Six Important Life Lessons Boarding Schools Teach

| April 16, 2015

New York Time columnist David Brooks struck readers’ collective nerves this past Sunday with a piece titled “The Moral Bucket List.

He reflects on people he sees, who selflessly contribute to their communities and others.

I bring Brooks into this space because good boarding school communities teach so much of what he sees that creates selfless contributors.

Brooks writes:
“About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character...

I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.”(NYT)
Not to be too snide, but I think a few good teachers and clergy could have helped him reach his conclusion a bit more quickly.
What Brooks finds that creates and cultivates contributors is so much of what we teach in the community life of boarding schools. Brooks makes the case that selfless contribution results from six perspective shifts that move one from self-centeredness to empathy and group connection:
THE HUMILITY SHIFT- “...all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses...They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.

SELF-DEFEAT- “character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness...Have you developed deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good?”

THE DEPENDENCY LEAP- “Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.”

ENERGIZING LOVE- With Dorothy Day as his example, “It reminds you that your true riches are in another. Most of all, this love electrifies. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love.”D

THE CONSCIENCE LEAP- “In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.”(NYT, all quotes)

Boarding Schools Cultivate These Kinds of Experiences

Boarding school communities are lucky to have exactly that, interconnected communities in which everyone bears responsibility for the how well the group works, the quality of life, and the overall success of the community.

Boarding school community members live with a responsibility to each other — to students, adults, teacher, kitchen staff, maintenance staff. They learn how to serve the common good. To selflessly contribute as well as observe and reflect upon the situation. When our responsibility slips, our community is lesser.

We’re also lucky to be able to teach, think, and operate from moral perspectives. Schools connected to religious denominations use their perspectives and teachings; we’re free to teach philosophy classes; we have residential life curricula; we might have a daily jobs program that requires a daily labor contribution.

Boarding school alumni and faculty members may travel their full lives without ever having fully achieved all six criteria Brooks lays out for self-sacrifice enlightenment. Most days, I’ve got a few coursing through me; but, I don’t always have all six present in my thoughts and actions.

However, I try to reflect; make changes; and, ensure that I leave every situation better than when I arrived...I learned a lot about that in boarding school.