Headmaster’s Thoughts – October 2009



This being the introduction of our new website, I write to hope that you enjoy it and that you will feel free to e-mail me atrstewart@yorkprep.org with any suggestions or comments.  I have included two pieces as my “thoughts” for this month, in commemoration of the new format.


Frankly, the first piece is more typical of my writing for these thoughts. It is much lighter in tone and hopefully even amusing.  The second piece was written for the faculty at their orientation meetings. It represents my views and was a topic for discussion.  I have not edited it, so that clearly it is a statement of my core beliefs for the faculty to see.   Both pieces (written obviously at different times) represent me, and I cannot blame anyone else for their shortcomings.




–Headmaster’s Thoughts: Part One–


Another new year, another group of smart seniors to whom I get to teach ethical philosophy.


But something is worrying me.  I have read that as you grow older, your brain gets smaller.  In fact, apparently your brain peaks in its size and flexibility (I’ve never seen a flexible brain) at the age of 18 or 19 and then shrinks and is less receptive to new information. This means (good grief!) that my seniors are much smarter than I am.  In fact, they may now be at the peak of their intelligence for their entire life. This is really depressing!  I am trying to teach students how to think (much more important than having them memorize things, incidentally) and, instead, they should be teaching it to me.  My brain is far less able to absorb information than theirs are.  I think I am going to throw up!


If this is true, we should reverse roles, and 18 year olds should be teaching tiny-brained beings we now call “teachers.” Suddenly, I understand why my students can text and I can’t.  I just have no idea how to do it.  How do you do it?  They understand how to install complex programs on any computer while I have difficulty loading a DVD into my DVD player.  They can play video games while simultaneously calling their best friends, photographing their cats on their iPhones, and Twittering—and I think twittering is what some birds do. They are smarter than I am, and I am getting dumber.  As they say so eloquently: OMG!


This means that I am scheduled to read fourth grade books, and they are scheduled to read Hegel.  But none of them have read Hegel or plan to do it.  What a waste.  Here am I trying to make philosophy easy for them, but if all this is true, then I should be forcing them to read Spinoza, whom I have never fully understood. Maybe they can explain him to me.


Why do I ever presume to give them advice?  They should be giving me advice. They should be advising me to follow my dream or to go for the gold or some such platitude. They should be kind to me, caring, and sympathetic. After all, they are smarter than I am, and I am in mental decline.  At least that is what the learned authors of studies tell me.


Wait a moment!  Those learned authors are not 18!  These study writers are not at the peak of their mental powers. Like me, they are past it.  Had they come out with their theories when they were younger than 20, then they would have some credibility.  But many of them are about my age.  Their brains (if they are right) have been shrinking for years.  What a relief!  I really shouldn’t believe absolutely everything I read.  I can ignore all this rubbish and go back to teaching my students. Unless one of my young superior intelligent students comes up with a study about shrinking brains and age; then, Houston, we have a problem.




–Headmaster’s Thoughts: Part Two–


A Commitment to Building Character

(Notes for faculty orientation and discussion)


I believe that teaching is a moral act (and art) and that we should project a moral leadership and require our students to be ethical citizens of York Prep School.


This means that we should be examples of the good and recognize that if we gossip or put someone down or act inappropriately, we are not supporting the principle of a teacher as a leader.


In the same way, we cannot allow students to act differently from how we would have them act in our homes. Graffiti, obscenities, bullying, and plagiarism should never be allowed. At the same time, we should praise accomplishment, particularly character-oriented ones, in all community members. We need to hold students to standards of decency and honesty, punctuality and courtesy, and praise good working practices.


Of course, parents are a child’s primary moral teachers, but more time is spent in our schools than at home, and we cannot ignore our role.


So conflicts need to be settled quickly and gracefully.  In our classes we need to emphasize character, as Michael Roper does when he brings in a Warsaw Ghetto survivor or a D-Day hero, as the coaches do when they put sportsmanship above winning, as the English department does when its theme of summer reading is justice for outsiders.


We need to continue to make our school a welcoming place—a place of joy! A community where we value all, including our maintenance staff and secretaries, our 6th graders and our seniors.


As teachers, we need to give students prompt feedback and constructive criticism when evaluating work, and we must take a real interest in all of our students.  And we need to continue to do what we have done so well, which is share our feedback with parents fully and in a timely fashion.


We have a fine community service program, but this program should be and is more than a resume-filler, since we require that students introspect on how they helped others. I believe that students who help other students in this school are performing a valuable part of our mission and of community service.  I am proud of our growing peer tutoring program and our established ambassador program.  They are an important part of our mission.


All of this is not easy, but we have a happy school because we have always done this, and we will continue to have a happy place of learning if we remember that character education is not a quick and slick one-time thing, but a patient pursuit of learning that engages and stimulates character development.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org



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