St. Paul's School symposium explores community and character

June 28, 2002

'If we do not give the Christian message to our young people today, they will turn elsewhere to meet that need,' the Rev. F. Washington Jarvis warned 120 private school educators who gathered June 16-18 to explore how secondary schools can teach spirituality that will inform moral and ethical decisions in tomorrow's leaders.

Jarvis, an Episcopal priest who is headmaster of Roxbury Latin School in Boston, the oldest private school in the United States, said that a 'spiritual malaise' exists among today's youth as they seek, but do not find, answers to their most fundamental questions.

The participants, from as far away as Australia and South Africa, included administrators, trustees, teachers, and several students from nearly 80 of the world's leading private schools. The two-day symposium, entitled 'Community and Character: Schools and the Spiritual Formation of Young People,' was held at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire.

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold was the celebrant and preacher at the Eucharist on Sunday evening, the first event of the symposium. During his homily, Griswold, a 1955 graduate of St. Paul's, spoke warmly of his time at the school and recalled how his vocation in the church was identified while he was a young student.

Character not formed in solitude

Internationally known Lutheran theologian and scholar Martin E. Marty kicked off five plenary sessions addressing spiritual formation as the foundation for teaching values and ethics in American secondary school education. His thoughtful and often humorous discussion on 'Language and Languages, Religion and Religions: The Generals and the Particulars' focused on the evolution of religion and its role over the years in the formation of community and character. 'Community and character are not only formed in a religious context,' Marty said. 'There is an inhibition not to push too far, particularly in church-related [academic institutions].'

In his address, Marty presented three theses, asserting that one can acquire anything in solitude with the exception of character (which needs community support to develop); that while the development of character in school is related to texts, the main influences are personal and born of narrative; and that these narratives have connections with theology in some definitions.

Jarvis spoke on the topic of 'Addressing Our Students' Deepest Needs.' He questioned the identities of today's schools and proposed that most educators are afraid to tackle religious questions for fear of offending anyone. He also underplayed the importance of the the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the current sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. 'All of the great spiritual revivals have occurred in just such circumstances. These are prime conditions for a great renewal,' he said.

Jarvis warned educators of the dangers accompanying the failure to meet students' spiritual needs. While schools are busy enhancing what they are physically able to offer their students in the way of facilities, many are missing the boat on the need for spiritual indulgence. 'Many schools are missing this opportunity. No one can say we are not meeting our students' physical needs, but that can't make up for the failure to meet their spiritual needs,' he said. 'God needs our help. Our calling in schools is to save the world one by one.'

The evening program on June 17 included a reception hosted by the National Association of Episcopal Schools, which co-sponsored the symposium. The Rev. Peter G. Cheney, executive director of the NAES, was the keynote speaker.

Encouraging accountability, making amends

Offering perspectives from her doctoral scrutiny of boarding schools and as a sociologist, teacher, and journalist based in Bern, Switzerland, Dr. Kim Hays explored the question of teaching our children the values of compassion and accountability. In a presentation entitled 'The Merits of Saying I'm Sorry: A Secular Approach to Moral and Spiritual Growth,' Hays outlined the cultural failure to acknowledge and atone for our mistakes and the effect that phenomenon has on the world's children.

'We must oppose the spirit of the times in the way we talk to our children,' she said. 'We must help our children to feel accountable for their mistakes, to feel sorry, and to make amends. These things are important in creating a moral society.'

In a plenary session, Dr. David Hornbeck, chair of the Public Education Network and former superintendent of the Philadelphia public school system, addressed the symposium on the values of service learning, asserting that America has 'morphed' into a society in which value is determined not by service to others but by economic utility.

'It is not possible to overstate the centrality of productive citizenship to the happiness of the human being,' said Hornbeck, who also serves as chairman of the board of directors for the Children's Defense Fund. 'Those among you who will really be happy are those who have sought and found the capacity to serve.'

Scattered among the plenary lectures were small group discussions, during which participants were encouraged to further explore the issues raised by the plenary speakers. The plenary sessions concluded soon after Hornbeck's address with a panel discussion that included Hays, Hornbeck, Jarvis, St. Paul's School rector Bishop Craig Anderson, and Emily Baines, a senior at the school. Questions for the panelists ranged from queries on political correctness of teaching morality to the challenge of meeting the needs of parents, as well as the role of the adult in a moral community, channeling moral outrage in productive ways, and enforcing accountability among today's students.

The symposium concluded with a service of Evensong, with Anderson as the preacher, and a closing banquet and humorous address by the Rev. Anthony C. Campbell.