In a speech delivered to students at the beginning of this year, I made the following comments: “What the world should know of a Ridgeview student, they should be capable of perceiving in a five-minute conversation. They should know that you care about your presentation, that you are a person of character who knows and values your history, traditions, and inheritances; who believes in something greater than themselves, and who is capable of holding a conversation rather than standing idly and apathetically by waiting to be used or dismissed depending on the will of another. You are to be a people capable of hard work and sacrifice, a people yearning for a prosperous future, and a people capable of living a thoughtful and self-examined life, who, utilizing your leisure intelligently, will answer and re-answer the questions about what will justify your lives and what will provide for the good life.”
These characteristics are not uncommon at Ridgeview, which is in part what makes Ridgeview an uncommon school. We strive, we persist, we persevere, and as our unofficial motto has it, we suffer. We learn by suffering. Such an education is a hard sell in a world inhabited by people who behave much like water wherein they follow the path of least resistance. I once had a conversation with a class about the uniqueness of Ridgeview’s outlook on life, and I said something to the effect that it was difficult to persuade people of the superiority of a classical education when people were more likely to be convinced by test scores, or flashy sports programs, or the status anxieties endemic among Americans eager to send their kids to the “right” school. I noted that most Americans had not received a classical education in so long that to do something very old suddenly looked very new – radical, countercultural, and not only novel, but dangerous. Dangerous to their GPAs, their social status, their relationships with others who would suppose them snobs, elitists, pickthanks, and most of all, a danger to their children’s collegiate opportunities.
For those who place a premium on character, on genuine education, on the lifelong pursuit of wisdom and the attainment of eudemonia, the whole of society seems an absurd collection of bemusingly inverted priorities and perverse incentives. Breaking the pedagogical ice, beginning a conversation about the educational welfare of children, touching the very heart of paternalism is no easy thing. A “should” in nonjudgmental America is nearly always unpalatable. A school board that fundamentally gets it, committed parents, a passionate faculty, and students willing to suffer to learn are the critical components, but sustaining such a place and passing it on from student to student, class to class, and generation to generation depends upon having suitable representatives capable of speaking proudly of their endeavors and travails.
With this in mind, we are launching the Ridgeview Student Ambassador program to create leaders capable of being these types of representatives. Leadership has become the dernier cri in education circles. Admissions officials scour applications for it and career counselors puzzle themselves over how they can find or develop it. At Ridgeview, we want to treat it as more than a buzzword. We want to give substance to what too often has had all the ephemerality of a flash in a pan. To this end, the faculty have nominated the students they believe represent the most integral qualities of a Ridgeview education. These are well described by William Johnson Cory on a poster that hangs on the back of the door in the principal’s office. They include: the habit of attention, the art of expression, the habit of submitting to censure or refutation, taste, discrimination, mental courage and mental soberness, and above all, self-knowledge. Included are students who know why they are here and can explain why others might want to be as well.
What follows are ten lessons we hope they will take away from their time with us as leaders and representatives of a unique way of learning.
Have character. A leader does not compromise either his integrity or dignity. If he does, he ends up becoming a character. Eschew affectation, be genuine, and have the courage and humility to honestly examine your words and deeds.
Lead from the front, not from the top. If you have people following you, be sure to be where they can see you. Never ask anyone to do something that you have not either done or would be willing to do.
Never be satisfied. Recognize that leading will more often than not mean doing. There will rarely be enough people with initiative and a leader must make up for such deficiencies without complaint or the expectation of thanks.
Serve a cause bigger than your own ego. Praise in public, and when necessary, admonish in private. Never believe that you make yourself bigger or more popular by belittling others. Whenever possible, praise others in acknowledging your successes.
Be willing to be unpopular. Have the courage to carry the moral burdens of your cause. Do not avoid making the hard decisions or believe that they can be delegated away. Be decisive. Do not commit yourself to a course of action that you cannot reasonably carry out. Once committed, remain committed.
Never break your word. It is your honor and there is no coming back from a damaged reputation.
Take responsibility for mistakes. When you or those responsible to you make mistakes, take unequivocal responsibility for them. Make genuine apologies, not excuses. Find the cause for the failure and address it on your own time.
Be kind to everyone along the way. Be courteous to everyone you meet without regard to wealth, power, or beauty. Be as kind to the lowly as you would be to the great.
Identify solutions – not problems. Anyone can complain, but a leader must identify solutions and be prepared to execute them.
Never back down on matters of principle. Arguments can be had on how best to do a thing, but a leader must be able to recognize when it is morally unconscionable to win. Whatever it takes is a mercenary way of living, not an inspiring one. Even a scoundrel can be successful where there are no rules.
Nearly eighty-four students were invited by the faculty to complete an application for the Student Ambassador Program. Sixty-four completed an application, and the administration has reviewed these applications carefully and will soon contact references. A handful of these students will be invited to interview. There are a maximum of four positions open in each grade seven through twelve, and if chosen, students will represent Ridgeview from April 1, 2014 through April 1, 2015. Former ambassadors may apply again if nominated in the future, but every Ridgeview student is a potential candidate each March. Once named, the students will be presented at an assembly. From there, their work begins. Students will learn about the history of Ridgeview, they will have the opportunity to take a course in etiquette, and for the remainder of their time with us they will attend regular meetings to discuss leadership. It is our earnest hope that they will have the initiative to exercise these qualities in all aspects of their lives and in so doing help their school to flourish. They will also be the students called upon when prospective students shadow and they will be invited to the various social events that Ridgeview conducts in the coming year to attract new students. There will be some perks as well, such as special Ridgeview clothing and free dress days unique to the student ambassadors, as well as a luncheon in their honor each fall to acknowledge their hard work. A letter noting their service will also be placed in their permanent file and sent to any universities to which they apply. It is our hope that this will be yet another way for students to distinguish themselves at Ridgeview and share what we believe is a remarkable opportunity with students from around the country.