Operation Varsity Blues and the Challenges of Parenting

October 8, 2019

Recently, the actor Felicity Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in prison for her role in a plan to enhance her daughter’s SAT score as part of the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admission scandal. This provokes important questions about fame, class, race, meritocracy, jurisprudence, and higher education—and analysts have been appropriately assertive in answering these questions. But her crime also says something about how we understand our love for our children. Huffman does not deserve our sympathy, in my judgment, and I would not suggest that her offenses were either typical or justifiable. At the same time, she might represent not just outsized entitlement, but also a temptation familiar to all mothers and fathers.

As parents, we know that there is virtue in struggle, and even in failure, for our children. We conceptually approve of a “growth mindset” or the “blessings of a skinned knee,” and may even learn to quote Samuel Beckett. (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) But what we know and what we feel are often quite different matters, and I suspect that every mom and dad can identify with the hurt of watching our kids endure even short-term hardships and disappointments. None of us is inclined to skirt a rule or fix an outcome, but we can recognize the inclination to swoop in and rescue our child from a difficult situation.

None of us is inclined to skirt a rule or fix an outcome, but we can recognize the inclination to swoop in and rescue our child from a difficult situation.
— Head of School Dr. John M. Botti

As a teacher for over two decades, I saw this temptation enacted in a variety of ways: Boys who were consistently called in sick by their parents on test days; essays that began as original work but were eventually “polished” by a tutor; parental requests for retakes after a failed low-stakes reading quiz in the early days of the semester. I certainly get the intentions behind these impulses. As a father myself, I have certainly felt the impulse to intervene, however slightly, to ease my child’s way. But there are real risks to such interventions, which jeopardize the long-term benefits that come from nurturing our kids’ capacity to learn, grow, and persevere on their own. And, sadder still, we may imperil the very relationship we are trying to sustain by showing our sons that, ultimately, we do not trust them to create their own success, or to recover from a misstep.   

Not that all parents are Felicity Huffmans in waiting, and aspiring to gain entrance to selective collegiate institutions is a worthy goal. The point is not that any attempt to assist our children is illegitimate. But we can use the Huffman situation to recognize anew that the greatest gifts we offer our children are not the elimination of obstacles or the guarantee of positive outcomes, but rather the honesty, belief, and care required for them to discover their own abilities to grow. We will always worry about our sons, but we do best by them when we put our faith in the value of formative experiences. We must trust that they--with the support of the adults in their lives who care about them, at Browning and beyond--will use these experiences to create the autonomy, resilience, and wisdom they will need to lead lives of purpose and fulfillment.

On Andrew Luck and Male Vulnerability

September 27, 2019

Citing persistent pain from injuries sustained in his career, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck last month chose to retire, shocking the sporting world. All-star players seldom walk away from the game in their prime and Luck’s announcement came two weeks before the start of the new football season. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Colts fans booed their former hero as he ran to the locker room at halftime of a preseason game.

I understand Andrew Luck’s dilemma. One of the great rewards of playing a team sport is that teammates count on each other, and nothing in sports stings quite the same way as believing that you have let the team down. But Luck’s six professional seasons also resulted in a torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney, a concussion, and torn cartilage in his ribs and shoulder. The same game he loved took a toll on his body he no longer wished to bear. 

Some criticized Luck for his timing, but what really caught my eye were the critics who suggested that Luck’s real failure resided not in his timing but in his backbone. This opinion amplifies a belief that almost all boys will encounter in one form or another, namely, that to be a “real” man is to deny one’s own pain and vulnerability.

...Andrew Luck made a brave, even admirable decision—and showed the rest of us that we should continue to offer our boys a broader definition of what a “real man” looks like.
— Head of School Dr. John M. Botti

We know that part of growing into maturity -- into manhood -- is pushing through momentary discomfort. However, boys are denied the right to a full range of human emotions when they are told that their masculinity rests on their toughness. As a young athlete, I certainly internalized this version of manhood. Often injured, I felt doubly guilty when I was forced to sit out: I was letting the team down, and I was falling short of my masculine code.

Our culture constantly asks boys to “play through pain,” and labels giving in to pain or showing vulnerability as fundamentally “unmanly” or “feminine.” For too many boys, to be a man is to be stoic, to deny one’s hurt or fear, and to soldier on, no matter the circumstances. Acknowledging uncertainty, and a need for help or relief, a boy may be told to “man up” rather than allowed to process these feelings. When boys learn that a category of emotions is appropriate only to girls and women, rather than to all humans, the damage is profound—both to boys’ appreciation and respect for girls and women and also to their understanding of what kind of men they can become. 

The support for Luck’s decision has been universal in the Colts’ locker room, but he surely must have known that critics would fault him for not “toughing it out,” and betraying the masculine code. Despite that, Luck had the courage to acknowledge both his pain and his hope that others would understand his choice. In giving voice to his vulnerability, Andrew Luck made a brave, even admirable decision—and showed the rest of us that we should continue to offer our boys a broader definition of what a “real man” looks like.

Shaking Hands

September 13, 2019

A great deal of work goes into opening school every September: Our maintenance team spends its summer readying our facilities for another year of use; the technology department makes sure that the school’s computer, phone, and wireless infrastructure can handle the activity to come; faculty revise and create learning activities for their classes; and all of us spend a week in meetings to communicate strategies for best serving the boys as learners, friends, and citizens.

Despite all of this preparation, I never feel like we are fully “back to school” until the first Red Door handshake of the year. Browning is a school of many traditions, but the custom of beginning our school days with a handshake stands out for what it says about our community’s aspirations.

In professional life in the United States, a good handshake—one characterized by a firm grip and steady eye contact—can be a sought-after skill, and this certainly may be one of the advantages of our tradition. During his school years, a Browning boy will get lots of practice on how to present himself in greeting. The truest benefits of the handshake, however, are more profound and tied to our community’s core values.  

When we meet at the threshold of Browning, look one another in the eye, and offer our hands in greeting, we announce a sense of mutual respect—we say, in gesture, ‘I see you.’
— Head of School Dr. John M. Botti

The first of these values is dignity. When we meet at the threshold of Browning, look one another in the eye, and offer our hands in greeting, we announce a sense of mutual respect—we say, in gesture, “I see you.” There is a great deal that goes into assuring that every member feels that they have worth in a community, but it all begins with recognition, with the symbolic assertion that no matter their age or accomplishment, boys are both known and loved inside the Red Doors. The handshake announces our school’s intention to be a community where every boy is embraced, literally and figuratively, and valued for who he is.  

The next of these values is honesty. In shaking hands, some scholars suggest that we actually draw upon a custom designed to demonstrate honest intentions to strangers—a right hand extended openly was one that did not carry a weapon. This open-handedness also communicated a trust that the stranger would not draw his or her own weapon to take advantage of the peaceful gesture. At Browning, I love that we begin our day with the tacit assertion that our community exists on foundations of honesty and trust, and that boys and adults are eager to view each other as ambassadors of goodwill.  

Handshakes are not the only way to give meaningful greetings; indeed, the gestures of Namaste, fist bumping, and bowing can all convey similar senses of welcome, solidarity, and respect. At Browning, we have asked the handshake to do the job, and over time it has become an indispensable ritual, particularly as a gesture of welcome that sets the tone for what is to follow.  Those of us who shake the hands of boys in the morning see students enter their school with both joy and confidence, for they know—either explicitly or tacitly—that they are entering a community committed to dignity, respect, honesty, and trust. The handshake does not simply initiate the school day; it also announces who we intend to be, and thus will always be the true beginning of our learning at Browning.

Joy & Happiness

botti group adjusted.jpg

June, 2019 

Watching the choral performances of our boys at our signature community events, I see Lucy Warner and Richard Symons as they guide their charges forward.  It’s an amazing sight—Lucy and Richard are aglow and animated, and they are clearly participating in something larger than a verse of “Go the Distance” or “The Little Red Lighthouse.” When a song concludes, my colleagues are not just happy with the boys and for themselves; rather, their faces emanate joy. 

Until lately, I had largely considered happiness and joy to be overlapping; in my facile thinking, to be happy was to feel joy, and to be joyful was to feel happy.  But I recently encountered an essay from the columnist David Brooks, who drew this distinction between the terms:  “Happiness usually involves a victory for the self.  Joy tends to involve the transcendence of self.  Happiness comes in accomplishments.  Joy comes when your heart is in another.”  

When I think about Brooks’ words, I recall many moments of joy in action at Browning: Middle School actors enveloping each other in hugs backstage after one delivered on a challenging scene; unreserved high fives and fist bumps given from listeners to orators after our Tobin Public Speaking Contests this spring; the explosion of cheers from teammates when a reserve player made a jump shot late in a varsity basketball game; the broad and spontaneous smile a Grade Four boy offered to his Kindergarten buddy when the younger guy read aloud.  

It’s important to win victories and to realize accomplishments for the self; indeed, the happiness that emerges from completing a task or meeting a personal goal in academics, arts, or athletics can bring a necessary and deserved feeling of satisfaction and self-efficacy.  But if Browning promoted only this kind of happiness—that is, if we all focused solely on individual achievement—we would miss something important. Indeed, even as we applauded the accomplishments of talented students, wouldn’t we wonder at the narrowness of the experience?

At Browning, we encourage both happiness and joy in our boys. Our mission calls us to help talented boys become personally accomplished, and also to help them realize the core value of purpose:  a deep commitment to something that has value or meaning beyond the self.  We want Browning boys to develop their own skills and capabilities—we want them to be happy—but we also want them to share those skills and capabilities with others. It is important that our guys have the chance to shine as individuals in the classroom and the studio, on the stage and field. Yet it is just as important that our guys become learning partners, community engagers, teammates, mentors, and friends. Transcendence of self, the condition upon which joy is built, is not supplementary to the Browning education; rather, it is a fundamental part of it. When our boys invest emotionally in the success and growth of others, when they build relationships based upon generosity and care, when their hearts are truly in another, they are exactly what a Browning gentleman is called to be. 

The Gift of Curiosity

May, 2019 


There is an inevitable tension in education between growth and tradition. We often see this at the institutional level—many schools want to innovate while still retaining connection to longstanding beliefs, for example—but it happens with students as well. As educators, we hope children will grow in their capacity to reason, to act independently, to express creativity, and to take responsibility as they journey through school. At the same time, we want them to retain certain qualities of innocence: an openness to others, a capacity for unreserved joy, a willingness to be vulnerable. As William Wordsworth had it, “The Child is father of the Man,” and one hears the poet urging a school’s graduates not to abandon the delights of earlier times.

One of these delights is curiosity. Research has shown that children may ask 10,000 questions a year before they enter school, and even preschool children ask about 100 questions a day. To engage a child between the ages of two and five is to swim in a sea of “Why?” and “What if?” questions. However, repeated studies on question-asking have demonstrated an inverse relationship between time spent in school and student inquisitiveness; one classic investigation found that as they moved through elementary school, students would ask as few as two questions per 45-minute class period, a far cry from the dozens upon dozens offered up by eager kindergartners. It seems the longer students are in school, the fewer questions they ask.

Now, it may be that as children start to develop an understanding about their world, their need to question diminishes. But this development may also be the result of an institutional practice where children learn that their role at school is to answer questions, not ask them. This is not to say that answers themselves are not important. However, education that does not create sufficient room for student inquiry can not only diminish one of the delights of childhood, but also prohibit schools from fully delivering on their purposes.

Education that does not create sufficient room for student inquiry can not only diminish one of the delights of childhood, but also prohibit schools from fully delivering on their purposes.

Nearly all independent schools claim “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” or “teaching not what but how to think” as a core tenet of their educational mission. Such skills are vital for ongoing learning and responsible democratic citizenship in a dynamic, accelerating, often uncertain world. But the “right answers” must be paired with a disposition to use them effectively and creatively in novel circumstances. We build this disposition when we give our students practice in exercising their curiosity on their own terms under the guidance of a thoughtful, intentional teacher. Those learners who are both encouraged and shown how to ask their own questions become stronger agents of their own learning, deepen their understanding of significant material, and begin to generate original intellectual connections within and across disciplines.

“There is no greater gift to bestow upon students,” claims James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, “than the gift of curiosity.” When we match this gift with critical thinking, we drive a learning revolution in our students, one which serves them well in school and beyond.  At Browning, our mission is to teach boys to answer questions, but also to ask new questions of their own; to solve problems, but also to discover problems for solving; to acquire and appreciate knowledge, but also to animate and activate that knowledge in new ways. None of this can be done without embracing curiosity, one of the delights of childhood and one of the core values of our community. 

The Most Human and Humanizing Thing That We Do

April, 2019

Last autumn, the novelist and essayist Stephen Marche joined the chorus lamenting the effects of social media and Internet technology on our body politic.  In a piece entitled, “The Crisis of Intimacy in the Age of Digital Connectivity,” he observes that while users would share profoundly private stories and opinions (“Conversations on social media are almost entirely personal in nature”) and even intimate details on the Internet, such interaction was not complemented by an increase in empathy; if anything, the opposite was true, as participants hew to their own truths and refuse to entertain the meaning of another’s experience.  As Marche dolefully concludes:

The incipient political catastrophe in the United States can be summed up in a phrase: nobody believes the other’s pain is real. Nobody believes the other’s pain is meaningful; nobody recognizes anybody else’s pain. It is the central problem of Internet-provoked outrage and loathing, the hyper-partisanship that turns on so many hinges. Nobody is willing to accept the other’s description of their feelings.

Now, there is nothing terribly original in noting that social media can encourage dogmatic adherence to our own presuppositions or those of our social circle; moreover, if we are in fact facing an “incipient political catastrophe,” I am not sure it is any more daunting than other significant national moments over the past 50 years—and I suspect that those who have navigated the ongoing struggle for civil rights, the divisiveness of Vietnam, the Watergate crisis, and the post-9/11 fear and uncertainty might agree.  But even if I find the essentials of Marche’s argument both familiar and perhaps slightly overstated, there is much in them that I find persuasive, and which thus give me pause as someone who cares about schools and those who attend them. 

No matter what its governing educational philosophy, if a school is healthy in its mission, it will express a certain idealism, an insistent romantic belief in its own transformational capacity.  This is neither naïve optimism nor obnoxious self-regard, but rather an abiding and needed faith that good things happen when children and adults engage in an ongoing conversation about what’s worth understanding, valuing and acting upon in the world. Such conversation can and should involve developmentally appropriate skepticism—at Browning, we want boys to use their own discernment, to ask hard and respectful questions, and to draw individual conclusions—but it also makes important and necessary emotional demands on its participants.  Authentic, ongoing conversation requires meeting one’s partner in conversation with what the philosopher Nel Noddings terms “engrossment”—a type of care characterized by “open, non-selective receptivity” to the other and their point of view.  Such conversation entails recognizing someone else’s pain, yes, but also their hopes, their ideas, their joys and their questions.  Such conversation proceeds only in a learning community, and this community exists only when students and teachers alike are committed to hearing, acknowledging and appreciating each other’s narratives.  Such conversation, in other words, necessitates the very empathy that Marche and others find in short supply in our online and digital media spaces.

My point here is not to fire off a superfluous anti-technology screed or frame all social media in apocalyptic terms; these are complicated phenomena that deserve nuanced exploration in other venues. But I do mean to assert that schools—if they are going to be communities of real significance for their participants—simply cannot afford the kind of cynicism that we can see in some of our societal discourse.  Perhaps the deficits of empathy and interpersonal regard are limited to comments sections and Twitter wars, but when (according to the Pew Research Center) only 19% of millennial adults believe that others can be trusted, I think we need to recognize the degree to which our students, particularly older students, are subject to a pervasive media culture which increasingly presumes unkindness, encourages unhelpful suspicion (rather than useful skepticism), and actually alienates participants from the emotional vulnerability of others.  

This kind of culture of cynicism is, of course, antithetical to both the romantic spirit of hopeful schooling and the community of ongoing conversation that would support it.  One cannot imagine that the signature queries of real community—“What makes you say that?” “Would you tell me your story?” “How long have you felt this way?” “Can you help me to understand?”—would be long-lived in cynical precincts.  When cynicism reigns, good-faith questions are replaced by rhetorical posturing, dialogical partnership by zero-sum debate, and compassion for fellow learners by ad hominem attacks.  Cynical schools cannot hope to summon their latent transformational power to serve as places of deep purpose and inspiration for students and teachers alike; at best, they pass as way stations marked by transactional relationships, misunderstood pursuits and shallow interest. 

“Conversation,” observes MIT professor Sherry Turkle, “is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.”  The very human qualities that constitute authentic, ongoing conversation—curiosity, honesty, empathy, good-willed skepticism, openness to persuasion, engagement with essential questions and enduring understandings—are those which inhabit robust and purposeful communities as well.  In this sense, there is no conversation without community, no community without conversation, and no significant learning without both.  When we believe in each other’s pain—and in each other’s hopes, ideas, joys and questions—we not only resist cynicism; we create the conditions of education by which our young people can both transform and be transformed, and ultimately (as Browning’s mission urges) “contribute meaningfully to our world.”

Reframing and Reclaiming Stress 

John Botti, Head of School, The Browning School

Tara Christie Kinsey, Head of School, The Hewitt School

March, 2019

“Stressed out” is a tired expression in contemporary culture, and it can be easy to dismiss as a mundane complaint or mere conversation filler. But its overuse masks the real and troubling role that stress too often plays in school life today, particularly in the lives of high school students.

In 2015, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence surveyed more than 22,000 high schoolers, who responded most commonly to the question, “How do you currently feel in school?” with the words “tired,” “bored” and “stressed,” noting that they felt stressed 80 percent of the time. (1) That same year, New York University released a study of high school juniors at independent schools which found that 80 percent of respondents felt stressed on a daily basis, with 49 percent reporting a “great deal” of stress every day of school, with grades, homework and college preparation being the top stressors. (2)

Sadly but not surprisingly, toxic levels of stress appear to endure—and even worsen—in college. A survey done by the American College Health Association in 2016 revealed that over the last 12 months 52.7 percent of students reported feeling that things were hopeless and 39.1 percent reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function. (3)

In 2018, after witnessing firsthand how many Yale students had to “deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to ... ‘mental health crises,’” Professor Laurie Santos offered a new course, “Psychology and the Good Life,” to empower students with ways to lead a happier, more satisfying life. In just a few days, nearly a quarter of all Yale undergraduate students had enrolled, making it the most popular course in Yale’s 316-year history. As one of Santos’s students said: “In reality, a lot of us are anxious, stressed, unhappy, numb … . The fact that a class like this has such large interest speaks to how tired students are of numbing their emotions—both positive and negative—so they can focus on their work, the next step, the next accomplishment.” (4)

Is Stress the Culprit?

But is stress, in and of itself, really the root problem in our schools? We know that not all stress is unhealthy. Indeed, as health psychologist Kelly McGonigal reminds us in The Upside of Stress, “The latest science reveals that some stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can inspire courage and compassion.” (5) To paint stress with too broad a brush stroke obscures a deeper and more worrisome problem in many of our highest-achieving schools. 

William Damon of Stanford University claims that the “biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress: It’s meaninglessness.” (6) Too many students simply do not believe in the value of what they are doing in school day in and day out; they do not see their stress as connected to meaningful pursuits about which they genuinely care. In What School Could Be, Ted Dintersmith recounts one high school student’s explanation of the unhealthy stress in his and so many high schools: 

He described Adderall-assisted all-nighters cramming for tests. Many have SAT or ACT tutors, and feel stressed about their scores. He likened school to “being one of those hamsters on a wheel. We keep running faster and faster, but it doesn’t feel like we’re getting anywhere.” As he was leaving, he remarked, “We know school is just the game we have to play. But, hey, we don’t make up the rules. You do.” (7)

Jumping Through Hoops

For many students, high school has become a “protracted process of university entrance,” (8) a compulsory dystopian game in which the adults—teachers, parents, college guidance counselors and admissions officers—have complete design, power and control over the rules the child must follow. The game is stressful, and not on the student’s terms.

Students do not arrive at school expecting dystopia. What often begins as an earnest apprenticeship in questioning and exploration gradually takes on the form of a risk-averse, mechanical approach to knowledge and learning as students begin to internalize narrowing definitions of schooling’s purpose. Even before high school, students adjust their behavior to reap the rewards of the system as it is presented to them. Their work is no longer principally questioning and exploration, but instead performing and jumping through a never-ending set of hoops that trusted adults either tacitly or explicitly assert are necessary to clear that “ultimate hoop”: college admission. Such a system encourages our students, and particularly our highest achievers, to feign enthusiasm for genuine curiosity and lifelong learning while remaining exclusively focused on “acing the test” to attain a coveted spot in a highly selective college, where they believe they will suddenly have the tools to build a satisfying and meaningful life and career in the “real world.”

A Different Take on Stress

If school is, in fact, a “game,” must we design it this way? Are there better ways to play? And what would “winning” this game look like, beyond a high grade point average, strong standardized test scores, and admission to a selective college? Education consultant and former college president Richard Hersh offers a constructive differentiation: “There are two kinds of stress. There’s lousy external stress to excel on things the kid doesn’t believe in. But there’s healthy stress that comes from setting a big goal, and pushing yourself to excel in the face of challenges and deadlines.” (9)

We are not advocating for a vision of K-12 schools in which stress and evaluation have no role to play—indeed, stress and evaluation are a part of life and should be a part of school as developmentally appropriate. But we are saying that the wrong kind of stress has taken hold of our schools. And if new research shows that “healthy stress” is not only possible but also helpful to learning and growth, that “feeling stressed can be a barometer for how engaged you are in activities and relationships that are personally meaningful,” and that stress is often the “byproduct of pursuing difficult but important goals,” (10) we wonder: If we sought to reframe and reclaim stress as necessary, healthy, and connected to the pursuit of truly meaningful and enduring life aspirations—to deploy stress in the service of aims deeper, broader and more intrinsically rewarding than academic achievement alone—what might that effort look like in the everyday experience of students and schools?

We are certainly not the first to ponder this possibility, nor do we profess to have a tidy answer; to be sure, the problem is a complex one, and each school community must wrestle with it in a unique way, informed by its institutional history, mission, and vision for the future. But in thinking about student stress from the vantage point of our roles as teachers, administrators and independent school parents, we would like to share three basic beliefs about how our schools can reframe and reclaim stress not as a burden to be borne, but as a vitalizing experience in the pursuit of true meaning and fulfillment.    

First, our schools should allocate time and curricular space in a way that empowers students to identify and pursue genuine interests. Unhealthy stress can emerge from curriculum that privileges breadth over depth, and where agency resides entirely with the course’s instructor. The experience of stress can be reframed, however, when student curiosity and agency help direct exploration of essential course questions and content. Such an approach does not eliminate the stress inherent in pursuit of a desired end, but it can alter the character of that stress. When students are given some expanded say in the scope, pace, depth and expression of their learning—when the learning becomes truly theirs, not merely the prescription of their teacher—what stress they feel supports work they find meaningful. What stress they feel emerges not principally from a quest for high grades and external approval, but rather the desire to improve their skill and understanding. 

Some worry that if schools allow students to “go deep” with their interests, classes will become sites where “anything goes,” where unprepared students are in charge, and where important content is missed. With respect to these concerns, we agree that increasing student agency should proceed by degrees—students must learn gradually to take ownership of their learning. Moreover, learning through apprenticeship does not eliminate (and may in fact accentuate) the need for the thoughtful guidance of teachers. 

We also take seriously the notion that courses must pose key questions and yield essential understandings of their discipline. But curricular approaches where content acquisition comes at the expense of student engagement seem to fail on their own terms. For example, one of the nation’s most esteemed independent schools conducted an experiment one September in which students retook final exams from three months earlier, after faculty removed detailed material they didn’t expect students to retain over the summer. On tests of just the essential concepts, the average grade fell from a B+ to an F. (11) Students had acquired the content, but it seems whatever stress they felt was not connected to enduring understanding. 

As Dintersmith writes: “We have it backwards. We push content, killing engagement. Better to spark and broaden engagement.” If we can provide students ample opportunity to encounter material on their own terms, to test and structure and apply the material in novel ways, we reposition stress as part of an intellectual experience that is robust, enduring and meaningful to the learner.We have all seen the magic that happens to children who are really into something—they are “content sponges” (12) and will learn everything they can about it, without prompting. If intrinsic motivation is the holy grail of learning, then schools should be set up to bring this out in students.

Second, our schools should turbocharge students’ investment in their own learning by prompting them to articulate their learning goals, and to connect these goals to longer-term life horizons.All schools want their students to become healthy, responsible, caring adults who help make the world a more humane and decent place, but schools are in competition with a larger culture that Damon rightly sees as “urging young people to pursue short-term victories at the expense of enduring aspirations.” (13) When schools become solely places of “short-term victories”—where activities are significant only to the degree that they produce high grades and academic status—student well-being is threatened not only by the unhealthy stress of a heavy workload, but also by the sense of meaninglessness that can emerge from a lack of agency over one’s own experience.

Schools can flip the script on stress by prompting students to consider and articulate a more distant goal horizon that gives short-term efforts deeper and more enduring meaning. (Given the opportunity to examine representation in American historiography, a student may discover an enduring interest in recovering and sharing the stories of the underrepresented. Another, engaged in a design technology project to improve the life of an elderly relative, may uncover an abiding desire to design products that better the lives of others.) Where so many cultural forces invite our young people to define their success solely in terms of where they rank on standardized metrics such as GPAs and SATs, schools have an opportunity to introduce a different, more transcendent set of evaluative criteria. 

Schools are right to promote short-term learning goals; to be sure, realization of these aims can provide essential foundations for deeper learning, as well as create opportunities to enter other, more advanced sites of study. At the same time, however, schools can and should be places where students develop aspirations that direct academic achievement toward the service of something larger and more enduring. 

When adults engage students in conversations about what gives life meaning, and about how their academic pursuits might connect to some meaningful niche in the world that they long to fill, students are empowered to look beyond transitory, transactional achievements. Students also then establish a higher-order level of healthy, life-affirming stress, one which drives the students to concern themselves with the qualities constitutive of a meaningful life.  

Third and finally, we believe schools should celebrate students and faculty as they experience the healthy stress that comes from being deeply invested in an ultimate concern, and find ways to encourage this type of transformational learning.In all independent schools, no matter their composition or mission, there are instances of students and faculty under stress as they pursue meaningful ends, and it is a joy to behold. Students ask how a particular subject will help them improve the world, wonder if learning can take place outside the classroom, and ask for challenges that allow them to pursue intrinsic interests. For their part, teachers—as hard-working and time-pressed as their students—design lessons around genuine student inquiry, give feedback to emphasize the value of resilience and risk-taking and curiosity, and invite their charges to take a lead role in developing classroom activity. These are stressful efforts, certainly, but they are also meaning-making efforts, ones which allow both learners and teachers to find fulfillment in their respective roles. 

When a teacher adapts and refines her curriculum in response to her students’ genuine questions and interests, when students pursue an intellectual project in their free time without giving a thought to the grade they might earn, when mentors prompt advisees to connect their learning with deeper questions about what it means to live authentically and purposefully—this is independent schooling at its best. And while we rightly venerate the academic achievement of our students, we can also recognize that such achievement can just as readily be the product of robust and active intellectual engagement; we can, in fact, realize the goods of achievement while connecting student stress to the pursuit of truly meaningful and enduring life aspirations. With such recognition comes the responsibility to celebrate the process of learning as much as its product, and learning communities do so by giving this kind of transformational learning the time, space, cultural esteem and resource support it needs to thrive.

What Matters Most

Students perform best when they are challenged, and challenges are inherently stressful. But stress unmoored from a clear and enduring purpose leads students adrift in a sea of confusion, self-doubt, anxiety and meaninglessness. Too many schools are presently overwhelmed with unhealthy stress in part because what happens day in and day out is almost entirely controlled by adults, and this fact denies students sufficient chance to articulate what matters most to them and why. Learning what matters most to us and why should be one of the central goals of a meaningful education and, indeed, a meaningful life. Let us, as educators, parents and mentors, give students the chance to feel the kind of healthy stress that necessarily attends engagement with activities and relationships that are personally meaningful to them. If given this chance, our students will show us what they can really do—and who they can really be.


1.  Toppo, Greg. “Our High School Kids: Tired, Stressed and Bored.” USA TODAY, 23 Oct. 2015. usatoday.com.; Watson, Stephanie. “Students Unhappy in School, Survey Finds.” WebMD, 25 October 2015. webmd.com.

2.  Leonard, N.R. et al (2015). A Multi-method Exploratory Study of Stress, Coping, and Substance Use Among High School Youth in Private Schools. Frontiers in Psychology, July 23, 2015. doi.org 

NYU Communications. NYU Study Examines Top High School Students’ Stress and Coping Mechanisms. 2015, nyu.edu.

3. “Campus Mental Health Needs Are Growing,” American Psychological Association, 2018. apa.org.

4.  Shimer, David. “Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness.” New York Times, 26 Jan. 2018. nytimes.com.

5.  McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Penguin Random House, 2015, p. xvii.

6.  Lobdell, Terri. “Driven to Succeed: How We're Depriving Teens of a Sense of Purpose.” Palo Alto Weekly, 18 Nov. 2011. paloaltoonline.com.

7.  Dintersmith, Ted. What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America. Princeton University Press, 2018, p. 3.

8.  Robinson, Sir Ken. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, Feb. 2006. ted.com.

9. Dintersmith, What School Could Be, p. 102.

10. McGonigal, pp. 65-67.

11.  Wagner, Tony, and Ted Dintersmith. Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. Scribner, 2016, p. 41; Strauss, Valerie. “A Venture Capitalist Searches for the Purpose of School. Here is What He Found.” The Washington Post, 3 Nov. 2015. washingtonpost.com.

12. @dintersmith. Twitter, 9 Aug. 2018, 6:56 a.m., twitter.com/dintersmith.

13. Damon, William. The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life. Free Press, 2009, p. 106.

Mr. Botti Shares Excitement of Joining Browning

John Botti, Browning's sixth Head of School, took the opportunity to address the Browning community through this video, thanking the faculty, parents and alumni for the warm welcome they have extended him since the start of his tenure on July 1. Our new Head also shares the excitement he felt when meeting Browning boys on their first day of school. Press play button to watch.

Please note that Mr. Botti is now active on Twitter and can be followed at twitter.com/jmbotti.