What Are Schools For?

I recently had the opportunity to hear Professor Rebecca Chopp speak at the National Association of Independent Schools annual conference. Prof. Chopp is currently the Chancellor of the University of Denver and the former President of Swarthmore College and Colgate University. I was particularly taken with Chopp’s emphasis on the importance of residential colleges in American higher education. For all practical purposes, Chopp made an excellent argument for boarding schools in a room full of day school teachers and school leaders.

Her comments that day led me to look up her most recent book, Remaking College: Innovation and the Liberal Arts. For people who like to think about education—past, present and future, American and global—this is a compelling read. The book is a series of essays adapted from talks delivered at the 2012 conference at Lafayette College entitled “The Future of the Liberal Arts College in America and Its Leadership Role in Education around the World.” Chopp’s essay comes first. Entitled “Remaking, Renewing, Reimagining: The Liberal Arts College Takes Advantage of Change,” Chopp avoids the typical breathless rhetoric of change for change’s sake that often captivates people in education writing on the topic. Chopp writes clearly and efficiently so I will let her speak for herself, at the risk of extended quotations:

The ‘distinctively American’ tradition of residential liberal arts colleges rests on the foundation of an early social charter between American higher education and democratic society…With each wave of development, higher education evolved to serve one great mission: educating leaders and citizens to realize their individual potential and build their capacity to serve in a democratic society. These dual goals—supporting the development of the individual and cultivating the common good—are inextricably linked through the belief in and practices of freedom. In the American narrative [note: this will be a novel concept to some readers but it’s important], freedom combines the pursuit of individual passion or fulfillment with service to the common good. Individuals are free to be themselves, but this freedom, expressed in a wide variety of ways, is for, not from, service to the common good (emphasis in the original). Over time, the main components of this historical narrative became consolidated into three primary principles that form the foundation of what we know as residential liberal arts education: critical thinking, moral and civil character, and using knowledge to improve the world.

Yes! (With a caveat.)

Reread the paragraph and replace “residential liberal arts colleges” with “boarding schools like The Gunnery.” Though to my knowledge Mr. Gunn did not write about a charter, his life and work embody an understanding of the relationship between education and democratic society. Easy to say, then and now, but much more difficult to do and to live out, as he did and as he trained his students to do. He created a school precisely to guide students to realize their individual potential and serve society—he saw the two as inextricably linked. Mr. Gunn knew and espoused the life-giving notion of freedom summarized by Chopp—that real freedom is not simply a lack of restraint, the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want but, rather, freedom within good and appropriate limits and the freedom to serve others rather than simply serving oneself. (Now, there are a few very good, important questions here that are for a future post, maybe: Where does this freedom come from? What makes it possible? And who says it should be other than the freedom to do what I want, when I want it? Certainly, today, the dominant definition of freedom people live out is freedom from any restraint—just ask, well, anyone.) Mr. Gunn knew that true freedom always comes at a price, though a price that’s often hidden, and that with a price comes obligation (a heavy word, to be sure). In Mr. Gunn’s case, he was born one generation after America’s revolutionary heroes defeated the greatest military power of the time, so perhaps that animated him. Today, we (in the U.S.) exist at least an arm’s length from the true cost of freedom and so have emptied the word of so much meaning and power.

And Chopp is right to point out the triumvirate of critical thinking, character, and using knowledge to improve the world as the often unarticulated purpose behind American higher education, aims that boarding schools still hold to today. I think these aren’t the best terms—each is a Rorschach test unto itself that tells you as much about the person using them as about the terms themselves. Rather than “critical thinking” I have started to use “wisdom” as the end towards which I think boarding schools ought to aim, and I’ve been thinking of “character” as something like the combination of wisdom and courage—the wisdom to know the right thing to do (or, at least, to try to know the right thing to do) and the courage to actually do it. And “using knowledge to improve the world” always frightens me a bit. That’s what eugenicists were trying to do, for example. And though their logic held, for the most part, their first principles were deeply dehumanizing and wrong. (I know that sounds all judgy but I’m willing to say that removing groups of people from the planet because you don’t think they will be productive is wrong.) I don’t yet have a good substitute for “using knowledge to improve the world” but I would like to find something more humble. (That’s the caveat.)

I haven’t explained what residential educational environments have to do with any of this. For that I’ll wait for a future post.