A school is an aspiring utopia: an intentional community driven by ideals.
As a community an independent school sets its own standards of behavior based on its own deep principles and values. Students and staff are subject to these standards, which may range from small things like observing “proper” table manners to great ones like affirmations of spiritual belief. Within the community that is the school, then, a certain idealism reigns, informing actions and words in the hope of raising community members—and for some schools the world at large—to the level of the school’s dreams—not as Ideal Types but as evolving humans ready to play an active role in changing improving the lot of humankind.
A school’s idealism is represented in its primary topics of discourse. Are these about children, and learning, and the betterment of our world, or do such subjects receive only lip service or—worst of all—have they become objects of “political correctness” to be tiptoed around by jaded cynic and discouraged idealist alike?
There are those who would call fatuous, even plain silly, the idea that students (and teachers) might check their biases, petty prejudices, and even their cynicism and materialism at the schoolhouse gate. It might seem unnatural, or inauthentic—and yet why else do we have and work in such schools? For a few hours a day we ought to be able to expect the best of our students and ourselves, in the hope that the lessons learned under the umbrella of school’s ethos might take root in the world at large. (Isn’t this what alumnae/i magazine profiles are intended to celebrate? Isn’t this why we admire Martin Luther King?)
This will always be a struggle, to live up to an ideal in a world where we are also reminded of the need to “keep it real.” But the very tension in this struggle should be inspirational—keeping it real, after all, is about retaining integrity as we work toward a better world. Whether their foundations be spiritual or secular, independent schools have always, at their best, been about far more than college admission, test or athletic contest scores, or the preservation of the status of elites. A school that has forgotten the better angels of its founders’ natures or the great ambitions of its heritage is a school whose idealism needs rediscovery and revival.
In theory it is school leaders who must take on the role of “idealists in chief,” but anyone and everyone in a school community lives under a gentle but inexorable obligation to call the institution and its members to their duty—to make the school a place devoted to ideals that may be, and perhaps even should be, unapologetically utopian.