On Being Public

From the Journal of the Waring School, Le Temps Retrouvé, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 1986

We tell our students to be public people, to speak their minds, to make themselves known in the community of the school. The strength of our community, we say to them, is directly proportional to the number of them who have “gone public”. The students nod their heads in agreement (or to stay awake) but it seems to be the rule that nothing really changes as a result of our preaching. Or the change is so slow that I don’t see it. Either the students do not believe us, that being public is all that important, or, what is more likely, they don’t really understand what we are talking about, or, what is most likely, they are not yet ready to become public people.

This is too bad. The idea of the public man is an important one. For Josee and me, since the beginning of our school in Rockport, the notion of becoming and being a public person is what our school is all about. It is incumbent on me, therefore, to make clear my notion of what it means to be a public person. When I think about it 1 find that three principal meanings of the word public come to my mind.

First is the meaning with which all of us are most familiar being a public person means performing in public; it means going before the public with one’s accomplishments. In this sense of the word the students at our school become public people to the extent that they play on a team, act in a theater production, give a talk at a meeting, read aloud from their journals, publish in Le Temps Retrouvé, exhibit their sketches at a school function, defend their ideas in Humanities class etc. All of our students become public people in this respect because to some degree they all perform, and we encourage and expect them to do so regularly. In particular, the recently created Waring honors program is closely linked to this kind of public behavior: for one’s achievement to be given the honors designation it must become public, that is, in some way it must be shared with the community as a whole.

There are areas of our program in which public performance comes as a matter of course. For example, in sports, theater, music and art, the public is directly involved indeed, such activities necessarily demand a public for their completion. But students who make important progress in math, science, writing, language, literature and history should be no less public in respect to their achievement. For example, the student who can speak French should do so as much as possible throughout the school day thus becoming a role model and encouragement to those who don’t, the student who reads well should share his or her superior understanding with teachers and other students, the student who is good in math and science should help and influence others less gifted in their aptitude for these subjects. In this sense one’s private gifts should be shared that others may benefit from them. This, then, is the first meaning of being a public person: sharing with others, the other students and teachers and parents of the school community as well as those on the outside, what one does best, and thereby encouraging and motivating others by one’s accomplishment and example.

The second meaning of public, while perhaps readily understood, is probably only rarely embodied by students of this, or any, secondary school community. To be public in this way demands, perhaps, a coming of age, a level of maturity that our students, still in their teens do not yet have. On the other hand parents and teachers are of the proper age and readiness. Being public in this second sense of the word means to represent, defend and embody by one’s words and actions, the values and principles on which the life of the community is based. In order to be such a public person one has to know and understand these underlying values and principles. Children may know them, but they probably do not yet understand them. The role of parents and teachers is to help them reach such understanding. What are these values and principles? I think we all know what they are. In essential respects they are those of the American society at large. Like the latter they may be found expressed throughout the so-called Great Books of the Western World (they are to be found elsewhere, of course, but in their other manifestations they are less accessible). In particular they are found in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, the U.S. Constitution, in the Old and New Testaments. The values and principles directly applicable to our own school community are written down in our mission statement in the school brochure as well as in our student and parent Handbook.

Our students are not yet public people in the sense that they are not yet (although some are more than others) public spokesmen for the values and principles of our community. Indeed, this is in large part what our school is all about, bringing our students to an understanding of the values upon which Western democratic societies, including this country and this school, are based. Only then, when they have acquired such understanding, will they have the courage and good sense to become public proponents and defenders of these values within the community in which they live.

If students are not fully ready to be public in this second meaning of the word, their parents and teachers are. In our school community parents and teachers ought to be the principal proponents and defenders of our causes and values. Take the honor system. It is my experience that very few of our students understand what we mean by this. We have said what it means on page 9 of the Handbook. The public role of the parents and teachers is to help the students understand its meaning and thereby bring about a community in which the honor system is working.

The third and final meaning of being public is the most important of all. Being public in this sense of the word results when the private and public man come together as one. That is, ordinarily one opposes one’s private life to one’s life in public, as if there were a difference of kind between them, as if they should never meet. I believe that they should meet and I would defend the hypothesis that the truly happy person is one in whom private and public lives are fully merged together. Such a coming together is what one experiences in the great works of literature: the great tragic heroes are at their most gripping and compelling when they are at once public and private people; think of the exchange of words between Priam and Achilles following Hector’s death, the dialogues between a Sophoclean hero and the chorus, Lear in the arms of his daughter Cordelia in the final scene of the play, the words of Don Quixote spoken from his death bed. One sees the same thing in the great moments of history: Abraham Lincoln is our most beloved and respected president because on numerous occasions, especially during the devastating war between the states, and in particular on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the depth of the private man joined and become as one with the breadth of the public figure, statesman and president.

This meaning of the word public encompasses meaning two. The public figure such as Abraham Lincoln, who not only eloquently articulates and defends the underlying values and principles of his country and people, but who also embodies them in his own private life, is the most influential and respected of all political figures. At the time of his death Socrates in the dialogue by Plato plays the perfect public person, sense two of the word. He defends with his life the laws of the state. Meanwhile his wife, representing the private person, comes to visit him in jail, is turned away, and is meant to understand that she is interfering in the more important business of protecting the laws of Athens. Socrates (Plato) makes it clear that she is only a private person with private concerns, such as what is going to happen to her when he is dead, that she is not up to, not at the level of, not worthy of the public nature of his, Socrates’, overriding concern and respect for Athenian law. I have always believed that the Apology and Crito would have been greater works if Plato had had Socrates somehow share his final moments with his wife. Was it necessary that he separate the private from the public man on this occasion? Socrates should have recognized the legitimacy of his wife’s private claims and concerns, just as he recognized the legitimacy of the claims of the city of Athens on him, one of its citizens. As in this instance too often the private and public man do not come together. Too often in our own century we find, on the one hand, the artist celebrating the private person (this was not true of the artists of the Renaissance), and, on the other, the politician mouthing the empty platitudes of citizenship in the modem state.

In respect to this third meaning of public what happens at the Waring School? We have already said that “performance” is our students’ most frequent form of “going public” and furthermore that our students need to be helped by our parents and teachers to become public defenders of our values and principles. What about the private person? Does it merge with the public in our school? On occasion it does, and when it does the community of the school is at its strongest. When students speak up in meeting for what they really believe, when they admit publicly when they have done something wrong, when they initiate a discussion of a subject that concerns all of us and whose resolution is important to the welfare of our community and involves making some difficult personal statements, then we feel that the school is coming together, that things are working, that the state of our community is healthy. When this doesn’t happen, when students are too shy and intimidated to say in public that which they may write in their journals or say in private conversation to a few close friends, when their real concerns are never known by the body politic, by the school community, both the school and they are losers as a result.

Now there is a danger in being public in this third way. Private thoughts may be detrimental to the public good. Baring one’s dirty linen in public is not always recommended. There is a fine distinction to be made between constructive and destructive criticism, something else that we want our students to learn. It is not always clear what should be said and what should be left unsaid. Speaking up from one’s private self may very well be positive and liberating, both for the individual and the school, but it may also be negative and confining, destructive of both the individual and the community. In other words, yes, there should be a merging of the private and public person in our school community, but only in the positive and constructive sense. Negative thoughts are just that, negative, and they subtract from the good of the community. One has to judge between the private thoughts that will replenish the life of the community and those that will not.

In my experience, students will tend to keep too many things to themselves, things that would benefit from public exposure. They need to take more risks with things that are important to them. Also in my experience, students will tend to share negative thoughts with small groups of friends, thoughts that were better left unsaid or, if need be, said in the context of a school meeting where their influence would be lessened by the number of other ideas, many of which arc different from theirs. Both of these tendencies on the part of our students need to be overcome if we are to succeed as a community.

Finally, to make one’s private world public, that which the greatest men have always done by definition, because otherwise we would never have heard from or about them, one has to be almost without inhibition and without fear; one has to be at the same time supremely confident and supremely humble, qualities not often found anywhere, let alone in this small independent school community in Beverly, Massachusetts, the United states of America.

Philip Waring, Head of School

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité