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The Human Imperative of Episcopal Education

Ann Mellow, Associate Director

March 04, 2014

Candles for NewtownThe following comments are taken from a keynote address at the 1st Annual St. James Forum, “Episcopal Schools: Touching Hearts, Empowering Lives” held on February 22 at St. James School in Philadelphia. St. James School is a tuition-free Episcopal middle school and a member of the Episcopal Urban School Alliance.

Educational literature today is filled with talk about testing and core standards, and sadly also about police presence in schools and lock down drills. But it is also filled with ideas about small schools, community building, values, and a moral education. And at the heart of this reform movement is really a very simple idea: to create schools where each person is valued, honored, and held in human dignity. These are intangible qualities that exemplary schools all share: academic excellence undergirded by a sense of purpose and belonging.

Of course there remain challenges and struggles, questioning and self-doubt, the hard work and uphill battles that each of us must confront. But to navigate each of the struggles and joys of what it means to be a human being and to do it in a place that ultimately says, “I know you, I love you, you are important” is a gift. The Book of Isaiah reads, “I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…because you are precious in my sight.”

Way back in the 1990s, Tom Sergioivanni, a professor at Trinity University in Austin Texas, wrote about moral leadership in schools. He views the task of school reform, private well as public, as one of transforming schools from organizations into communities - for communities, says Sergioivanni, speak in a moral voice and lay claim to their members. Only in this way can learning come alive. Most importantly only in this way can children become grounded, centered, strong and yet compassionate. Yes, school is a sacred enterprise.

This is the incarnational ministry of Episcopal schools: to show our children the richness which is in and all around them. To give them strength, courage, security, not to live as islands unto themselves, trapped in the egocentrism embodied in an idolatry of false wealth, but to live in relation to others with generosity, love, and endurance.

Episcopal schools are one of the Episcopal Church’s most vibrant and relevant ministries today. Just about 1,200 Episcopal schools serve approximately 160,000 students throughout the provinces of the Episcopal Church. Almost 500 of these schools are elementary and middle parish day schools. They serve kids from rich families and middle class families and families that struggle to make ends meet, if at all. They serve Christians of all kinds, and children of all faiths, and children of no faith at all across a broad human spectrum of race, culture, and ethnicity.

Each life touched is like a pebble in a pond: the student who goes on to be a student leader;  the young person who develops a lifelong capacity for compassion; the trajectory of an entire family forever changed by a quality education; the hundreds of graduates over the lifetime of a school who bring a sense of community, purpose, and inner strength to whatever they do. 

I am reminded of words from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s wonderful poem Ulysses: “Come, my friends, ‘tis not too late to seek a newer world and follow knowledge like a sinking star.” 

New worlds and possibilities. This is why Episcopal schools are so important. Because here we listen for the echo of God’s voice, because we know there is more than our human eye can see, our human hands can shape, our minds can predict. 

Isaiah tell us “to break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron” and find  “riches hidden in secret places”: the beauty of the mind, a wholeness of spirit, possibilities greater than any we could imagine, and perhaps even the hand of God.

“I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you
I will say to the north ‘give them up’ and to the south ‘do not withhold’
Bring my sons from far away and my daughters form the end of the earth.
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them and hear and say it is true.”

-- Isaiah Chapter 43

1 Comment

  1. 1 Chip Prehn 21 Mar

    Thanks so much for this post, Ann!  So true --- all you are saying.  I serve a school wherein perhaps 90% of our Faculty and Staff are from public school backgrounds, both personally and professionally.  They find the School "special" in ways they did not expect, and they do not realize how much of this ethos comes from the simple fact that we are a scholastic community in the Episcopal tradition.  You have articulated the Difference so well!

    I submit that we have loads to learn from public education and public school teachers.  So many of them get training that many of us private-school folk did not get --- and it is an intense training that comes via the crucible of a public school (more students and in some ways more pressure to perform well).  But we Episcopal educators likewise have some things to share with the colleagues of public school provenance.  I have come to believe that there's nothing particularly the matter with public school teachers, who are so dedicated and amazing; rather, the real problem is the system (in most places), and the main problem with the system is not the bureaucracy, nor the "breakdown of the American family," true as these might be, but the wrong Goal:  It appears that America's schools will become better if we just aim for "academic excellence."  But we have centuries of knowledge to refute this very notion.  The greatest educators in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition have taught us over and over again that we must aim ABOVE academic excellence at Character, Virtue, and Wisdom, and then we shall have a morally sound and socially sensitive sort of academic excellence as a byproduct of the main quest --- and this for a much larger percentage of the student body than would be the case otherwise.  I love that quotation from C.S. Lewis:  "Aim for Heaven and you get earth thrown in; aim for earth and you get neither."

    In any case, thanks so much for posting the address you offered at St. James the Less --- one of the most exciting initiatives in all of American education!


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