Last night, Friday, 14 May, I attended the commencement ceremonies of the 2020-2021 class of 8th graders at the completion of their final year as Regis Knights. Thirty young men stepped forward in turn to receive their diplomas. Many of them received other honors as well, but all them had finished the same course of studies as the others. All of them had struggled to attain the academic skills Regis offers. All of them had struggled to live up to the ideals to which Regis Knights are called.
Walker Moore, Student Council President, gave the commencement address to the assembled faculty, staff, and families, speaking both for and to his fellow students. Mr. Moore quoted the most famous part of President Teddy Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech, reminding us that "credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood". It is right and just that those who struggle to achieve should receive the honors they are due, and Mr. Moore's address spoke well about the rewards of effort, about the challenges yet to come, and about the enduring nature of brotherhood forged in shared struggles.
Earlier that day was much like any other school day. I met with four English classes, including the two 6th grade classes. These classes have not been part of my schedule most of this year, but those 6th graders will be in my English class next school year. It seems fitting they get a chance to experience what awaits them in my 7th grade English class. I also met with my current 7th graders, who, come August, will step into the places left vacant by the outgoing class of 8th graders. In those classes, working from James Baldwin's The Story of Siegfried and G. K. Chesterton's "The Chief Mourner of Marne", I made demands of my students.
Among those demands? Reflection on and discussion of the nobility and necessity of manual labor. We observed that custodian's Latin roots mean guardian and protector. We talked about which occupations might be classified as manual labor and which ones, such as English teacher, might not be. Like young Prince Siegfried, the young Knights in my class sought to understand work often viewed as menial serves more than just a valuable function. Such work itself becomes ennobled by the heart of service with which it is performed.
Other students confronted the stark difference between human charity and Christian charity. They started to see that agreeing to forgive something that society thinks is forgivable doesn't require much in the way of love or courage. I can easily forgive things that I don't think really require forgiveness. At the same time, I can just as easily not forgive those things that I think are unforgivable. Either way, I enjoy the the warmth of own mercy and justice, the fires of which are stoked by my pride.
In all four classes, I also saw a common occurrence. When given hard questions to answer, many of my students ask me to approve the response, in effect grading the work before it's completed. I refuse to do this. I note that the worst thing that can happen is that the answer will be wrong, that it will get corrected, and then the student will have learned something. This response seldom satisfies. For too many of my students, what seems to matter most is success.
This is a grave error. As President Roosevelt observed, "To judge a man merely by success is an abhorrent wrong". When success becomes the standard, then it isn't long before notions about right and wrong, good and evil, become irrelevant. To sharpen the point: If the thing that matters most is the grade on my report card, why not get all of my answers from someone else? Why not cheat?
President Roosevelt listed "the qualities which mark a masterful people", by which he meant a people fit for liberty, a people who can be trusted even when those in authority are not watching them. He said these qualities are "Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution...." The two qualities I most note are self-mastery and courage, which surely go hand in hand. Courage is not a lack of fear; it is a mastering of fear.
Many of my students seem genuinely afraid of getting any grade lower than what's necessary to make honor roll. Indeed, I have had students flatly express this to me. A grade of X is acceptable, but a grade of X minus one is not. A grade of X minus one equals failure to achieve honor roll status, and that's unacceptable. The inference seems to be this: not being on the honor roll is dishonorable.
To the extent my inference is accurate, the results appear clear. A grade on a sheet of paper becomes the measure of success. The amount of effort put into achieving that number is secondary. The student who sees the end of his education as achieving the highest grade possible may learn to denigrate his own self-mastery and courage. He may become the kind of man who judges his own worth and the worth of others "merely by success".
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.