The pursuit of happiness

Published 8:49 pm Saturday, December 6, 2008

As the holiday season is upon us, like many of you, I am looking forward to the gathering of family and the annual reflections that are all part of these holiday reunions.

Christmas will find me sitting at the ancient dinner table of my parents, both independent school educators who remain steadfast in the urgency of teaching our children. My father, in particular, will remind me that schools “are essentially social institutions” and that education is more than classes and curriculums relative to today’s standards.

Last week, grandparents came to Nansemond-Suffolk Academy to spend a morning with their grandchildren and take in what our standard of education is on Pruden Boulevard.

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My general address to the grandparents was prodded by some of the thinking about today’s standards of education. Of course, I began to think about their standards and whether our work would resonate.

Regardless whether a school is independent, parochial, public or private, each school has its own mission, its own standards. I think the nature of a school as a social institution plays an important role in lifting those standards.

I remember a professor at Columbia University who joked with my class about schools that claimed they stood for high standards. He wondered aloud whether any school would declare, “We stand for mediocre standards – or even lower standards.” And what standards are we then using to measure such things?

I was thrilled to enter an Advanced Placement U.S. History class as a substitute for Mr. Trusedell to find our students tackling the elemental idea of natural law. Mr. Trusedell teaches U.S. History rather than training for the AP exam. His students reminded me that Thomas Jefferson turned John Locke’s idea of life, liberty and property into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

That led to the following discussion: What did Jefferson mean by the pursuit of happiness? Is it my right to be happy? Does my pursuit of happiness imply a collective right to trample a human being to death on “Black Friday” to grab a great deal? Is that the standard we seek?

At the dinner table this Christmas, my father will press me to answer the age-old question, “What is the purpose of education?” I will begin to talk about a school’s mission; Nansemond-Suffolk Academy’s mission is for each student to reach his or her potential academically, artistically and athletically.

A good AP program has everything to do with a good school program and superior teachers who are educated in their discipline. Yes, we will continue to offer AP classes and prepare our children for a successful transition into the college of their choice.

But a good independent school goes beyond this; all of us educate for a lifetime of learning. In the end, I believe that one who is engaged in a life nourished with a love of learning is pursuing happiness.

Will that be enough for dear ol’ Dad at the Christmas table? We shall see, but that is the standard we choose to live by on Pruden Boulevard.