Several weeks ago, I bought a Beach Boys CD for my daughters and heard, for the first time ever, “Be True To Your School.”
When some loud braggart tries to put me down,
And says his school is great,
I tell him right away,
“Now what’s the matter buddy?”
Ain’t you heard of my school?
It’s number one in the state.”
So be true to your school
Just like you would to your girl or guy
Perhaps middle-age has brought me to a more sentimental state of mind, but the song nearly reduced me to tears. The very idea of two juniors arguing over whose school was better recalled for me a bygone and saner era which I was simply born too late to enjoy. Alas, I went to high school in the 1990s, when irony and sarcasm reigned, and so the most popular sentiment expressed in regard to one’s school was, “Whatever.”
Speaking ill of our schools is, however, part and parcel of the modern ethos. Much like our churches and cities, our schools are lucky to have us. When a modern man is asked, “Where do you go to church?” he is prone to insult his church after naming it, saying, “Well, we currently go to First Baptist, but we’re not really into the music.” The modern man wants it known that he takes orders from no one, and that no institution commands his undying loyalty or obedience.
That we should all speak ill of our schools, our states, and our churches is a fulfillment of a prophesy issued by the enlightened Elijah himself, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. When describing the principles by which a man ought to vote, Rousseau said that, “…it is imperative that there should be no sectional associations in the state, and that every citizen should make up his own mind for himself.” A “sectional association” is any identity-granting power or institution to which a man might subscribe, or which he was born into. Take, for example, an African-American man who is a democrat, a Catholic, a civics teacher, a New Yorker, and an Eagle Scout. For the sake of ease, let us call him Marcus. When Marcus enters the voting booth, Rousseau would not have him vote as an African-American. Neither should Marcus vote as a democrat, or a Catholic, or a teacher, a New Yorker, or an Eagle Scout. Rather, Rousseau would have Marcus see through all these “sectional associations,” and “make up his own mind for himself.”
In this command, Rousseau is not merely laying out a theory of voting, but a novel theory of human personhood. Rousseau believes the true self is hidden beyond the façade of all human institutions. At the point a man recognizes he has anything in common with another man, whatever they share loses any value in defining their personhood. The true self always lies beyond the kind of person a man is. An African-American is a kind of person, as is a Catholic, as is a teacher, however, none of these identities matters to Rousseau.
Of course, how exactly a man is supposed to locate this true self— which is beyond every oath, every vow, and every creed he has ever pronounced— is never explained in The Social Contract. Apparently convinced that his true self was incompatible with the very conventional title of “father,” Rousseau sired five children and left each one on the steps of an orphanage. One hopes that in all the time he saved not changing diapers and playing catch, he made room in his schedule to figure out who he really was.
I would not deny that Marcus is an individual, unique in all the world, and yet Marcus’s individuality is based on the curious intersection, within his person, of a great host of identities. There are many millions of African-Americans, many millions of Democrats, many millions of Catholics, and so forth, and yet Marcus is the sole possessor of ten or twenty or thirty fairly common, easily understandable points of reference. Even if I were to get down to the finest and most minute aspects of his character, I would nonetheless have to describe him in terms which make sense because I have encountered them before. Perhaps he “laughs a lot,” yet I have known many men who laugh a lot. Perhaps I would say he “gives many little gifts to his children.” The same is true of others I know. Marcus is not discoverable apart from a map of personhood which sets him in relation to the world and everyone in it. To be blunt, if Marcus was unlike anyone or anything I had ever known, I could not know him at all, and neither could a priest or a doctor be of much use to Marcus.
All of which takes us back to the student who brazenly insults his school.
Is the identity which a certain school provides students and employees worth seeking out? Further, what makes an identity worth seeking out?
When a student is accepted into the student body, that student both receives from and contributes to the identity which the school grants. Put simply, if a student at my school says, “This school sucks,” his simply saying so makes it at least somewhat true. The more he acts on his claim, the truer the claim becomes. If a school is infested with grumblers and complainers who graffiti the bathroom, cheat on tests, brazenly violate the rules, not to mention faculty who show contempt for the students, waste class time, teach lies, and breed vice, it is not possible that the school should be “pretty good anyway.” The identity the school provides students, staff, and faculty is consistent with the behavior of the students, staff, and faculty. The school is as the school does. There is no hidden true self of the school beyond the kind of school it is. A school where students cheat is simply a kind of school. On the other hand, the kind of school where everyone is happy to attend is also a kind of school. For this reason, teachers should be very careful to guard the reputation of the school amongst the students. “This school sucks” has a tendency of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell a little girl she is ugly every morning and she will eventually quit combing her hair and brushing her teeth. Allow “This school sucks” in the halls and eventually the bathroom will be thoroughly trashed, because trashing the bathroom is an appropriate thing to do at a sucky school.
In this way, encouraging “school spirit” is an acknowledgement that the staff and faculty can make the identity which the school offers as valuable as they like. Of course, a school can also deceive itself as to its own worth. We want our students to be satisfied with their classes, although we are not always willing to personally suffer such that their satisfaction is deserved and unfeigned. Forcing students to say nice things about their school will not necessarily make the school a nice place to go. For this reason, criticism of the school ought to be allowed, but only through proper channels. Genuine criticism is the attempt to make the identity of the school more glorious. In the classroom decorum, a document all of my students copy out by hand every year, I have written:
Speak of this school with respect. If you have a grievance with any decision made by a teacher, the staff or the board, those grievances should be addressed privately to a teacher or to the principal, who will be glad to sit down with you and hear out your complaint. Speaking critically of the school to your peers, especially on school grounds, is inappropriate and disrespectful. This means that all complaints about the dress code, assemblies, homework load, grades, teachers and so forth must be directed to a teacher or the administration. Ours is a God who takes complaints seriously, but you must direct your complaints to someone who can do something about them. Your peers can do nothing about the dress code. The principal can, though.
Being true to your school is the only way you can make your school worth being true to. Of course, the same is true of your church, your place of work, or your home. We seek out those identities which call other identity-bearers to higher conduct. Give someone else a reason to want to go to your school and you will want to go there, as well.