One of our granddaughters graduated from high school a few days ago. It was quite an event. A hundred and fifty girls, young women, celebrating a pivotal moment in their lives, one which, for them, can happen only once and never be repeated. A gymnasium filled with families and friends, and the entire school administration lined up to celebrate their achievements. It’s a rite of passage perhaps more important than graduation from college because it is the sign and symbol that they are leaving childhood behind as they enter the world of emerging adulthood.
What struck me is its uniqueness as an event belonging to them only. It can never belong to any other. At the same time, it is one event, a single day, that is part of a chain of events stretching from decades past to decades yet to come. Their school, for instance, was founded 150 years ago, with every expectation of 150 yet to come. A class has graduated each year, and each year it is as if such a moment has never happened before and never will again. Surrounding them are faculty and staff for whom this is one more repetition of an annual event much like the one last year, and likely the one next year and the year after that. This fall a new class of freshmen will be welcomed as if for the first time. Next spring a new class of seniors will be graduated as if it had never happened before. At least that’s how it is likely to feel for the new freshmen and graduating seniors.
However, all this first time ever uniqueness is contained within the context of tradition. The idea of tradition may seem a little old fashioned to some, but it’s important, and I think its essential to establishing standards of excellence. I’m going to stick with the school example for a while, but I want you to consider how important the same dynamic is for a multitude of institutions and organizations.
When done well, entering students will be made aware that they have been bequeathed something of value from previous generations. They will be guided to understand their responsibility to live into the high standards of the school’s traditions, bearers of it for those who will follow. Not every school has a tradition worthy of being bequeathed or celebrated. Some have none at all. No one cares. Let’s think about that.
I was impressed by the understated yet powerful way my granddaughter’s school traditions of academic excellence and moral values were integrated into the ceremony, reminding the graduates that they have been good stewards of them during their four years, encouraging them to carry them with them into their adult lives. Are there schools that can’t do that because they don’t have a tradition of excellence or moral values? What about so called troubled schools where unteachable students are blamed, or their irresponsible parents, or the incompetent faculty? Maybe we have overlooked something more important: crafting and establishing a tradition of excellence and moral values that students are expected to live into and up to. It can’t happen if no one knows what they are, and if administrations have not made a commitment to honor them. What’s appropriate for one school may not be appropriate for another. Each one must be suited for the place and people it serves. Every now and then we are treated to a wow success story, but it always seem to revolve around the charisma of a particular teacher or principal, with success lasting only as long as that persons lasts, and only for those whom she or he touches. Trying to replicate their successes by doing what they do never works, because they are only momentary glimpses of what an appropriate tradition would look like if it was institutionalized. What’s important is an appropriate tradition of academic excellence and moral values welded into the heart of the institution, and into which administrators, faculty, and students are expected to live.
What if a school doesn’t have one? A hundred and fifty years ago my granddaughter’s school didn’t have one. The founders simply began where they were and set them, welding them into the institution over time. These days we seem to dislike the idea of institutionalizing anything. Stifles creativity, it is said. Maybe, but some things to be institutionalize. I graduated for high school sixty years ago. It was the public high school for a large consolidated district that included urban and rural areas encompassing a wide variety of social and economic class. Some students would go on to college, others trained for vocational careers. A Future Farmers of America club was active. What made it a high performing school was it’s tradition of academic excellence and commitment to building moral values into the curriculum. It doesn’t require an elite private school for traditions such as these to guide students and faculty. I doubt there is any school anywhere that can’t do the same, and it would make all the difference.
Now for a word of caution. Throughout this brief essay, I’ve used the phrase moral values. Experience warns me that many will assume it means patriotism, conservative Christian values, prayer in school, and the like. It doesn’t. It means honesty, integrity, respect for self and others, concern for the good of the community, and experience at being held responsible and accountable for what one says and does.