Headmaster’s Thoughts — March 2016

I have written before in these “Thoughts” that I do not like to classify students in any statistical reports. I believe that we are one race – humans, and any attempt to put us all into different boxes undermines, for me, the universal nature of our humanity. Furthermore, just as no one is purely black, red, brown, green, yellow, or white, so no one is purely good or evil. Just as true, it is fortunately rare that there are extremely evil people. One of the reasons I left the bar was that I found myself troubled by having to defend those who faced multiple murder counts. So, there may also be (equally rare) particularly good men and women, but I see the vast mass of humanity as neither all good nor all bad; we are as multi-dimensional in our characters as we are in our race.

Thus, I have never met an “all good” child or an “all bad” child. At York as everywhere, they are all somewhere in the middle. Our goal as educators, flawed by definition as we are ourselves, should be to urge our students to move to the better side of their character. Hence, I try to teach Ethics and, I hope, our teachers lead by example.

Yet despite our best intentions, our own examples of morality often come into competition with those around the country and the world. During a presidential campaign, the morality of the candidates cannot be overlooked. I expect our country’s presidents to privately be as mixed in terms of their character as we all are, but I also expect them to try to set an example while in power. If they fail, then their own Watergate or Lewinsky scandal will probably come to pass. Unfortunately we, in the trenches of education, have had to deal with the fallout of the fact that more than a couple of presidents of the United States have set poor moral examples. This has serious consequences including a loss of faith by the young in the ethical concept of a nation and the nation’s leaders. For President Clinton to parse the word “is,” and flagrantly take advantage of a 21-year-old intern, is something that I believe has affected our young people. For President Nixon to authorize “dirty tricks” against his opponents, and then stonewall the outcome to the point of destroying evidence, has damaged, in a lingering way, the belief that our leaders have a real moral core.

The result is that, certainly in my Ethics classes, I see the cynicism that young people have about the political process and those who ply in that trade. Whether it is the indiscretions of Eliot Spitzer, Wilbur Mills, or Anthony Weiner, the cumulative result is a loss of moral leadership and a disengagement from government or social change. There is no doubt that the media have increased this cynicism by emphasizing and sensationalizing the character flaws of our politicians. Gary Hart, the 1988 presidential candidate, famously and foolishly challenged the press to “follow me around” after he was accused of being a philanderer. When they took him up on his offer, they found Ms. Donna Rice (not his wife) who confirmed the accusation. Some part of him must have known that his challenge would be taken seriously. Yet, I doubt that he realized how much impact his lack of character had on young people who were just developing the concept that there was something noble in public service.

I started by saying that I do not believe that we are all good or all bad. But, I also believe in the ideal for leaders of a nation to set a moral tone. And so, in this circus of caucuses and primaries, I hope the character of the candidates will be a factor and that we can restore the idea that the president will be someone whom we can expect will morally do the “right” thing. I hope we can restore optimism in our young people that public service can be for the general good. While I may disagree with some of the policies of President Obama, I am grateful to him that there has not been a scintilla of personal scandal in his presidency and that he has conducted himself in an exemplary way. May that be continued!

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School