Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Personally Opposed, but..."

I was a student at Notre Dame in 1984 when then governor of New York Mario Cuomo came to campus and gave a much heralded/much reviled speech that attempted to reconcile his pro-abortion policies with his Catholicism. His "personally opposed but cannot impose my beliefs on others" argument has since become the mantra for over a generation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Recently in my junior morality class, we had occasion to re-visit his speech. Here's my brief response to Cuomo's argument, some 25 years later:

Cuomo treats a civil right, the right to live, as if it were a matter of personal taste. All laws, especially those which protect the most vulnerable of parties, are founded not on preference or private sentiment, but upon a fundamental belief about the natural rights of man, rights that precede civil society and those which governments must protect to remain legitimate.

The Catholic Church does not believe abortion is wrong because it says so. Nor is the argument against abortion one from Scripture. The Church opposes abortion because it destroys our most basic right – the right to life –the foundation for all other rights. The Church does not “create” right and wrong; rather, it derives right and wrong from the natural order of things. Cuomo’s argument that “because I am Catholic, I am opposed to abortion, but as governor I cannot impose my religious views on my constituents” assumes the Church is making a sectarian religious argument that only applies to Catholics (a belief about the Eucharist or Mary, for example). But a natural rights argument is not a sectarian one. The same sentiment that inspires us to protect the rights of the criminally accused, that cares for the poor or that protects ethnic minorities--constituencies but for our nobler instincts could easily be taken advantage of – animates our laws. Those instincts are not “Catholic” ones, but human.

The flaw in Cuomo’s logic can be most easily shown by substituting other crimes into the formula: “I am personally opposed to rape, but I cannot impose my views on my constituents.” “I am personally opposed to murder, to slavery, to robbery... but I can't impose my views.” Because these crimes trample upon the civil liberties of others, their prohibition is rightly enshrined in law and punishable by imprisonment.

Governments exist to protect and extend what our founders called “certain unalienable rights” and that “among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Indeed, the very justification of our Declaration of Independence from England was that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter (or to abolish) it.”

The right to life is the most basic of all civil liberties. Our leaders have a duty to alter laws that don’t protect it adequately, independent of their religious convictions, pro or con.

Abortion is not a “religious” issue.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Matters Most about Athletics

This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on October 26, 2009.

First, I want to thank the JPII Chamber Choir and Mrs. Elbehar for singing at Mass at Our Lady of the Lake on Sunday. I was delighted to be there--first, because you greatly enhanced the liturgy, and second, because I am proud to be the headmaster of a school with such an excellent choral program and am happy when others hear you. Good work.

I was also able to see my two favorite football teams play this weekend, in person. The first was our game against BGA Friday night down in Franklin. It was a competitive, well played game, but we lost 23-20 when they hit a FG late in the game to break the tie. On Saturday, I was invited to fly up to Notre Dame to watch the Irish play Boston College and happy to say that the good Catholics won, 20-16, due largely because of the stellar play of JPII’s Golden Tate, who had 11 catches for 128 yard yards and two TD’s. He’s so good that the same thing that happened at JPII is now occurring at Notre Dame stadium: whenever he gets the ball in open space, everyone instinctively stands up, anticipating something special is going to happen. I had fun.

I also understand our girls soccer team won their first play-off game on Saturday—a hard fought game against BGA in which they won 2-1, so they're now proceeding to a second round play-off game. Congratulations to our girls' cross country team that finished first in the mid-state regional tournament. They and the boys will run in the state finals on November 7. Our girls volleyball team finished around .500, a big step forward from last year. Good job, girls. And last week, our hockey team beat Hendersonville 3-1. Congratulations to all of you.

Athletics play a huge role in our society today and it’s an important part of our high school life here. As we wrap up the fall season and begin making the turn to our winter sports—in fact, I understand the basketball program has its first official practices today—I think it’s important to remember what’s truly important about high school athletic programs. As much as we all want to win, and as much as winning is more fun than losing, five or ten years from now, unless your team went undefeated and won a state championship, you won’t remember your won-loss record. You will, however, remember the good time you had with your teammates, the laughter in the locker-room, the bond of brotherhood or sisterhood you felt with them as you together experienced the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. You will remember the relationship you had with your coaches, who went through those times with you, whom sometimes you hated because they challenged you to perfection, whom most of the time you respected precisely because they expected and demanded so much from you.

If you’re an athlete who has finished your season or if your season is nearing completion, I suggest you ought to measure success by two simple questions: Did you have fun? Did you become a better person?

As much playing a sport can be time-consuming, difficult, sometimes monotonous, filled with disappointment if you’ve lost a close game or if you’ve been blown out, the bottom line is did you enjoy it? We forget too quickly that when it’s all said and done, we should be having fun. I coached my son’s football team when he was 11 years old, and we ended up having a good season and made it to the championship game. However, the day of the championship it was very cold, and rained harder than any day I remember, an utter deluge. It was miserable--the field was nothing but a mud pit. We lost the game 7-6. On the way home, I looked over at my son, who was both shivering cold and covered head to foot in mud. I asked him “So you glad the season is over”? He turned his eyes to me—the only thing not covered with mud—and said “No, Dad. I wish I could play football the whole year.” Well, he was only 11 and didn’t have a lot of other things pressing him for his attention like you do. I understand that at the high school level, even if you love what you’re playing, there’s a certain amount of relief when the season ends so you can spend a little more time with friends, or sleep on Saturday mornings, or catch up in your studies. But if you love the game, after some time off, you begin looking forward to the first practice of next season. So I ask you, those of you just finishing up your season: Did you enjoy it?

The second question is: Did you become a better person? Too often today we focus on about self-fulfillment, “getting mine”, stat lines, getting our names in the paper. But athletics teaches us to put the team before self. It teaches us to become more disciplined, to become tougher, to work harder. Sports challenges us to seek perfection, to “do my job” even if others are failing theirs, to work for long term ends—a game in October, when I am running sprints in July. These are values that make us stronger, better people. It’s an important question: You’ve just invested an enormous amount of your time and energy into your sport this season. Are you a better person for it?

If you can say you had fun and are a better person for it, you’ve had a great season. My congratulations and thanks to all of you who represent your school so well. We are proud of you; I enjoy watching you play.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Living in Daylight

This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to students on October 19, 2009.

About 10 years ago, I got to know 4 boys in my school very well. From their first day as freshmen, they began getting in trouble—mostly for being unruly in the classroom—and they were always sent to see me since I didn’t have someone like Mr. McLaren. We did numerous work details together, scraping gum from underneath dining room tables, picking up paper around the campus and surrounding neighborhood, waxing the school bus on a Saturday morning and anything else I could dream up—just to keep these fellas in line. And as some of you who are frequent visitors to Mr. McLaren’s office might understand, as they became juniors and seniors, despite the fact we were frequently aggravated at each other, we developed a kind of love-hate respect and affection for one another.

One day in their senior year, I was looking for our football coach down at the locker-room after practice. I walked in just as the biggest and heaviest of these four fellas—think Chris Farley from Saturday Night Live—was just getting out of the shower, his backside to me. I pretended to become blind, my eyes seared by the horrible image I had been forced to see. We had a good laugh. Fast forward to May on their last day of school: the four brought me a present and told me not to open it until I was alone in my office. I guessed what it was and was right: The four fellas had taken a group picture together, bending over, mooning me, with the inscription: “Thanks for not giving up on us….” and they each signed their names.

We didn’t get a chance to talk again until after graduation, and they came up to me, a little nervous, and wanted to make sure I knew it was a joke. I said I took it that way, not to worry. “Good”, they said, “So you can throw it away now, but just know, Mr. Weber, we had the last laugh." “Throw it away? The last laugh?” I said. “You fellas are thinking short term. I’m saving that picture. When you come back for your 20th reunion with your wives and daughters, I intend to circulate copies to all your classmates, just for old times sake. You better be generous in the alumni appeals between now and then.”

I tell that humorous story to make a more serious point: We often think the consequences of our actions are short-term, rooted in the present. But increasingly, the mistakes we make in the present have longer-term consequences. Much of that has to do with technology. Back in Alabama, there were two girls in a private school who got drunk and posed nude for a cell phone picture. The boy who took the picture sent it to a friend, who sent it to someone else. When they realized the next day what had happened, it was too late. It had been widely circulated around the city and uploaded to porn sites around the world. When the school found out about it, the two girls were expelled, as was the person who took the picture and sent it to someone else. But that wasn’t the worst thing: These girls had to live with the uncertainty and embarrassment of not knowing who had seen that picture among their classmates and around the city.

Another example: one of my former students got drunk in college and did something stupid and was arrested. It was covered in the local newspaper. Even though he was not convicted and his arrest was legally expunged, today if you do a “google search” for this student, you can still find the account of his arrest. Employers are becoming savvy in using search engines for digging up information about their job applicants. A partner of an accounting firm I know purchases Facebook data about college grads applying for jobs in his firm—not just the Facebook pages that are showing their sites at graduation time, but pages that have been cached over the course of each applicants 4 years of schooling. Even before I was hired as JPII’s headmaster, the chair of the search committee here, Mr. Wood, did a thorough google search and read every article I’d ever published in a magazine, every article about me, every quote that had been attributed to me in the newspaper.

Jesus once said:

There is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops (Luke 12:2-3)

The best way to prevent ourselves from being embarrassed or from letting something about our private lives come back and bite us publicly is to work very hard at making our lives exemplary in every way—to live as if all of our actions and words were “in the light” no matter how private they may seem. Part of that is avoiding situations where we’re not in control of what’s happening, like the two girls who got drunk and didn’t realize the implications of what they had done until it was too late. If we live moral lives, if we try to live “in the light” as God wants us to, then we don’t need to worry so much about what’s “out there” about us. We can simply be ourselves.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Enemy of the Great

As we begin the second quarter today, I’d like to talk a bit about greatness.

The gospel reading from this Sunday is interesting. A young man, perhaps not much older than you, comes to Jesus and says “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God. You know the commandments: Keep the Sabbath holy, Honor your parents, don’t lie, steal, murder.” “I’ve done these things since I was young” the young man tells Jesusproudly. Jesus, eying him, says, “There is one thing further you must do: sell all your possessions to the poor and come, follow me.” And the gospel says the young man walked away sad, for he was a wealthy young man.

My take on that story is the young man is a good guy. He’s following the commandments. But Jesus challenges him to be great. I think that may describe us all: on the whole, we’re pretty good people. We’re not killing people, most of the time we’re not stealing, we don’t often take God’s name in vain, we’re not sleeping around. But God calls us beyond even those things. He desires us to be great.

I read an interesting book over the break, by Jim Collins, called “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t”. He studied many companies in Wall Street, trying to figure out if there were common characteristics in companies that had out-performed the market by three times the general averages—the “great companies” vs. those who had only done well (“the good”). One of his findings is an interesting idea: “Good is the enemy of the great.” (repeat). What he means is that often the good companies were happy with their performance—“good” for them had become “good enough”, so they weren’t driven to seek more. Their vision in what they could be, what they could become, was limited, ordinary, pedestrian.

I think that can be true of all of us: you as students, we as your teachers or school leaders. We often measure ourselves against the masses and say to ourselves, “Well, maybe I’m not studying as much as I should, but I’m doing a heck of a lot more that my friend in another school.” “Maybe I could be a better teacher, but I’m sure better than _______”. “Maybe I’m not the best headmaster, but I know I’m better than most”. That kind of thinking will guarantee that we’ll be at most, “better than average” students, teachers or headmasters, but we’ll never be great. We’ll never be the true difference makers in this world if being “good enough” is all we aspire to be.

One of the things I am proudest about JPII is we have one, simple, ambitious goal for you: we want you to be great. We not only want you to be great, we think you can be great. It’s why our graduation requirements are higher than any school in the Nashville area. It’s why we don’t give D’s. It’s why we ask you to take 3 years of foreign language and 3 years of the Arts---both unusually high standards for even elite high schools. It’s why Mrs. Phillips and your teachers push you to take Honors and A.P. classes, even if you’re not sure you can do it. It’s why we play at the highest level of athletic competition in Tennessee, even if at times we struggle. It’s why we emphasize the importance of a life of faith, Mass each week, theology classes that require work just like the other classes, why we pray so frequently together. It’s why we have an Honor code, why we have a Veritas Council, why we emphasize discipline so strictly. It’s because from the first day this school opened, Pope John Paul II has expected greatness of itself and greatness of its students and its teachers.

As we begin the second quarter, don’t be like the young man who merely does what he is supposed to do. Challenge yourself to be more than that. God wants us to use all of our talents to the best of our abilities and he promises us that when we do so, we’ll thrive and be happy. Ask him to help you. He will.

I hope all of you have a great second quarter.

Monday, October 05, 2009

College Prep 101: A Guide for Middle School Parents

Recently the faculty of JPII sponsored a seminar designed to help parents get their middle school children ready for college. This article is a highly condensed summary of what was said; for a more complete presentation of the seminar, go here.

If I’m a parent of a middle school child, how do I best prepare my child for college? What matters most in the college admissions process for selective schools? Does my child’s EXPLORE score (a pre-ACT test in 7/8th grade) indicate my child in on the right path? What can I do to guide him or her through the early teen years successfully?

In a national survey, colleges claimed the five most important criteria for admissions were: Grades in college prep classes, strength of curriculum, ACT or SAT scores, grades in all courses and admissions essays. However, the evidence suggests the greatest discriminator between selective and less selective schools are the applicant's ACT/SAT scores. Vanderbilt and Notre Dame students, for example, have a median composite score of a 31-32 on the ACT (or 97th to 99th percentile). Rhodes and Belmont students average 26-28 (84th-91st percentile), whereas U. Tennessee and U. Alabama students average 24-25 (75th-80th).

The average grade point averages of entering frosh in all six of these schools only varies by .46, from a 3.86 average at ND to a 3.4 average at U. Alabama, supporting the proposition that test scores matter more than GPA’s. This makes sense: GPA’s vary wildly among high schools, making them an unreliable way to measure applicants, whereas standardized test scores compare “apples to apples”. Should tests matter this much? Probably not, but the reality is that selective colleges receive tens of thousands of applications and must find ways to sort through them quickly.

For similar reasons, we also believe that the difficulty of curriculum taken in high school is an increasingly important factor for college admissions. On the common application now used by hundreds of colleges, high school counselors are asked to rate the student’s curriculum as “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average” compared to their classmates. For students who are serious about getting accepted at top schools, anything less than “very demanding” undercuts their cause dramatically.

If, then, test scores and strength of curriculum matter so much, what does this mean for middle school and high school programs? We must look first at what the ACT test measures. (For purposes of this seminar, we’ll focus on the ACT since it is most common in the south. Many colleges are now accepting both the ACT and the SAT, which ever the applicant prefers.) Surprisingly, the ACT does not assume advanced course work. The Math test, or example, is comprised of predominantly Pre-Algebra, Algebra I/II, Geometry and a few Trigonometry questions. Most of the Science questions are Earth Science, Biology or basic Physical Science. The English test is predominantly reading and grammar, whereas the Reading test measures comprehension and ability to interpret tone and nuance.

It is likely then that by late junior year, when students should begin taking the ACT, they will have covered the necessary topics in high school. HOW they’ve covered these topics, however, is critical: The ACT Science test places a heavy emphasis on interpreting data from experiments, drawing conclusions from charts and graphs and analyzing research. Are students doing these things regularly in their 7-12th grade program? Are students solving a variety of word problems in their Math courses, using manipulatives, drawing sketches, being asked to communicate mathematical ideas to their classmates and teacher, or are they merely learning techniques to solve a battery of similar algorithms? Are students reading consistently, picking out main ideas, asked to discuss tone, working with original documents, reading novels, being stretched in their vocabulary? How strong is the foundation students receive in grammar? Do they know the rules of grammar or do they just pick what sounds right? Students in schools that do these things consistently will improve their ACT performance dramatically.

But how do I know if my child on the right path for a good ACT score? Many schools give the EXPLORE test, a pre-ACT test for 8th graders and the PLAN test, another pre-ACT test for 10th graders. Predicting ACT performance in junior or senior year based on scores earned in 8th grade is partly a guess—there are many variables (quality of school, effort, rest before the test, work ethic during high school) that skew such predictions. Nevertheless, the ACT folks publish estimated PLAN scores from the EXPLORE and also publish estimated ACT scores from the PLAN, so putting these together, we’ve been able link EXPLORE to ACT and make broad predictions, available here.

What, then, are some practical things I can do as a parent to put my child in the best possible position for college?

1) Emphasize foundations. Middle school parents may worry their child is falling behind if he or she is not taking advanced courses in middle school. Don't worry--a thorough understanding of Algebra I and Comp I is more important. Not only will a firm foundation make the curricular “house’ sturdier throughout high school, remember that the ACT does not measure proficiency in Calculus!

2) Once in high school, insist your child takes the most difficult curriculum he or she can handle. Honors and A.P. classes will not only help with the "strength of curriculum" admissions criteria, it will help your child improve ACT performance.

3) Grades, though important, matter less than we may think, so be forgiving on grades, but unforgiving on effort. If your child is truly taking demanding courses, he or she will stumble from time to time. That's OK. Focus on consistent effort and the grades will take care of themselves in the long run.

4) Help your child develop good homework habits. Though it varies based on the child and the curriculum, we believe 10 minutes per grade level is a good minimum, so that 8th graders should be doing a minimum of 80 minutes, even if “he doesn’t have any”. There’s always reading to do, notes to review, a test to prepare for.

5) Help your child say “no”. Students take on too many commitments, hoping that a long resume will impress colleges. Most colleges, however, value depth over breadth. It’s better to be a 4 year member of the Debate team and indicate greater achievement and leadership in the Debate club each year than to dabble with Debate one year and something else the next. Also, being part of an athletic team is terrific, but these days varsity athletes are expected to play their sports year-round with club play and off season requirements; be careful your son or daughter isn't playing too many sports to the exclusion of other good activities, the most important of which is serious study. Kids wear down!

6) Insist on a regular cycle for sleep. Teens don’t get enough of it. Furthermore, they disrupt their body clocks on weekends by staying up late and then sleeping late in the mornings which makes Mondays almost useless as their bodies re-adjust.

7) Help your child develop a love of reading. Read to your children when they’re young, visit the library often, subscribe to magazines of interest as they get older, read books on long car trips together instead of watching DVD’s, become a reader yourself to model its importance to your children, insist on definitive bedtimes but allow reading in bed, and read the books your children must read for school so you can discuss with them. Reading ability is the single best predictor of future academic success.

8) Limit screen time. The average teenager watches three hours of T.V. per day, not counting time on the Internet.

9) Ensure that missing class is a rarity. No matter how diligent your child in making up missed work, the discussions, questions, and back and forth between teacher and child is irreplaceable.

10) Encourage your child and pray for him or her. The teenage years are rife with uncertainty, awkwardness, worry and stress. Prayer will help us keep things in perspective and our teen will be comforted knowing we’re praying for him or her. We can take comfort in knowing our child's future is in God's hands.