The wake-up call of boarding school

“Wake up, son.”

I was not sure whether I was more horrified that it was six o’clock in the morning or that it was the headmaster’s voice that I suddenly heard in my dorm room. It was Saturday (the only day at our school when the boys could sleep till 8:30 a.m.) and the headmaster stood below my bunk in rubber boots.

None of my five roommates was stirring, but the birds were. The headmaster informed me that one of his sheep down in the barn had hoof rot to the point where he had to shoot it with his revolver, and the carcass needed to be disposed.

“You look like you could use the experience,” he told me matter-of-factly, and he was right. After some brief instruction, he left me, a city kid, with the filthy, inconceivable task of hauling a 200-some pound dead sheep over hill and dale to the dump at the crack of dawn.

It was just the following Saturday when I was summoned again by the headmaster, at night this time. “There’s a ewe giving birth to a lamb in the barn,” was the news this time. “I want you to stay with her until the lamb can stand.”

Down I tramped with a flashlight. Blood last week and this week, birth. A full circle was completed that was natural, educational. I learned something in those experiences that I had read between the lines of Homer, heard in my heart at Mass, and was an unconscious part of myself—unconscious until then. I had awoken.

Only teachers who are truly attentive and motivated by the good of their students find the time and energy to furnish such wake-up calls, such real-life lessons—pure teaching moments that corroborate the classroom lectures on the true, the good, and the beautiful. And it is the realm of a good boarding school that can provide teachers with those extraordinary teaching moments every hour of every day, for it is only at a boarding school where education can carry on as a way of life.

But to achieve this, a boarding school must be governed with such exceptional care that it cultivates experiences that both compliment and confirm the curriculum and fosters a genuine character in an atmosphere of friendship: experiences on the playing field, in the dorms, in the woods, in a song, or any place least expected—like a sheep pen. The teachers at a boarding school have the special opportunity to point students towards encounters with the real that are formative and informative. The result is an educational, nourishing atmosphere defined by a permeating integration of the physical and the spiritual.

The idea of a boarding school—of a boys’ boarding school in particular—does not simply presume resident students. Neither does it presume a reformatory for juvenile delinquents. Good boarding schools assume education as an ordered rule of life and thus hold a remarkable advantage over other schooling options. If teenage boys are to be rescued from apathy, cynicism, and mediocrity, the following characteristics are indispensable:

  • Catholic moral, intellectual, and liturgical tradition
  • classical education with poetry, music, the imaginative arts, and natural sciences
  • total abstinence from computers, cell phones, iPods, iPads, television, etc.
  • competitive athletic programs involving contact sports
  • facilities that are simple and Spartan in a rural setting
  • Benedictine balance of daily prayers and daily chores
  • small student body, a devoted chaplain, and a faculty of friends

If a renaissance in Catholic education is to take root and flourish, the importance of these principles must be acknowledged. A blind and reactive insistence on rationalist fundamentalism may be attractive in the short term, but will ultimately lead to failure because it does not address what Scripture calls the heart, the deepest spring of reason and desire.

A boarding school that keeps these precepts can open the shut-up hearts of boys to the realms of wonder and wisdom in a familial yet formal arena geared towards providing teaching moments in the structure of every hour of every day. Within this structure lies the potential for Catholic culture—a sense of community and the charity, service, and sacrifice that flow from living and learning with others.

The field of education is thirsty for the waters of tradition. What is required is not necessarily holding to particular historical forms, but recovering what is essential in historical forms and returning to eternal principles. There is a long-standing tradition in schooling that favors single-sex, boarding education. It is a model that was accepted by societies for centuries and preferred by many saintly educators. Boys and girls live and learn better when they are educated separately, especially during adolescence. They are different and deserve different approaches, pacing, and even different subjects of study.

When educated together, boys and girls distract one another greatly. This is especially true for boys. Such distraction—whether from girls, entertainment technology, or pernicious media—retards education, which strives to build up attentiveness through continual and concentrated engagement. Boarding schools can provide such continuity because they render education a continuous, focused, habit-forming thing.

There is a polemic in popular culture against tradition and authority, often cloaked in shrewd rhetoric or sheer repetition, but the mantra is communicated loud and clear. Catholics must rise to defend the wisdom of tradition and show its relevance, beauty, and vitality. One arena for this restoration is the lost tradition and wisdom of the boarding school, and particularly the boys’ boarding school.

Teenage boys will not wake up from the cultural coma they are under by new-fangled modifications and medications, but by old-fashioned reason and remedies. The solution lies in making education lively enough to bring boys back to life. A revival of Catholic boarding schools for slumbering high-school boys is central to this solution, for it allows life and education to become one, imparting the greatest impetus, the truest direction, and the richest culture—which is the foundation of the happy life.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.