We discussed the book on the opening day of faculty meeting week in an attempt to further consolidate and improve our character development efforts here at The Haverford School. The thesis of The Road to Character is on page xv: "We have a chance to take advantage of everyday occasions to build virtue in ourselves and be of service to the world."
Brooks continues, "Example is the best teacher. Moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs." Our faculty and staff attempt to be the moral exemplars our boys need to grow up to be men of good character. Many of them have a quote from Aristotle on their doors, stating: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." We challenge them to develop good habits—of scholarship, of health, of friendship.
Brooks goes on, "What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life, of the way they go about it in the smallest details, is what gets transmitted. Never forget that. The message is the person, perfected over lifetimes of effort that was set in motion by yet another wise person now hidden from the recipient by the dim mists of time. Life is much bigger than we think, cause and effect intertwined in a vast moral structure that keeps pushing us to do better, become better, even when we dwell in the most painful confused darkness." Fortunately, we here at Haverford don't live in painful, confused darkness. We live and work in a wonderful place, with guideposts to what virtues should drive our actions, surrounded by other people who give us examples of service to others above self every day.
We live and work in a wonderful place, with guideposts to what virtues should drive our actions, surrounded by other people who give us examples of service to others above self every day.
On page 12, Brooks tells the story of a man he knows, who I'm pretty sure is actually David Brooks, who evaluates his performance as a man of character every night before he goes to bed and then vows to do better the next day, and develops conscious strategies to do so. Referring, presumably, to himself, Brooks says:
"People who live this way believe that character is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry." Character is built through austerity and hardship—and we see that here at Haverford, most obviously on the playing fields but also when analyzing Shakespeare or deriving equations. "But character is also built sweetly through love and pleasure. When you have deep friendships with good people, you copy and absorb some of their best traits. When you love a person deeply, you want to serve them and absorb their regard. When you experience great art, you widen your repertoire of emotions. Through devotion to some cause, you elevate your desires and organize your energies."
Teaching boys is our cause. Teaching elevates the faculty's desires and organizes their energies. We have chosen to use their lives and their character to grow the next generation of leaders of our nation and the world.
I had a tough week last week, as we took down some trees on campus that had for generations provided shade and beauty, but were now a danger to the boys. I love trees; I really do think, with apologies to the English faculty, that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree. It makes me sad to cut them down. But I changed my tune a bit when I got to talk with Chris Arader '72, whose company helps us take care of our trees. When I told Chris that I was saddened at the demise of our tall, quiet friends, Chris told me, "Well, John, it's time to plant some trees."
As we start another year, I passed Chris' wisdom on to our faculty. It's time, I told them, to plant some trees--to water them, and prune them, and help them grow strong and true. It's important work that lasts for generations, and we're lucky to have the chance to do it on this beautiful campus, and to have the company of each other in which to do it.
I'd encourage all of you to read The Road to Character, and to discuss it over your dinner table. We hope that the ideas in the book inform all of the work we do here at Haverford, this year and for many years to come.
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