During one of my early days at Cathedral School, I stationed myself outside the Jones Street doors to welcome the students as they arrived for school. (Oh, how I wish I could have done so this morning!) You have all witnessed the enthusiasm with which Cathedral boys approach the building, and one particular student, encumbered by the three or four bags he was lugging, entered the foyer in haste. The morning was rainy. The floor was wet. He slipped and, amidst a cascade of books and sports equipment, fell in front of a gaggle of other students.
For me, this was a defining cultural moment. The other students’ response would demonstrate the norms and attitudes that governed Cathedral School culture, and I braced myself for the type of response that I would, no doubt, have encountered back in middle school. Rather than laugh or ridicule, however, the other boys stopped what they were doing and helped him up.
There are, in the words of David Brooks, “thick institutions.” Such institutions are so influential that they become an indelible part of each member’s identity. According to Brooks, thick institutions offer a different moral ecology. They possess the courage to be distinct, and they attract and cultivate members interested in serving a higher calling. Rather than places of mere transaction, thick institutions are places of transformation. Cathedral School is a thick institution.
As Brooks notes, however, thick institutions typically transmit culture through close personal interaction: “[T]hick institutions have a physical location, often cramped, where members meet face to face on a regular basis, like a dinner table or a packed gym or assembly hall.” (Interestingly, he observes that such institutions “incorporate music into daily life, because it is hard not to become bonded with someone you have sung” with.) The challenge, of course, will be to discover how we perpetuate Cathedral School’s ethos in the absence of the hallmarks — heavily trafficked hallways, collaborative work in classrooms, competitive games in the gym and on the roof, gatherings in Grace Cathedral, and singing — that typically perpetuate our unique culture.
In reality, what makes our community “thick” is not necessarily the form our culture, or any culture, takes but rather the substance that precipitates that form. More specifically, I believe our thick culture comes from our response to and treatment of one another. This brings to mind James Baldwin’s fantastic essay, “Stranger in the Village,” where he recounts his experience as the first black person to enter a cloistered Swiss hamlet. The villagers’ treatment of him demonstrates both the norms and the attitudes at work within that community, just as our treatment of one another, and especially of those new or unfamiliar to us, reveal our personal attitudes and our communal mores. Such treatment separates cultures that are thick from cultures that are thin.
All of this is to say, perhaps, that the question of how we perpetuate Cathedral School’s “thick” culture will be very much on my mind this year. And while I am interested in this, I am not necessarily concerned. Cathedral School offers a unique “moral ecology” that will help ensure that we both discover and create new ways of demonstrating the culture that makes our school so special and so transformational.
It was great to see the boys during our opening Chapel service this morning. They reinforce the reasons that we are all here.
Take care, everyone!