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by Charles Rosett

Waterford English Teacher, Charles Rosett spoke before faculty and staff at the All-School Faculty Meeting in February, 2023. Below is the transcript of his talk: 

We claim in our mission statement that we provide students with a world-class liberal arts education that stimulates intellect, ignites passion, and shapes character. I’ve been asked to reflect on how I do all of those things as an educator. Stimulate intellect, ignite passion, shape character, all within the framework of the liberal arts? Our entire mission? Is that all? And I’ve got ten minutes. 

But since that task seems too large, I’ll distract you instead with a brief history lesson. Once upon a time Waterford had a fancy Latin motto. Although it was replaced about two decades ago by an English motto, for those who know where to look, the old, Latin motto is still visible on campus. Here it is – on a sign that once sat proudly out on 94th South at the main entrance to the school, but that was relegated some years ago to the fire lane off of 17th East, by the chain link fence, at what is now officially known, I think, as the construction entrance. I know this because I pass it every day at a pedestrian pace on my walk to and from school. As an aside, I claim to have the lightest carbon footprint of any Waterford teacher.

Now, I don’t know Latin, and while I’m sure Heidi Poole would be happy to help, I’m not asking, so let’s just say this reads discere discendi gratia. As close as anyone on the faculty could figure out at the time, including the Latin teacher who in the 1980s may either have coined this phrase herself or stolen it from some obscure, ancient text, it means roughly, “Learning for the sake of learning.” At the time, this was widely misconstrued to mean “learning for its own sake,” apparently suggesting that learning was an end in itself. But that’s not it. What it really means is that at Waterford we learn so as to become capable learners. And while the old Latin motto is actually not what I’m here to talk about today, its import is right in line with a liberal arts philosophy of education. Specifically, a liberal arts education is meant to prepare people who are free (hence the “liberal” part) to choose their own path in life. This means making them skilled learners, capable of independently taking on new challenges, acquiring new skills, and solving new problems. Additionally, it prepares them to participate in civic life – to have the judgment and wherewithal to help make the world a more humane and beautiful place.

Which brings us to the updated, English motto conjured up in the year 2001 or so by Head of School Nancy Heuston and the late and entirely inimitable Assistant Head Robert Ralphs. In any case, at the moment, the school’s English motto lives in the extreme lower left corner of the Waterford web site’s home page, so perhaps you recognize it as this: honor, beauty, wisdom – the words emblazoned on the Waterford crest. 

But that, my friends, is not the actual motto: it’s a stripped down, truncated version of the original, deprived of its verbs. Here let me stipulate that if we reduce the school’s various statements of mission, purpose, and values to mere nouns, they sound like a rather empty list of attributes, lacking the verbs that animate them and give them force. Here are the nouns from those three statements, taken out of context: meaning, purpose, intellect, passion, character, integrity, excellence, curiosity, responsibility, caring. No disrespect to the Boy Scouts, but on their own, these sound like a list recited by an especially bookish Boy Scout.

So, here’s the actual motto: live honorably, love beauty, seek wisdom. I’m going to suggest that if you want to stimulate intellect, ignite passion, and shape character, this motto is a pretty good place to start. 

For instance, I personally consider the following lines from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Adam’s Curse” to be quite beautiful, though in a piercingly sad way. The poem ends like this:

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;   
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

This is just one example of a place where I find, and love, beauty in the curriculum I teach – though it’s actually been a while since I’ve taught that particular poem. Another, more prosaic place that I find beauty is in the concept of the mutual gains from trade that underlies much of our work in economics class. I dare say, and I certainly hope, that you find and love the beauty in what you teach, whether it’s in the repeating pattern of a trigonometric function or in the eeriness of a piece written in A minor or in the history of the struggle against injustice or in the supersonic force of a pistol shrimp’s claw or in the way the alphabet combines together to form sounds and words for our youngest learners. These are miraculous things for which we do and must have passion if we expect to ignite passion in our students. 

Likewise, if we expect to stimulate the intellect, we must do our own due diligence as far as our preparation of and response to the work our students undertake. At the most basic level, this can be as simple as having a well-thought out lesson in place, or offering timely, thoughtful feedback on the work our students do. These are the basics of living honorably as an educator: it is through these measures that we recognize and honor the intellect, and the potential intellect, of the student. A rich and challenging lesson, like the escape room activity that I saw in Stuart Owens’ class a couple of weeks ago, tells the student that we believe in what her intellect can do, and in the rewards it will find through persistent study. A focused comment on her work shows her that we see the progress she is making. 

But it’s not just a matter of the work we do for them. Living honorably as educators also means growing our own intellects – learning new things that can enrich our teaching – in order to be best equipped to serve the intellects of our students. For my part, although I don’t actually teach much behavioral economics, I’m more ready to pick up on and cultivate a student’s curiosity about, say, irrational decision making if I’ve been reading research in that field. Let your actions as an educator tell your students, I see you; I believe in you. Show them that you are interested in what they’re learning, and that because of that you are still learning. If they raise a question and you don’t know the answer, say, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out.”

Finally, if we are to shape character in our students, we need to seek wisdom in the way we deploy our own character. Wisdom comes in the ability to step outside of one’s circumstances and see things from a longer perspective, understanding that the most obvious or expedient thing to do is not always the right one. That can be a hard thing for a school-age kid to see. Character then means acting on that wisdom – also not the easiest thing to do. For a student, the wise realization of character might mean understanding that the best college to go to is not necessarily the most competitive or prestigious one that they can squeak into, but the one that best fits their needs and interests. Or it might mean understanding that the extra points they’re arguing for are of much less value than a sober assessment of the genuine knowledge and expertise they have gained in their studies. I hope these are things we can help them understand. As I mentioned, we want to guide our students to make the world a more humane and beautiful place, but it’s by no means a foregone conclusion what the best way is to do that. Are we examining our own assumptions and biases about how to proceed? Such examination, said Socrates, is what makes life worth living. (Of course, look what ended up happening to him). But if our students see us doing this in an honest and authentic way – seeking wisdom, not to mention making mistakes and admitting when we’re wrong or we just don’t know – they will do it, too.

So, if you want to do right by your students, live honorably, love beauty, and seek wisdom. 

Waterford News

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