Freedom at Sparhawk

Freedom at Sparhawk

Bob Sylvain Address to the Sparhawk Mothers Club, October 16, 2019

It’s great to have so many of our Sparhawk moms here this evening. I’m grateful to Debbie and Kate for inviting me to say a few words about the role of freedom at Sparhawk.

Some of you may have seen the little car magnets we had made a couple of years ago with our school logo. At the time our motto was “Freedom and Truth”. We later changed it to “Surgite, et nolite timere”, that is “Rise up, and do not be afraid”, words of Jesus in the New Testament. I’m happy with the revised motto, but the old one is still worth remembering.

Saint John Paul II said as a young bishop during the Second Vatican Council “Freedom on the one hand is for the sake of truth and on the other hand it cannot be perfected except by means of truth. Hence the words of our Lord, which speak so clearly to everyone: ‘The truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). There is no freedom without truth.” 

So freedom and truth are inseparable, and at the heart of what we are doing here.

I’d like to begin by widening the topic a bit. At Sparhawk, we constantly talk about the wise use of freedom. That little word “wise” is the key to understanding our approach.

First of all, wisdom is different from knowing lots of facts. St. John Vianney, popularly known as the Cure of Ars, is the patron saint of parish priests. By the time he died in 1859 he was renowned throughout the world as possibly the greatest confessor in the history of the Church. During the last ten years of his life he spent 16 to 18 hours a day hearing the confessions of thousands who sought his wise advice. 

How did this come about? His formal education did not begin until he was 20 years old, and he was such a bad student that the bishop at first refused to ordain him. But thankfully, that bishop came to recognize his wisdom, that gift of the Holy Spirit that does not depend on brains or temperament or age, but has its source in holiness. 

As Christians, we believe that the primary source of wisdom is the grace of God. But we also believe that grace builds on nature, and that our human effort to create conditions for God’s grace to act is important. And so, in addition to praying for them, there are actions we can take to help our boys grow in wisdom. A lot of this comes about in the classroom. The boys tap into the accumulated wisdom of Western culture by reading great literature and being introduced to heroes, both historical and fictional. Through athletic competition they learn about what they are physically capable of as well as the limits of their capacities. Likewise on an overnight mountain hike they learn how to challenge themselves and so grow in confidence and maturity. 

Most importantly, our faculty models to the boys what it means to be a man. What they see in their dads is reinforced every day at school as they witness men who are generous, who work hard, who know how to be a true friend, who take responsibility for their actions, who pray. Because the boys are very young, they do not yet have the benefit of experience that leads to wisdom. Here at Sparhawk we try to create the conditions, through instruction and the power of example, to hasten that process.

Of course, it is not enough to know about wisdom in theory. Wisdom needs to be acted out, to be lived. And this is where wisdom intersects with the realm of freedom.

On a basic level freedom means the absence of constraint. A boat can drift freely when it’s not tied to an anchor. Our chickens can wander all over the property when they’re not confined to the chicken coop. That kind of freedom is the ability to act without any restraint on an inner inclination.

At Sparhawk we have some constraints – rules and policies that are laid out in our Student Handbook or the Student Life section of our website. These constraints are ultimately liberating, by laying out clear guidelines about a range of potentially risky behaviors. But there are few of these, by design, since we expect our boys to use age-appropriate common sense. Mostly we try and present opportunities for them to actually live out their freedom in the day-to-day of life at Sparhawk.

But our boys are not boats, or poultry. When talking about a person and personal freedom, there is a whole psychological dimension that enters the picture. Quite often what limits the freedom of a person are not reasonable constraints, but rather coercion, or manipulation, or fear, or compulsion. 

We try here to help the boys identify times when their freedom is being compromised by these dangers. In The Life of Pi a boy is trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, and he is able to train it into specific behavior by establishing dominance with food and a shrill whistle. People, and especially children, can be similarly induced to behave in specific ways by the threat of reward or punishment.

Sometimes this is done out of love, by a parent or teacher looking out for the best interests of a boy. But there are other, less scrupulous players in our world looking to manipulate our kids using advertising techniques, peer pressure, greed, envy, or anger to sell a product or an idea.

A boy who learns how to endure the discomfort of a chilly night in a tent, or to manage his emotions while defending his class fort from attack, is building the character to resist physical and psychological pressures. Such a boy is growing in freedom, precisely because he can exercise self-control and make smart decisions.

One of the key documents of the Second Vatican Council summarized this:

Human dignity requires one to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind impulse or merely external pressure. People achieve such dignity when they free themselves from all subservience to their feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursue their own end by effectively and assiduously marshalling the appropriate means. (Gaudium et Spes 17)

The boys know they are entrusted with freedom here. Apart from a handful of All-School Masses, for instance, they are free to attend daily Mass or not. In fact, most boys do. 

First term report cards come out three weeks from today. We distribute them directly to the boys for them to bring home and show you. That sends the important message that the boy is a partner in the educational enterprise, he is trusted, and he is treated with respect. That also explains why we expect each boy, and not his parents, to take responsibility for writing down homework assignments.

We are not naive. It is not only possible, it is likely that there will be times when a boy misuses his freedom. He will mess up an assignment, he will get into an argument with another boy, he will stretch too far and fall into the brook. We are willing to take that risk because these are learning opportunities. John Paul Lechner likes to compare our job – our job – as educators to gardening. We need to provide the boys with the things they need to flourish, and protection from weeds and hungry predators. It requires patience, trust that the boys will be attracted by the light, willingness to get dirty pulling out the unwanted weeds that inevitably spring up.

We want Sparhawk to be a place where boys recognize they are understood and loved as boys. By going out of our way to help them make wise use of their freedom, we show we believe in them. This can be a scary business, and so I leave you with the words of Our Lord that make up our school motto: Rise up, and do not be afraid!

Thank you.

Bob Sylvain is the Head of School at Sparhawk Academy.