Doing Battle in Love

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

One of the key features of common law is called the “adversarial system.” Simply put, a prosecutor argues with a defense attorney. Justice is considered complete when the judge or jury is convinced by the more effective adversary. Some historians trace this system back to the Middle Ages, where justice was served by “trial by combat”. (In the case of wealthy people or women, a “champion” could substitute as the combatant!)

Some people, and I’m not referring to lawyers or those who engage in healthy competition, thrive in adversarial engagements. I’m sure you know the type: it’s more than just being argumentative or contrary. These are people who seem to get their psycho-social energy by being “against” any given circumstance. As hard as it is for me to grasp, these folks seem to find inner serenity in a place that would give me the willies! I enjoy a good debate; I dislike froward behavior and fractious discord.

Yet these personality types are evidently needed in our society. One may easily find them in cultural shifts throughout history or even in a nearby social club. I have known several excellent teachers who go to work in the morning by putting on the breastplate of learning, the helmet of inquiry, and who brandish the sword of illumination as they do battle against the forces of intellectual darkness. A conversation with one of these (regarding the present state of pupil readiness, for example) will invariably include the declaration, “This is what we are up against!”

The polar opposite is the mentor, guide, facilitator, or (in the very finest sense of the word) coach. These types are distinctively non-adversarial. I once had the privilege of leading a visiting team to accredit a school that was positively overflowing with these types. You can probably guess that it was a Friends (Quaker) school. It was a quietly happy place. For some reason I was deeply impressed by their art classes. All students took art class. All art was throwing pottery on the wheel. It served as a metaphor for the culture of their campus.

It does not take much to realize that parents, too, fall somewhere on this continuum. The contentious parent (“the squeaky wheel gets the grease!”) is readily contrasted with the supportive one. Unfortunately, labels are quickly assigned. Schools begin to pass-the-word about the “problem mother.” Parents begin to grumble in the parking lot huddle about the “inflexible teacher.” Newsflash: nobody, especially the student, profits.

Garrison Keilor, host of the “Prairie Home Companion” once remarked on this sort of behavior. He said: “It must be love. What else but love could make us behave so badly?” He agrees with Ovid, the Roman pre-Christian poet who said that “Love is a driver, bitter and fierce if you fight and resist; easy-going once you acknowledge its power.”

Source: Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN