Matters of Form

" He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying. "
—Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Service as an Expression

    Each year in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr, the School mobilizes to head off campus and serve many different communities. It’s an enormous undertaking, headed by Rachel Cantlay and Elizabeth Ferguson, Lawrenceville’s Director and Assistant Director of Community Service, respectively. They are getting wonderful assistance from numerous students and colleagues in this endeavor, but it’s their vision and diligence that makes it happen.

    But as impressive as this singular event is (logistics, energy, and sincerity), Rachel and Elizabeth have worked well to build a culture of consistent service – proof of their success is found in the number of hours our students volunteer each year as expression of their identity.

    High school students love to categorize themselves and construct identities. For better or worse, we have students who identify first as hockey players or artists or tri-House athletes or math kids (or not) or Clevies. We also have many students for whom service is core to their identities. Whether working twice a week with local elementary students who come to campus for tutoring in everything from math to riding bikes or dedicating weeks in the summer to counseling at The School Camp or the Performing Arts Camp, these are students who demonstrate varsity level commitment to others.

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    But unlike athletics and some other activities, nobody has a knack for service. It’s not a jump-shot, or slap shot, or ability to change a voice’s tone and accent. Service is a virtue that shows the integration of heart and action.

    And while we broadcast our teams’ wins and losses and publish headlines about academic awards, let’s all remember that as many of our kids prove Dr. King right when he said:

    "Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

    Note: Lawrenceville’s 2017 Martin Luther King Day of Service will be celebrated on January 18. All Lawrentians and faculty members will be volunteering that day at non-profit organizations throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.

  • Would We Prefer Apathy?

    Recently, columnist Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times about what he sees as a change in how students relate to professors. After citing a few examples of students’ overweening demands, he writes, “Students...might not behave in such an emboldened fashion if they did not feel so largely in charge. Their readiness to press for rules and rituals to their liking suggests the extent to which they have come to act as customers — the ones who set the terms, the ones who are always right — and the degree to which they are treated that way.”

    There are times when I am sympathetic to this characterization, and I too indulge in momentary hand-wringing and jaundiced diagnoses of “kids these days.”

    But then I remember that with adolescents, the issue is never the issue, and too often we focus on symptoms and not on what lies beneath.

    Let’s reframe the situation Mr. Bruni describes: we have students who are committed to securing for themselves their idea of a good life and will act to bring it about. Instead of passively receiving an education, deferring to authority and subordinating their own claims, we have a generation of students who seek to generate outcomes and create the conditions they believe are optimal.

    What could be better than a community where the students feet like agents capable of making change? So what if their initial goals suggest that they’re uninformed, unreflective, or unrealistic? Weren’t we all at that age? And isn’t it the educators’ (and parents’!) role to encourage students to redirect those efforts and reconceptualize success without killing the impulse to act?

    Some days, this impulse is expressed in legitimate and transformative demands for equity and recognition. Other days, it is expressed as “complaints about the ethnic integrity of the sushi in a campus dining hall.” But both emerge from the belief that they can bring about positive results.

    Would we prefer apathy?

    I agree with Mr. Bruni that we have to ask questions about priorities and expectations. But at that stage of development, it may be more important that we protect the impulse to act for change.

  • Piercing the Veil of Selfish Consciousness

    On campus, we have had many occasions since I last wrote to discuss virtue. Now, some philosophers and cognitive scientists deny it exists, but our School motto (Virtus Semper Viridis) claims it endures, and I believe we have seen many examples of it here recently.

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    Iris Murdoch, in “The Sovereignty of Good,” writes, “Virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” “Joining the world as it really is” describes our curriculum and so seems to place our academic activities squarely in the set of virtuous behaviors. But the course-work is determined by our context, encouraged and rewarded by faculty, and so regardless of quality, it may not be fully worthy of approbation in the moral sense. More in line with what’s implied by Murdoch’s definition, however, are those instances in which our students on their own try to join the world as it is.

    Just a few days ago, I saw another example of virtue. A group of students agreed to set aside some of their free time and joined me, V.P. of Honor Cameron Anderson ‘16, and Head Master Murray to begin discussing the nature and structure of discipline here at school. What struck me was their interest in deepening their understanding of the current process before even entertaining the possibility of an overhaul. All in the meeting worked to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness” as they worked to analyze before evaluate.

    Of course, as the discussion progressed, some students began to register some preferences and offered potential alternatives that we will all review. It was an appropriate return to the student perspective. But all understood that we have to start with a clear-eyed sense of the world as it really is before we can create the world as it can and should be.

    But you may ask how this is virtue and not self-interest. It’s critically important to note that many in the group will graduate this Spring and not experience any long-term campus benefits from the group’s work. So why should they adjust their schedules, read the shared articles, and sacrifice time for homework or friends all to address other people’s needs?

    They’re Lawrentians.

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Meet G. Blake Eldridge '96, Dean of Students 

G. Blake Eldridge '96 assumed the role of Dean of Students at Lawrenceville July 1, 2014. Eldridge returned to his alma mater in 2004, when he joined the faculty as an English Master and the boys' varsity soccer head coach. He has served the School in a number of important academic, athletic, and residential life roles over the past decade.

Follow Dean Eldridge 

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