethical issues are not multiple choice exams. They are part of life. What is true, what does it mean to be good, do we have free choice—these are questions that distinguish the human race in that we have the reason to ask them. And they are issues that we cannot hire someone else to answer (including headmasters). We can get advice, but that is as far as it goes. I can hire someone to fix my television or my boiler, but I cannot hire someone to make life choices and decisions. But all the knowledge I have learned until that moment surely helps me make the right ones. And trying to help in giving that knowledge is why I teach what I do.

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

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section In the News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.