Work of Noble Note
Address to the Great Hearts Faculty and Staff. September 28, 2018.
In Tennyson’s Ulysses, we read:
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Noble work. We long for it in this life. To make our days about the things that truly matter. An educator understands this human longing more than most.
And you, the Faculty & Staff of Great Hearts, understand it even more still, I think, because you know that your work is predicated on Love. That it is the work of Love and therefore it is noble. And this work is needed more than ever.
Together, you form houses that form souls. No hyperbole there. The schoolhouse is a soul forming house. Whether the people inside understand this or not. Education shapes persons. And, the consequences of that are immeasurable.
The very question of human flourishing is answered in small yet consequential ways every day in a classroom. What does it mean to be good? What is happiness? What is community? What is civility? What is freedom? Is there Truth? What is the point of coming here every day, opening the book, taking down the notes, listening and writing and struggling?
In a school, everything we do matters because everything is influencing a malleable soul. Everything is answering in some small way a fundamental question about human life.
So, to that last question, what’s the point of school – a most important question for a child – all around us are reductionistic answers. De-humanizing answers. You know them well. We all do. They go something like this:
Why do we have to go to school? There are just these hoops you have to jump through. Everyone does. Your parents had to. Your grandparents had to. Your children will have to.
You come here to learn stuff and to show that you’ve done the work to learn it. You will take tests and you’ll keep taking those tests and they will prepare you and even position you for the next test.
And at the end of all those tests is a really big test. No one knows what it stands for anymore, but everyone takes it and if you do really well on all your tests and then really well on that test you’ll get to go to a place where you’ll get to pay lots of money to take more tests.
And, finally, after the last test is taken, you will get a piece of paper. This piece of paper makes you what we call marketable. You will take this marketability with you out into the world and if you have done everything by these rules, and succeeded within them, you will be highly marketable, Big City Marketable, East or West Coast Marketable,
And. You. Will. Make. Money.
And Money will buy you things. Power and Influence and Vacations and Things. And these will make you worth something.
This is a big lie born of small, unimaginative, uninspiring thinking, and it predominates. Certainly, it predominates in the rhetoric of politicians and pundits, in so-called College & Career Readiness Initiatives and the obsessions around testing and no excuses, college focused and market focused school cultures. It seems as if no one; not in the media, not in the state houses, not on Capitol Hill, not in the big national philanthropic foundations; it seems that nowhere is there talk of education reform or options that aren’t aligned to FASTER, MORE EFFICIENT, AND BETTER TESTING AND THE GLOBALIZED MARKETPLACE.
And what has all of this gotten us? In the words of Leon Kass:
Young people are now at sea – regarding work, family, and civic identity. Authority is out to lunch. Courtship has disappeared. No one talks about work as vocation. The true, the good, and the beautiful have few defenders. Irony is in the saddle, and the higher cynicism mocks any innocent love of wisdom or love of country. Today, we are super competent when it comes to efficiency, utility, speed, convenience, and getting ahead in the world; but we are at a loss concerning what it’s all for.
The True, the Good, and the Beautiful have few defenders.
Well, here we are. We stand in opposition to the predominate thinking. In opposition to the reductionisms. We stand for something better. The reductionisms lack imagination. And, really, at their core, they lack hope.
The Great Hearts vision is a hopeful vision. And, no, we are not perfect. We have our weaknesses. We have our struggles. But through it all we dare to hope.
We dare to profess that a deep and abiding happiness is a person’s true end. And that happiness isn’t measured by financial strength, academic or athletic awards, or by any measure of influence or power obtained.
We proclaim that the person is more than just his wants and desires. That the person is dignified, a noble creature of immeasurable worth, whose hope for happiness is directly tied to his ability to live a life of virtue.
And everything that we do is and must be a testimony to this truth. Our children long for it. They long for the schoolhouse that cares for their souls. They long for the teachers who model a love of things beyond the material and the measurable. They long to be loved, and a love understood not as some sweet sentiment, but as a commitment to the most lasting things, to what is true, to what is virtuous, and to what is ordered in eternity.
This is what we stand for. And it is exactly what our world needs.
Let me share with you what I see so clearly and end this address actually not just as a colleague, but as a father.
I see it in the stories parents from across the network tell me and I see it in my own children. Every day when they come home I see it on their faces. I see it in the things that they love, and I see it in how they talk about you.
Your classrooms, your front desks, nurse’s offices, on the sidelines, and in the learning labs. These places are truly sanctuaries. Sanctuaries away from the vitriol and noise of our modern discourse, sanctuaries away from the rat race of status and popularity; they are sanctuaries away from the premature romances and sexualization of children that pervade so many school cultures; sanctuaries away from the relativisms of our wider culture that leave children unanchored and grasping for meaning.
I see a love of learning in your students. I see joy in their faces. I see the confidence that comes from doing hard work, pushing through doubts, and coming to new revelations. I see friendships built on the pursuit of beautiful things. I see kids absolutely loving their teachers. I see them enriched by the pursuit of timeless ideas and enlivened by wrestling with the very notion of being itself.
You are building schoolhouses for your kids, for my kids, better than they were built for you. And you are doing it so well. And as a dad, I am so thankful. As a dad, I can tell you, I do not want to even imagine missing out on any of it for my kids. I hear the same thing from parents all the time. You are a blessing to them. You are an immense blessing.
So, on behalf of every Great Hearts parent today, I say thank you. You are needed more than ever. Thank you.
May God continue to bless your work. And may you know how immeasurably important you are.