The Higher Calling: Mission-Driven Schools, Duty, and (Public) Service


This is about words that can sometimes sound out of tune to the contemporary educational ear, but words that we have heard often lately in important contexts: duty, obedience, service.

When I hear these words, I tend to envision uniformed men, rigid countenances, shiny weapons. At  first blush, they sound a bit too much like some kind of servitude, submission even—restrictions on the liberties I value most despite their sometime associations with those who defend these very liberties. In my mind, at least, my work and life stand for freedom of thought and expression, to a critical questioning of creeds and codes.

But the other day I had a small epiphany about schools, and in particular (not surprisingly) about independent schools and their leadership.

School mission statements, as I’ve stated probably too often, serve as both foundational and aspirational documents, and along the way I may even have used the word “credo.” From such statements flow values and legacies and daily practices and even—in culturally well ordered schools—legacies. At least in theory, those who comprise the living communities of a school operate under the guiding principles set forth in the mission and developed within its frame.

Might this not mean, on a level that seems absurdly idealistic but may not be at all, that to some degree school communities are bound by their mission(s and values and similar statements of belief and intent) in the same ways that other enterprises are bound by creeds and codes? If such statements of belief and intent are to be used as touchstones or even litmus tests for the evolution of school policies and practices, as current approaches to accreditation essentially require and as I and others continually urge, then is there an element of “obedience” or “service to an idea” or even “duty” in the idea that a school’s words and deeds should uphold the ideas for which it purports to stand? When we talk about fit—for a student, for a family, for a faculty member, for a trustee—are we not also talking about a certain devotion to those ideals that requires a constant consciousness of thought, word, and action?

I’d not want to be accused of being a strict mission constructionist, a mission originalist, or a mission fascist; the interpretation of mission is as subject to social, cultural, and educational evolutionary forces as the Nicene Creed or the United States Constitution. Recent years have seen way too many individual and group actions, supposedly based on obedience to one idea or another, that have deeply and often violently wounded the human family and stood in the way of what I want to believe is our common purpose to love, to live, and to prosper together. School missions must never (if ever they have been) be written or enacted to do harm.

The idea of school mission statements probably has its origins, like so much in Western education, in the monastic codes and Rules of the European Middle Ages. Where monks and nuns once “submitted” to such rules, under the guidance of abbots and abbesses, teachers, administrators, trustees, students, and families now gather—bound by various contracts—to live out school missions, to interpret and enact and experience their meaning within an evolving cultural milieu and an ever-expanding understanding of the ways in which children learn and in which effective learning occurs.

But I think it is not too far-fetched to suggest that school leadership, at least, might be said to echo monastic practice of a past age. What is a school head, if not someone who agrees to both live by and to further the aims set out in the mission statement that forms the centerpiece of the “hiring statement” hammered out by a Search Committee? Are there not in this role elements, although almost never described as such, of duty, obedience, and service?

Who and what, though, are being served? As one of my bosses has stated as his personal credo, “Schools are for kids,” and this higher purpose must both underlie and transcend even the most idealistic of mission or values statements. Whatever ideas and ideals a school embraces have the ultimate purpose of supporting students in the service of their growth into fully realized and capable human beings—“the best versions of themselves,” as I and others like to say. And however much we find ourselves in “customer service” mode when we deal with families, it is a more estimable purpose toward which we are working: we would all acknowledge that our “duty” is not to satisfy every whim or demand of families and students but rather to achieve what we sometimes describe as our “higher calling”—to bring out the best in children and adolescents.

For what it’s worth, I sometimes wonder whether schools’ tendency to focus on their practice these days—to present themselves in the marketplace in terms of specific “new and improved” methods and tools used in their classrooms—might undervalue this higher calling. Day-to-day practical issues and the loftiest of aspirations are hardly antithetical to each other, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that the one ought to reference the other if we are to maintain integrity, in all senses of the word, in our work.

So I think it’s not so far-fetched for us at least occasionally to consider our work within a framework of duty, obedience, and service. If this sounds atavistic, then so be it. I believe, however, that education, formal or otherwise, is a human duty that the experienced have to the less experienced, a service that the older (and perhaps wiser?) perform for the younger. It’s a human thing, and if we put some values behind it all, why should it not take on a philosophical or even moral cast, something like obedience to principle?

And then of course there’s the yet-higher calling of our schools themselves, to take their place in the battle against not just ignorance but injustice, not just illiteracy but inequity, not just apathy but amorality. No, we’re not a uniformed service, but it might not be such a bad idea if every now and then we considered that we might be not just employees and educators at one independent school or another, but public servants of a public good.


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