A Moral Education, Not Just an Excellent One
A Role for Episcopal Schools in Meaningful Educational Reform
by Robert M. Pennoyer II
This article was published on page 6 of the Spring 2012 issue of the Episcopal New Yorker.
STUDENT disengagement is more than a classroom problem; it’s a civic one. When students cannot make the connection between the work they do in school and the lives they lead (and will lead) outside of it, they are deprived of that which schools should seek most to impart: a passion for inquiry, discovery, and debate; the ability to think critically and to exercise moral and intellectual judgment; the tools and ultimate desire to live a meaningful life. Disengagement in any individual classroom leads to boredom, apathy, stress, and even truancy; it steers students towards shortcuts and lets atrophy those muscular virtues like grit and integrity, the sort that require exercise to grow. On the individual level the symptoms of student disengagement may be “not an important failure” (to borrow Auden’s iconic phrase), but, writ large, the social costs of an increasingly disengaged generation of students cannot, and must not, be ignored.
To a disheartening degree, however, the desire to promote student engagement seems secondary (or absent altogether) in many discussions of educational policy. New outlets seem never to tire of airing vituperative debates about standardized tests and teachers’ unions. The quieter story of students slogging through work they find meaningless wouldn’t sell and might hardly quality as news: disengagement is so pervasive as to be thought an intractable fact of adolescence. William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, calls student disengagement “[t]he most pressing problem in education today.” In an article published in Independent School Magazine, he reports, “With the exception of a relatively small proportion of students (in the diverse national sample of my recent study, about one in five), young people in our country do not see the link between what goes on in their schools and their aspirations for their lives.”1 Not recognizing a link between one’s work and one’s life exemplifies a typical manifestation of student disengagement in the classroom, and Damon goes on to illustrate its effects. He describes students working hard on activities they find meaningless, resulting in “a pervasive sense of emptiness, boredom, or apathy; for others, a debilitating anxiety; and for still others, an ensnarement in the lures of hedonism and cynicism.”
Education reformers who fail to connect their reforms to students; ability to find meaning in schoolwork risk advocating for change that may be ultimately insignificant or, worse, counter-productive. The most inviting trap for the well-intentioned is the seductive notion that education needs somehow to catch up to the strong winds of modern culture, whose progress has left school curricula irrelevantly bobbing in its wake. Yes, schools should equip their students with tools to collaborate, to use technology productively, to understand the globalizing world or to interpret facts and figures—all crucial priorities for modern schools. Central to their scholastic mission, however, must also be the moral imperative to engage students in the quest for meaning and purpose—even in the midst of a culture that makes them harder to find.
In the new edition of Reasons for Being: The Culture and Character of Episcopal Schools,2 headmasters, chaplains, and leaders of Episcopal schools describe the challenges of resisting the cultural forces that engender the disengagement noted by William Damon. There are over 1200 schools and early-childhood education programs affiliated with the Episcopal Church3, and they are diverse in make-up and model. It is probably unwise to make generalization about them beyond what Episcopal educator Ann Mellow writes in her introduction: “Regardless of their history or constellation… Episcopal schools continue to live out the vision of Episcopal school founders… to provide a moral education as well as an excellent one.”4
That common thread binds Episcopal schools—their mission “to provide a moral education as well as an excellent one”—means that, according to St. Andrew’s School [Del.] headmaster, Tad Roach, “if true to its mission, [an Episcopal school] affirms, expresses, and enacts a faith, a set of values and principles—indeed a way of learning, thinking, and living counter to the culture of twenty-first-century America.”5 Roach explains that in their commitment to service and social justice, reverence for silence, reflection, and study, and celebration of diversity, Episcopal schools provide a counterweight to a culture that seeks to entertain rather than edify, celebrates exclusivity rather than equality, and ignores rather than engages the problems of the world. In “The Inefficiency of Episcopal Education,” [the] executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, Daniel Heischman, echoes Roach, proclaiming, “We are called to muster the courage to define ourselves in ways that are often at odds with prevailing social norms. In other words, Episcopal schools today must be intentionally counter-cultural.”6
Unencumbered by the legal restraints on public education and united by a mission to promote faith and learning, Episcopal schools have the freedom and the responsibility to be leaders in meaningful school reform. “Meaningful” may be the operative word; it is “meaning” that former dean of Yale Law School Anthony Kronman finds almost entirely absent from higher education’s aims. In Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life,7 Kronman argues that, with extreme academic specialization, political correctness, the rise of sciences, and the decline of the humanities, universities have lost sight of their former aim: to help students find meaning in life. Instead, students obsess about their future professions, never gaining the ability to “develop the habit, which they will need later on, of looking at things from a point of view outside the channels of their careers.” He adds, “More deeply rooted even than the dogma of career is our addiction to technology and the equation of truth with science. We live today in a narcotized stupor, blind to the ways in which our immense powers and the knowledge that has produced them cuts us off from the knowledge of who we are.”8
Finding meaning in life and grappling with the “knowledge of who we are” requires teachers who will help students engage with ethical and existential issues, a practice that not only pays off in terms of students’ moral lives but in their intellectual ones as well.9 Without understanding the ways their studies connect to the lives they lead, students are left with only the hollow motivation of competition and careerism. If the question “Why do we have to learn this?” is met with a persuasive and personally meaningful answer, students begin to see their education through a lens of purpose rather than apathy. This is not a radical observation—others have urged educators to incorporate moral issues intentionally into their teaching10—but it remains a counter-cultural one. Teachers at schools that judge themselves by test scores and college placement lists may experience the pause to engage with moral questions as a debilitating restraint on their efforts to complete their curricula. Students (and their parents) who see education as a commodity to be consumed and traded for a diploma or a degree or a job may resent teachers’ efforts to plumb essential questions whose subjective answers won’t appear on an AP syllabus. Episcopal schools may be free from public oversight and empowered by the opt-in nature of their communities, but even they operate within a broader educational system that is defined in large part by the priorities, assumptions, and culture of colleges and universities.
Schools must take a counter-cultural stance in order to provide truly meaningful educations, and Episcopal schools are not only well suited to do so, but, if they are true to their missions, they must do so. The challenges are great: the anxieties about college admissions trickle down to secondary and even elementary programs. But so is the reward: students who yearn to do good in a world that tells them to do well; a community of faith and learning, eager to engage with issues that are meaningful, lasting, and real; and an example for others of the transformational work schools can do when they “provide a moral education as well as an excellent one.”
Pennoyer serves on the editorial board of the Episcopal New Yorker, is a member of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, of the faculty of St. Bernard’s School in New York, and is a postulant for the priesthood.
1. William Damon, “Education and the Path to Purpose,” Independent School Magazine (Fall 2008): 61-64.
2. National Association of Episcopal Schools, Reasons for Being: The Culture and Character of Episcopal Schools (New York: NAES, 2010).
3. Ibid., 3.
4. Ann Mellow, “A Brief History of Episcopal Schools in the United States,” Reasons for Being, 28.
5. Daniel T. Roach, Jr., “The Episcopal School Head,” Reasons for Being, 36.
6. Daniel R. Heischman, “The Inefficiency of Episcopal Education,” Reasons for Being, 45.
7. Anthony T. Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
8. Ibid., 257.
9. Much of my thinking on this topic is informed by the work of Katherine G. Simon, specifically her book Moral Questions in the Classroom: How To Get Kids Thinking Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
10. See, for instance, Nel Noddings, Critical Lessons: What Our Schools Should Teach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).