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Why Boys Need to Be Given Freedom

Editor’s Note: Boys at The Heights run from class to class unsupervised, and enjoy much of their lunch break roaming campus, choosing their own adventures. They throw snowballs, climb trees, decide whether to attend Mass daily, and, once they are seniors, may go off campus for break and lunch, possibly for some local fishing. The catfish really seeming to be biting in the Potomac right now. Why the freedom? Andy Reed explains below, it’s not because we, as a School are lazy, nor is it because our parents are reckless. It is, instead, a communal commitment to forming boys in virtue through an environment of freedom–an educational ecosystem for the human boy that acknowledges both what he is, and, most fundamentally, what he was created to become.

Any genuine growth towards virtue comes from within. Consequently, a complete education that cares for an individual’s development should encourage elements of personal judgment, common sense, and temperance. This is a tall order for any school community but becomes attainable when the school is properly recognized as an extension of the family. Just how are these virtues developed in boys in particular? Experience. Boys do not have their personal judgments shaped by what is simply told to them in the abstract. Boys need experiences followed by either encouragement or correction. Encouragement or correction for boys is also much more meaningful after an experience takes place. Precisely for this reason, creating an environment of incremental freedom, to be granted as boys become prepared for it, is the best stage upon which growth in virtue can take place. The result of this developmental environment of freedom is an indomitable sense of cheerfulness and enthusiasm that has become a hallmark of The Heights.

Freedom is the Only Road to Lasting Virtue

To create an environment of freedom we must first recognize and understand who we are educating. The answer: boys—boys who were given a free will by their Creator and should learn how to exercise that will properly. For the purposes of this article, freedom can be thought of as the capacity to exercise personal judgment, as opposed to the mainstream notion of freedom as merely a license to do as one pleases. The School’s proper role is to help a boy use his innate freedom to make good choices and, in the process, develop lasting virtue and sound judgment as a young man.

Deep in every human’s heart is a desire to be free and then to freely choose what is good, resulting in a noble life that has been well lived. This is why masculinity at The Heights is best measured by one’s devotion to that which is greater than the self. From early on, The Heights’ learning culture has recognized this “fact of freedom” in every man’s heart. We are often asked by new parents, whose sons appreciate their new school environment, exactly what it is that is different about The Heights compared to many other schools. Invariably, the answer points in some way towards freedom.

Some parents describe freedom at The Heights by saying that our school “lets boys be boys,” almost as if to say that we allow boys to exist untouched in their natural state. While true to some extent, this may actually be an oversimplification if one does not consider the reason why boys at The Heights are given more freedom and metaphorical “fresh air” than at most schools. The answer is both simple and intentional: freedom is the only road to lasting virtue.

Created with Freedom

As educators and mentors, we should first recognize the innate freedom that already exists as part of the will in each boy before we can begin to help a boy develop personal judgment, common sense, or temperance. To those who describe The Heights as a school where we “let boys be boys,” I would ask that we be described even more precisely as a school that recognizes how “boys should be educated as boys” because, after all, how else should we educate them? Put simply, we need to understand the nature of our students if we are going to do a good job as educators. Sure, you can force a boy to behave almost perfectly for any short period of time, but teaching him to actually bridle his own will requires the recognition that freedom is part of the process, especially if the lesson is to be a lasting one. This is the essential challenge for parents who wish to enable the transformation of their son from a boy with potential to a man with virtue.

In an address to American Catholic educators, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described the need for a well-ordered freedom in education: “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in Being itself.” A boy must be given the chance to “opt in” to all that is good in the world. This must come from his own motivation, along with our good example and timely encouragement. You can bring a boy into our Chapel, but you cannot make him pray. At The Heights, we do not believe freedom is just the chance to do anything you want. It is a personal opportunity to desire and choose the good. Of course, with personal freedom follows responsibility and the opportunity to choose genuine manliness through devotion to that which is greater than the self.

Trust that Boys Can Learn Well from Experience

Unless a boy is free to make some decisions on his own, he will not be as capable of making good decisions as a young man. Decision making and judgment should be thought of as skills and habits that need both practice and experience. A person develops habits when he acts on his own volition. The opportunity to develop these habits is essential to any student’s growth. This emphasis on freedom does not mean that a boy’s school has no need for discipline. We can tell you firsthand that we always will have a need for discipline. In fact, discipline in the classroom at The Heights will always have a role in developing the virtues that come from freedom. Learning judgment, temperance, sincerity, and common sense does not take place without some substance gained from time and events. Again, boys do not learn about these virtues in the abstract; they learn about these from experience. These experiences are granted by their freedom but interpreted through the lens of discipline and conversations with mentors here at The Heights.

Experienced parents can understand this process because they have been living it with their child. For example, if a student chooses to be dishonest in his dealings, the experience of having to come forward with the eventual truth and receive the natural consequences of his dishonesty will always make so much more of an impression on him than just a general lecture on the importance of honesty without any particular experience.

Even failure is an opportunity to learn. Whenever discipline is involved, the student has a uniquely powerful learning opportunity. Put simply, discipline and freedom are not at odds, but are actually used in tandem to ensure development of lasting virtue. Discipline should always have a vitally important role in any school that values freedom and learning because having discipline present allows freedom to produce the fruits of learning. It should be noted that not all discipline is the kind that will lead a boy to his school head’s office. In fact, most corrections are simply a conversation between a boy and a teacher about his personal judgment; often he does not even require a punishment.  Ultimately, the object of any discipline is for the development of an internalized self-discipline which a boy can put into effect even when freedom permits another choice.

An Environment of Freedom is Intentional but Can Be Challenging

The challenge with this fact of freedom in boys is that sometimes boys do not make good decisions, creating what can seem like a rambunctious birthday party to some parents at dismissal or recess! What should we all remember during these times when the balls are flying, forts are being built, trees are being climbed, or the boys are wrestling? That freedom at The Heights is intentional! Freedom is simply natural to a boy. The question is not why we allow freedom, but rather why should behavior that is natural to a boy be forever restricted? The answer is typically two-fold: that it is safer for the child and that it is easier for the school. It would actually be easier from a regulatory stance for us as a school to restrict all freedoms and limit all mildly questionable behaviors.

Certainly, imposing many restrictions would get effective short-term results, but it would not give the boys the opportunity to develop judgment, something that must involve freedom eventually! For the sake of allowing our boys to learn by experience and develop lasting virtues within a context of freedom, we choose to undertake this challenge as a School.  If this reality about boys and freedom is uncomfortable to a parent, think of how uncomfortable it would be to have a son graduate from The Heights and head off to college without ever having made incrementally important decisions or demonstrating any proper use of his innate freedom. It is far better that a boy be recognized as possessing free will and given the opportunity to bridle his own will through freedom, even if this means occasional mistakes.

The Chance to be Dangerously Good

The freedom students are given is one aspect of The Heights that is somewhat unique in a society that wants to ensure good behavior in our youth by any means necessary. Safety is one of our society’s mantras for the youth. While safety is not a bad thing (especially with a large group on a school trip!), we have to come to grips with a controversial reality about the nature of boys. Boys need the capacity to be “dangerous” if they are ever to be “dangerous” to anything that is less than good in the world. They have to be given a chance to be “dangerously good.”

This notion brings to mind a favorite Heights quote from C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia when the children are talking of Aslan: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? But he’s good, I tell you. He is the king.”  

Many models of Christian manhood are individuals who are dangerously strong in some way but also bring about great good for the world. Take the model of a knight. A knight’s training makes him capable of destruction and likely leads him towards a dangerous life, but his strength and daring also make him capable of great good. Why is it that boys seem drawn to historic heroes and the study of mythology? Not only because of the natural and beautiful sense of imagination with which a boy seems to be born, but also because of the daring and strength of will that these characters possess. It is important to note that Christ was also certainly dangerous to all that was less than good in his times. The world is still a dangerous place today, with many opportunities for vice, and our world needs men who have mastered the “self” in self-discipline by learning to think before they act and who have come to grips with their own free will.

Freedom Has a Way of Bringing out Cheerful Enthusiasm

Well, what is it about The Heights that is different? Families first begin to recognize something new after their son visits; often, he tells his parents how the boys here are actually happy to be here (even though they would probably not admit it!). Freedom has a way of bringing about cheerfulness. At each stage of student life at The Heights, more freedom is granted to the boys in a step-wise manner. New parents in the younger grades will see how their son has just finished building a fort in the woods, has been climbing trees, and enjoying his first month at The Heights. Or parents in the Middle School will notice how their son looks forward to the adventures series trips of the ski trip, rafting trip, or camping trip with his friends. Perhaps some new families may notice how students in the Upper School will pursue their own formation or academic studies out of actual interest and, without any prodding, will choose to participate in an adventure during Crescite Week.  Parents at all stages at The Heights have often shared the same observation, namely a growing spirit of enthusiasm for life within their son as he grows.

Freedom Recognizes a Truth About Human Nature

The happiest families are families that are allowing virtues to develop in their children. Freedom is the only eventual environment for growth in virtue. It allows an individual to make his own choices, and encouragement from a parent or faculty member when a good choice is made can cement a behavior and eventually lead to a habit that is freely chosen. Aristotle states “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence therefore is not an act but a habit.” Freedom at a boys’ school is not a license to do anything at all, it is an opportunity to regularly choose what is good and natural; in doing so, a boy can become fully alive, develop judgment from experience, and discover his personal abilities and confidence more readily.  Ultimately, the reason we as a school value freedom so much is because it recognizes a truth about human nature. Human beings were created with free will. This is an undeniable fact, and humans need this freedom so that they can actually choose to love their Creator and other human beings. As a school, we are simply realistic and choose to make the proper use of freedom a goal as opposed to merely endorsing some empty illusion of control. We know with great confidence that human beings grow and develop only when they themselves choose to do so. We all are capable of this growth when we choose to develop good intellectual, spiritual, and relational habits that must be freely internalized at each step of our lives.

About the Author

Andrew Reed

Director of Leaders Initiative

Andrew Reed began his career at The Heights School in 1998 and assumed his current role as Head of the Middle School in 2000.

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