Head of School Address at the Community Dinner, October 13, 2017 | Mr. Keith Nix
“We cannot give the world what we do not have.” So wrote Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option. Dreher argues that Christian institutions – be they homes, churches, civic organizations or places of learning, are failing at a most basic and necessary task – the formation of moral imagination and virtue.
Whether we call our present moment post-modern or post-virtue or post-Christian, whether we feel bewildered or perhaps ready to “seize the day”, we can all agree that this is the moment God has sovereignly given you and I. And more than a moment, God has given us something to build together – institutions that can meet the challenges of our day – healthy families, healthy churches, and healthy places of learning – institutions who are not inward facing, but who cultivate and equip God’s people to serve and love our neighbors as ourselves.
Admittedly, the pace of change of this moment – magnified by technology – is stunning. Formal and informal social contracts that once provided structure … whether between husband and wife, parents and teachers, voters and elected officials, congregants and pastors … do not bind as they once did. While those earlier social covenants were not perfect, they often preserved and transmitted shared virtues, as well as the expectation that the moral formation of children was the responsibility of family and church, supported in meaningful ways in the context of a community.
Having said that, I am too much a student of history to look backward with unreserved nostalgia. We are not merely “pining for the good ole days.” While many institutions in the past were stronger and healthier, and the formation of virtue a more expected part of childhood; not all was well. The “good old days” were not always good. So we are not simply looking back, to go back. We are looking back to draw from the riches of the wisdom of the ages, and practices that bore great fruit. At the same time, we pray that we can honestly recognize, and hopefully wrestle, with the sin, injustice, and wrongs that have been a part of our culture.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes affirmed, there is simply nothing new under the sun. This is more than a prescient observation, it is sound theology – we are – and have always been – a broken people whose sin hurts us, hurts those around us, and limits our ability to live as we ought. We need a Savior, and we need to be His Church.
In light of these sobering thoughts, I want you to know that I am also full of hope tonight.
• I am full of hope because the Gospel is real, and powerful, and able to do more than we can hope or imagine.
• I am full of hope because we are in this conversation together – parents and grandparents from over one hundred churches across our city, with unique stories of God’s work in our lives.
• I am full of hope because I overhear gospel-infused teaching in our classrooms, and conversations all over campus.
• I am full of hope because I interview scores of new parents who love Jesus, and are sacrificing important things to have their children receive a virtue-forming education.
• I am full of hope because our faculty loves and understands truth, and beauty, and goodness and helps our students to as well.
• I am full of hope because God’s word does not return void. And we will be a school that is immersed in scripture, a school that submits itself to the authority of the Word.
• I am full of hope because Veritas School is, by God’s grace, a healthy Christian institution.
How do I know that we are healthy? And what does it mean, in a society whose fidelity to words is slipping, to be truly Christian? And finally, are we building an institution that lasts?
On page 12 of your Annual Report, we’ve noted a number of statistics – some are just fun – but some really do help us know if we are doing what healthy things do – mature and grow.
As a school, we gather data, measure and compare ourselves to best practices in many ways, including surveys, student and faculty culture assessments, and alumni surveys – and the news is extremely encouraging. For example, one survey tool we use year over year is the ISM (Independent School Management) student culture survey. Students are asked if they “very much looked forward to coming to school every day of this marking period” – even with this extremely high bar, well over half of our 7th graders were able to give the highest mark to that question.
Survey results, steadily rising enrollment, unheard of retention rates, remarkable programs for the arts and athletics, especially given our size, all are beyond what we imagined, as well as enviable SAT scores year over year… we know these are all markers of a type of health. But strong SAT scores are too small a measure – honestly, the evidence of health we most welcome is in the stories we hear from our students, teachers, parents, and alumni. I get to hear these stories daily.
Just yesterday, I ran into a few alumni at the soccer game; I was so encouraged to hear how they are doing. This fall, we have heard from many recent alum, whether from UVA, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, VCU, James Madison, Campbell, or Covenant College, all report encouraging stories … of academic preparedness, yes, but more importantly, continued faith formation and involvement in ministry. We follow our alumni in formal and informal ways, even recently creating an alumni “team” to explore how to stay connected, how to encourage and minister, and to consider how to bring their experiences and learning back to Veritas. I invite you to read the alumni profile on our blog that captures many of these stories.
Another measure of health – and Christian faith – is how we approach the opportunities that arise when we face challenges, disagreements, and even conflict. In a world where there is so much division and disagreement, we have a great opportunity.
And while it’s not the overwhelming experience of our life together by any means, living in community necessarily means that expectations won’t be met, and we will be disappointed at times. It is God’s design… as I have often said, a mark of maturity (or health) in a Christian community … not the absence of conflict, but rather, how we as believers process and resolve issues as brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe this single aspect alone could be the greatest determining factor of future success at Veritas.
And to that end, I get to see God work in amazing ways. What I’ve seen over and over is that such moments, when we humbly allow the Spirit to work among us, when we see and hear one another well, when we reflect on our shared commitments … is when we are profoundly healthy. We experience, and we model for our watching children, a commitment to believe the Gospel, and love one another, even in the hardest things that we do together. One of the most beautiful things I get to see is when a Lower School teacher gets on eye level with two students who are having conflict, and helps them make peace biblically. Lets together give students many examples of peacemaking in our home, churches, and here at Veritas.
Where else do I see authentic Christianity at work? I wish I had hours to tell you the stories I hear from our faculty, administration, and students in this regard. For today, I will point you to the essays at the front of your Annual Report to get a taste of what I’m talking about.
In so many ways, to borrow a phrase from one of our newest team members, and veteran Classical school leader, Andrew Smith: “Our faculty is the curriculum”. Let that sink in. The men and women who spend the best hours of the day with your children are models of authentic Christian faith … imperfectly lived out, as is true of all of us, but honestly, deeply, winsomely, and with great conviction, loving and teaching your children.
They teach with this aim – to train the affections of students toward that which is true and good and beautiful. To stand with churches and parents in the formation of moral imagination and the cultivation of virtue.
And even beyond the work they do day-to-day with your students, you need to know that many of our faculty and staff have a growing national voice in classical Christian education, as sought-after speakers, consultants, advisors, and board members. Schools from around the region and country visit Veritas to see our team at work. Just in the last two weeks, schools from Texas, North Carolina, Northern Virginia, and the Tidewater region have visited. Veritas is playing a leading role in the advancement of classical Christian education and is regarded by many leaders as one of the very best … why? Because of our faculty.
Now, we know we still have a long way to go, and the work to refine and improve is never-ending. But at moments like this, I think it is appropriate to pause and reflect on the really good work that is being done.
Finally, what does it mean to build a healthy Christian institution that will last? This year’s Annual Report explores this theme through the parallel of architecture and education. Let’s start with architecture – and specifically – the DuBose Hall renovation project. Without going into too much detail, let me point out just a few things about the floor plans and renderings you will find on pages 15 – 19 of your Annual Report:
• First, I want you to know that we have engaged one of the leading architectural firms in Richmond, Glave and Holmes, to preserve the existing architectural style while meeting the needs of our growing school. They “get” us.
• Secondly, I want to point out the importance of common spaces and Socratic seminars/Harkness style tables for classroom conversation – honoring and creating space for ‘human to human’ contact in, even (or especially) in our digital age.
Enjoy looking through these pages later with your students. What a great time to be reminded again of the blessing of such a campus!
Two of the academic buildings on our quad – Graves and Virginia Halls – are already nearly a century old. As we launch this significant renovation project in DuBose this winter, we are mindful that these buildings were indeed built to last. And more specifically, built to provide a beautiful and fitting place for Christian scholarship.
As you will see on page 14, a group of generous donors have already stepped up to help get this incredible and much-needed renovation underway; in the spring, we will be sharing more about the campaign that will make the full project possible. But do join us, even over the next several weeks, in praying for this work. We want to build in a way that is true to our mission, true to our stewardship responsibilities, and is truly, objectively beautiful for our students and neighborhood.
And so finally, we come to the last question. Is Veritas – the living, breathing Veritas captured in the Mission Statement, and the Portrait of the Graduate, and the curriculum taught, and the Scripture memorized, and the art created, and the songs sung, and the relationships cultivated – is it built to last?
Rod Dreher, and many others, argue that classical, Christian schools are uniquely equipped in this way. Writing in a chapter advocating schools just like Veritas, he continues: “We have to search passionately for the truth, reflect rigorously in reality, and in doing so, come to terms with what it means to live as authentic Christians in the disenchanted world created by modernity. [Classical Christian] education is the most important means for accomplishing this.”
Writing thousands of years earlier, Plato admonished teachers in The Republic:
“You know the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken … therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts … there can be no nobler training than that.”
Four hundred years after Plato, the Apostle Paul encourages virtue-forming education in Philippians 4:
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Fellow parents, grandparents, faculty, friends – if we are willing to do the hard and counter-cultural work of loving what is lovely, of praising what is praiseworthy, of equipping academically, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, of choosing excellence because our God is worthy of our best, we will have built something in our students that endures, glorifies God, and blesses others well beyond graduation.
May we have the courage, and conviction, and confidence to continue building healthy families, healthy churches and a healthy, Christ-centered Veritas.