Placing Students in a State of Liberty
If elementary education at The Saint Constantine School is about letting children be children (and I think in many significant ways, for all students, it should be), then high school at TSCS is about helping those children become adults.
At The Saint Constantine School, our junior high and high school students have free rein over our seven-acre property. They can have free periods during the school day, depending on their class schedules, and are encouraged to take leadership roles and explore their various talents through the House system, music and art showcases, plays, and intellectual and athletic competition. They choose their own topic of study for their semester essay (within the range of literature that they’re studying that year), and are encouraged to seek out guidance from faculty members who have particular interest in that area.
We dedicated the largest classroom on our property as a Common Room in which middle and upper school students can study, talk, and eat lunch. We do not have an adult supervisor stationed in the Common Room, though our parent volunteer desk is immediately outside the door and teachers roam in and out of the room all day. A student body that freely chooses what is best for themselves, each other, and their school—to the best of their ability and with the advice and ultimate approval of the faculty—is one that must own their moral and practical choices, giving meaning to both the choice and the good that comes from it.
One of the things we emphasize from the first day of the high school Summer Retreat is that this freedom is granted to them for their moral, mental, and academic formation, not to indulge their laziness or vice. In the words of John Locke, we place our students in a state of liberty, not of license.
Anyone who misuses that liberty will have it removed. Every year they start with a clean slate, with liberty and free time to do with what they will. As some choose to use that time unwisely they will lose freedoms they have misused (such as free access to the Common Room–instead they will do work in the school offices with the faculty). Students who break the few school rules, are failing to meet their academic commitments, or are behaving disrespectfully to teachers or unkindly to fellow students, will quickly find themselves out of class and in the office of their Head of House, with consequences to follow.
In other words, we create an environment in which good choices are met with growing freedom, opportunity, and partnership between the students and the faculty, and poor choices cause life to become much less pleasant for as long as the behavior continues. If these consequences prove to be ineffective in reforming the heart and mind of the student, that student will be asked to leave the community entirely.
It is a lot more work to provide teenagers with liberty than it is to keep them under constant watch or lock and key. When they are set free they will disappoint you, they will make mistakes, they will deliberately push the boundaries, they will fight with one another and hurt one another. This can’t work if we as educators and Heads of House don’t spend a great deal of our time meeting with students, chiding them, encouraging them, and following through on the necessary consequences of their various decisions.
It would be much easier for us to require that they take a class every period that they’re here, or to require that the curriculum is exactly the same for everyone, that they not be free to roam the green space, or that a teacher is always present wherever older students are, so that they have less opportunities to make poor choices.
So why don’t we?
Because moral formation requires moral choices, and personal responsibility can only be built through personal decisions. At some point, a young adult will be free to make their own choices, whether it be at age twelve, when they get to decide where they have lunch at school and what they’ll write their paper on, or not until they’re eighteen or twenty and they are set free on a college campus to do what they will.
Every child will, at one point or another, have to start deciding for themselves how they will conduct their lives. We’ve decided to precipitate those moments in ever expanding ways in the context of good peer pressure and a lot of loving, firm adults. It can at times look like mayhem, but it’s a carefully understood and long-suffering process of liberty, error, consequence, and the earning back of liberty and trust.
Education is for the flourishing of the human soul. We educate so that a child might be more fully human, more alive in the world, more capable, more loving, and more wise. With this goal in mind, moral and spiritual formation are not extras, but the very heart of what we do. And so, we must endeavor to create an environment in which students face moral choices and opportunities to form their character.
We must set them free while they are still in our care so that they know what they want to do with their freedom, they know how to make choices for themselves, and they have done so for many years in a place where the expectations and consequences of God’s moral order are intentionally reiterated and required of them.
I’m not saying we don’t have our fair share of miscreants and bad behavior. We certainly do. Every day. But what I can say is that the vast majority of our disciplinary actions happen with our newest students, which leads me to a very happy conclusion: most students want liberty and the many goods that come. They want to grow, and they want to be worthy of our trust. And so we create a place that trains them daily how to be so. And, as the years go by, it works.
Slowly but surely our children become adults with the ability and desire to make good moral choices and embrace the good that they are now heir to.