Grit and the Soul

Praying HandsGrit. Mindfulness. Character Education. Conversations about the importance of cultivating personal “intangibles” and moral agency are all over the edu-sphere these days, particularly in contrast to a persistent focus on external achievement as the primary standard of educational excellence and personal “success.” 

This is a good thing. But it seems to me that cultivating the inner resources and moral compasses of young people has always been at the heart of great teaching and learning. Maybe we are just rediscovering that simple truth.

When I began teaching as a young twenty-something in the late-1970s, it seemed self-evident that a primary purpose of all education, including schooling, was “character education.” I knew that one of my primary roles as a teacher was to connect students to ideas: not as disembodied knowledge but as part of a very human journey towards greater wisdom about life, the world, and one’s self. While many of the methods in those days were a tad “traditional” (or shall we say “classical?”), the goal was not to present a simplistic, dogmatic ,or doctrinaire formula for the “good life” but to help students grapple with moral complexity and contradiction as real people in a real world.

Somewhere along the line, however, we took a turn. Schools became busier places and kids became busier kids. Materialism, competition, anxiety, and fear found their way into the minds and hearts of parents, students, and school leaders. Teachers and schools could no longer ignore kindergarten placement lists or how many “5s” students earned on AP exams. “Marketing” and “branding” entered the educational lexicon. 

Nor could schools ignore the fact that perhaps the kids were not “alright” after all: many students were, in fact, struggling with alcohol and drug use, social ostracism and bullying, and other less-than-pleasant realities of life, in and out of school. Even as we worked hard to live into being a “family” and “an inclusive community” or attend to “the whole child,” some students still felt out in the cold intellectually, socially, or emotionally.

These decades of educational journeying have taught us a great deal about how to be better schools for all students. Radical new technologies of our new century will continue to challenge us to think in fresh ways about what this proposition called “school” can and should look like.

But, like so much in life, here we are, circling back to first principles. Like the wanderer Ulysses or the prodigal son, we are coming home again, at last. Mindfulness, character education, grit — call it what you will. It seems to me that these are imperfect attempts to describe the intangible and timeless journey of the human soul that has always been at the heart of our calling (and responsibility) as educators and faith leaders.

I hope that, as Episcopal schools, we did not wander too far while we were journeying. I hope that we will continue to place the soul’s work at the heart of our schools, even as we change and adapt that work for each new generation and, wherever our paths may take us, always and foremost walk with our students in faith, hope, and love.