On Politics & Gossip

white spacer, blank

In most every instance I have used this column to discuss what Ridgeview is or ought to be, what it esteems and what it abhors, from whence it came and to what it aspires. Today’s column is predicated upon observations made during the last seven years of my employment at this school.

I have never aspired to be everyone’s favorite because I realize that to win that contest would be to sacrifice the very things I had hoped to preserve by my appointment to this office. Politics, in my estimation, are nearly always grubby and vulgar. Having spent a bit of time working in politics, I came to education under both the hope and the belief that it could be a nobler venture. My feeling for all politicians, professional and amateur, has much in common with Oliver Goldsmith’s description:

Who, born for the universe, narrow’d his


And to party gave up what was meant for


This narrowing of the mind, which tends to divide while proclaiming to unite, operates under the aegis of democratic motives, but disrupts, factionalizes, and antagonizes. Contentious elections are destructive forces that resemble Plutarch’s description of the election of senators in that he “who was found to have the most and loudest acclamations was declared senator duly elected.” The difficulty is that he with the “most and loudest acclamations” is rarely the best qualified. Acclamations are often spread through secret machinations, and in fact, they rarely focus on lifting up one candidate so much as they are denunciations intended to tear another down. Such is the titillation to be had in a modern democracy.

It is for this reason that we should be conscientious stewards and circumspect in our behavior precisely because we uphold high standards for our young. If they are to have a model for decorous politics, let us be conscious that we are it and not let books stand in our stead. If we have done our jobs, we have taught them to be lovers of honor. If we have not, the inverse will be true and we will not be able appeal to honor, nor will be able to shame the shameless. If we draw our ethics from Christianity, we read in Proverbs that, “Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee: To deliver thee from the way of the evil man, from the man that speaketh froward things; Who leave the paths of uprightness, to walk in the ways of darkness; Who rejoice to do evil, and delight in the frorwardness of the wicked.” This may sound extreme, but virtually every evil act begins with speech. Just words. A walk around the building, a few moments by the water cooler, a chat in the parking lot, a sustained conversation during slow moments at work. Often things are said out of boredom, envy, avarice, spite, or malice that are known full well to be untrue, and the gossiper deflects criticism of their subterfuge saying, “We are just having a conversation.” “Can a lie be taken as communication?” asked the philosopher Josef Pieper. “A lie is the opposite of communication,” he wrote. “It means specifically to withhold the other’s share and portion of reality, to prevent his participation in reality.” By contrast, Aristotle gives us to believe that the noble is that “which is both desirable for its own sake and also worthy of praise, or that which is both good and also pleasant because good.” We get to choose which we will do, what we will be participants in; in short, whether we will pursue friendships that aim at nobility and dignity or frowardships that aim at malicious pleasures. The forms of virtue inherent in nobility include justice, courage, temperance, magnificence, magnanimity, liberality, gentleness, prudence, and wisdom. Does the malcontent lurking in the shadows seeking out a camaraderie with spite and agitation possess any part of these virtues? What habits will we make and model? Virtue is habitual. “There are habits,” wrote William Paley, “not only of drinking, swearing, and lying, and of some other things, which are commonly acknowledged to be habits, and called so; but of every modification of action, speech, and thought. Man is a bundle of habits.” We have free will and may choose to develop edifying and ennobling habits or to develop none and resort to our baser instincts.

Again, the problem with politics is that it is too often predicated upon a population that has or who is presumed can be enticed into succumbing. The demagogue and sycophant preys on this population and is strengthened by it. Plato wrote of this kind of politician in the Republic when writing:

I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a might strong beast who is fed by him – he would learn how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honorable and that dishonorable, or good or evil, or just and unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute.

The demagogue has no principles but those which will appease the largest number. We are better, and must be better, than this for the sake of our own integrity and for that of our children’s. As a school, following a path of integrity and insisting upon honorable and virtuous habits from each of its constituent parts falls to us all. I earnestly hope to preside over an administration that is less apt to the political caviling I have witnessed in previous years, and whose preeminent concern is the development of its students. I still hope to foster an environment in which colleagues can work with one another rather than turning on one another. It is my job to put in the hours, to take the time to answer every e-mail, hear out every concern, return every phone call, be informed of every decision, take ultimate responsibility for every mistake and misstep, and ensure that Ridgeview flourishes now and in the future.

I believe we have made a great deal of progress in less than a year. We have extended Latin into the elementary and introduced Greek in third grade, which has improved the vocabulary and grammar of all of our students. It will eventually reap even greater rewards as these students matriculate with a stronger understanding of their language and a more mature classical education. We have granted greater academic freedom in revising the manner in which the senior thesis is conducted, and have ensured that the quality of writing will continue to improve by introducing the required composition sequence in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. We have introduced a penmanship program, made improvements to the math curriculum, improved the appearance and cleanliness of the building, removed teachers from parking lot and lunch duties, and reassigned them to those areas where they are more likely to develop meaningful relationships with students. The dress code is being cleaned up, and funding has been made available for those families who are unable to afford the uniform in the lower grades. The administration of the school is working together in a more cooperative fashion than ever before, and PowerSchool has been deployed with great success and numerous advantages. We have a new building and fewer space issues than in previous years, and we are looking forward to some exciting back-to-school activities for all of the students. We have hired some great teachers and will continue to hire more in the near future. We have simplified the schedule for next year, and for the first year ever, teachers and students will have their course schedules for next year before they leave for the summer break. We have given Ridgeview a more prominent position on the state and national stages through our resolute position on Common Core, and through the use of social media. We are excited about what we will achieve with students through the Student Ambassador Program, and there is much more to come. Ridgeview has yet to see its best days

While it is possible that we may be pulled into conversations in the coming weeks, it is my hope that these conversations be oriented towards the good of the school and not involve vulgar or malicious gossip. In parting, I ask everyone to consider the following story, apocryphal as it undoubtedly is, about Socrates’ ‘triple-filter test.”

One day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about Diogenes?”

“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied, “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.”
‘Triple filter?” asked the acquaintance.

“That’s right,” Socrates continued, “Before you talk to me about Diogenes let’s take a moment to filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“No,” the man said, “Actually I just heard about it.”

“All right,” said Socrates, “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about Diogenes something good?”

“No, on the contrary…”

“So,” Socrates continued, “You want to tell me something about Diogenes that may be bad, even though you’re not certain it’s true?”

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued, “You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter, the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about Diogenes going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really.”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “If what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even useful, why tell it to me or anyone at all?”

%d bloggers like this: