Does the dynamic of your classrooms change when you have prospective parents taking a tour? Do you encourage students to sit up when the board of the school is in for their annual review? Is the lawn freshly mowed when grandparents come? For most of us, the fourth quarter has arrived and the volume of visitors at our schools has lately risen, which often means an increased interest in decorum and aesthetics among staff and faculty. Students are bound to notice this renewed interest and given current contemporary notions about authenticity and being genuine, some may complain that the school is being less than honest in its representation of itself. Are these complaints fair?
“What is real?” asks the Velveteen Rabbit, to which the Skin Horse replies that real is not something you are, but something you become. Christian philosophers have traditionally claimed that God is reality itself and that sin is unreal, a negation of reality. I find both Margery Williams and ancient Christian metaphysics both offer helpful answers to the question of whether our schools are “real” when visitors arrive.
I imagine we’re all familiar with the ready, predictable answers to complaints about gussying up the dress code and foyer on grandparent’s day. “We want to put our best foot forward,” we say, “just like when you tidy up before friends come over for dinner. You serve the best food to guests. You clean the bathroom. You vacuum. The school is the same way. This is how we show honor to others.”
For some students, this is an entirely acceptable, reasonable reply. However, other students might press the issue. Many students have been rightly instructed that, “Having integrity means acting the same way when you’re by yourself as when you’re being watched.”
It is important to discuss with students why the school “changes” when a bevy of guests show up. First, the staff and faculty should have a clearly defined rationale for tidying up so that they can discern when they have lapsed into hypocrisy and hubris. Second, the creativity involved in bettering yourself for others is an essential component of cultivating a moral imagination.
Americans have an ingrained, institutional distrust of hierarchies. From the time of the Founding Fathers, Americans have understood “aristocracy” as a byword for “corruption”. Without excusing every excess of the English gentry, I’ll say this is entirely unfortunate. Dante conceived of the entire cosmos as a hierarchy, though not in order that the lowly should be kept low, but as a ladder of being meant to raise the mean. Burke thought of the aristocracy in like manner. The lord existed to put forward an image of freedom, refinement of manners and virtue which was extended to the poor, but not tantalizingly dangled over their heads. The occupation of the landed aristocrat was to be morally and aesthetically excellent. If he was not, his family line would die because no one would marry his children. In the Paradiso, Dante is raised higher and higher toward God Himself as he is passed from the hands of Virgil to Beatrice to Bernard. For Dante, hierarchy is about delieverance into ever greater realms of reality.
The point is, God uses others to call us to excellence. The young man who wants to make himself worthy of a young woman does so not only with a comb and a bottle of cologne, but with flowers, poems, prayers. He keeps his eyes trained forward, sheds the irresponsibility of bachelorhood. The young man struggles to imagine his beloved is by his side, even when she is not, so that he can develop refined habits of living which he can take into marriage, wherein he will have much less privacy.
The presence of others— especially those we are beholden to or responsible to— is a reminder to pursue excellence. If our behavior is lifted up around our betters, this is not flattery. It is humility. We have not achieved excellence, but the presence of others recalls our minds to what we are supposed to be. If students argue, “When guests are around, we don’t behave as we normally do,” the teacher understands that the problem is not the behavior around guests, but the normal behavior.
Goodness is real and vice is not, which means that if guests call us to be excellent, they call us to be real. A young man who gets a job and a haircut after falling in love is no fake, but rather shedding the unreality of sloth. The problem is not in being good simply because the bishop is in town, but in being wicked simply because he is elsewhere.
It is ennobling to “put your best foot forward” only if the foot is truly yours. If the image you pursue in the presence of guests is one you genuinely have a desire to embody, then your community is lifting you up. On the other hand, if grandparent’s day at school prompts behavior from staff and faculty which is never pursued or spoken of otherwise, then the affected image is a lie. Let us grant that it would be nice to have tea and cakes, blazers and tartan skirts and a violin recital every day. It would be nice if “sir” and “ma’am” were always on our lips, if we always remembered to hold doors and pull out chairs, started class on time and kept our desks uncluttered. It would be nice… and guests and visitors remind us that we are being watched, and that we should do all things heartily as unto the Lord, because God and the angels are ever watching over us. If we forget this when our guests leave, we should be all the more zealous in inviting them back.
I tend to think lying and flattering visitors and guests a fairly difficult trick to pull off, and not the kind of thing which often happens on an institutional level. If a teacher who happens to be a pacifist is asked to read (with appreciation and admiration) an essay defending the bombing of Nagasaki simply because a certain wealthy war hawk will be sitting in his grandson’s history class that hour, this is lying. If a young Presbyterian man crosses himself at dinner only when with his Catholic girlfriend’s family, yet dismisses the gesture when by himself, this is lying. In either of these circumstances, no one is putting their best foot forward. No one is simply applying a little lipstick, so to speak, but rather donning a disguise.
Explaining the difference between maturity and flattery is especially important in a culture which has so many muddled ideas about reality and authenticity. If our students believe excellence must be attained all at once or else it is feigned, the concept of spiritual progress will be meaningless. So long as we live under the sun, reality is not only a matter of being, but a matter of becoming. So we are good for guests, and we don’t despise the day of small beginnings.