In Charles Dickens’ 1861 book Great Expectations, Pip is a young orphan with no prospects—and no one expects much of him. An anonymous gift of wealth comes his way, and things change. He is expected to become a gentleman. In this simple synopsis, we catch a glimpse of a foreign world with an unrecognizable worldview. Can you imagine the next Mega Powerball winner being asked, “So, now that you’re expected to become a gentleman, how do you plan to fulfill that duty?”
Expectations are the stuff of community. They’re the stuff that makes us uncomfortable when we step over that unseen, but understood, line. And, they’re the stuff that makes us more comfortable as we share expectations that elevate our children to greater truth, goodness, and beauty. The West once had a deep, Christian culture full of great expectations. In just a few short decades, these expectations have been rejected as “prudish,” and then “sham- ing,” and now “unsafe.” At the same time, expectations are being replaced by laws and rules. An older generation speaks of a time when everyone on the street mowed their lawns and paint- ed their houses to be good neighbors. Now, we have statutes, covenants, and laws that tell us how we must groom our yards and what colors we can paint our houses.
Our ACCS schools have rules. And rules are necessary. But, expectations create a community that can make a difference. In classical schools, good, true, and beautiful expectations are the engine of an excellent culture that loves the good. Because of this, our schools generally have a very different look and feel than the school down the street. For example, we expect students to have an attitude of respect. If a student says, “Hey, dude” to an adult volunteer or teacher, he should feel a “twinge” as soon as the words leave his mouth. Oops. A simple raised eyebrow will correct the expectation, and things go on. If the student doesn’t feel a twinge, and no eyebrow is raised, our school community does not have strong enough expectations.
We expect a passing student to offer to help when the custodian is struggling with the new shipment of paper products. If he walks on by, his buddy should grab a box and say, “Hey Caleb, I think we should help.” When Kate and Dylan regularly stand by their locker in close, exclusive conversation, one of Kate’s friends should come up and say, “Can I join you?” with a look that says, “Guys, come on—you know this isn’t cool.” Strong communities depend on this type of culture—fewer rules and higher expectations.
Nearly every ACCS school has at least one negative Google review. If you read between the lines, often you’ll see a conflict between a school’s expectation and a parent who doesn’t like the expectation. The reviews say things like, “There’s no grace at that school,” or “Everyone there is a hypocrite,” or “There’s bullying.” Phrases like these can be code for a misalignment between a particular parent and the school community’s expectations. And because our schools take a stand against the prevailing common culture, some families are rubbed the wrong way by higher expectations — even ones gracefully applied. As an example, let’s look at the complaint, “There’s bullying.” Real bullying is a problem that should be swiftly dealt with in our schools and should rarely occur. But more often these days, the term has morphed to mean something that’s not really bullying. Any form of collective rejection of an individual student’s behavior is mislabeled “bullying.” We’ve heard college students say they feel “unsafe” because there’s a pro-family talk on campus. They feel judged by the message, so they’re “bullied.” There’s a K–12 analog to this. I’ve had moms come to my office and say, “My child is being bullied.” When the situation is investigated, “bullying” meant that another student asked their child to get in line, or stop goofing around, or other similar requests, and their child felt “shamed” by this, so they called this bullying.
Community expectations should always be lovingly applied, but they are also the duty of every member to uphold. We want every student and every adult in the school to uphold the expectations—but this can be difficult to do without real or perceived malice or self-righteous intent. Righteous indignation has no place in a Christian community. But, without pressure from peers, the alternative is a community where everyone does what is right in his own eyes. We’re increasingly facing this in our culture, and we must stand against this in our schools and churches.
Expectations are the lifeblood of a school community. How students appear outwardly can reflect a school’s standards. If some students in the school have an “edgy” look, it’s probably because their community elevates the individualistic over the community. This is easy to see in any public high school, with each clique having their own radical clothing, hair, makeup, etc. In private schools, it may be more muted, but the hearts of students are often in the same place—“look at me.” A uniform policy helps blunt this, but it cannot resolve it. Wherever there’s an ambiguous rule, there’s a chance for students to say “look at me” with a hairstyle or an accessory.
In my experience, this one expectation separates good schools from great schools: Do students seek to distinguish themselves with outward appearance, or with their minds and their virtue (1 Peter 3:3)? When that guy meets the letter of the law with his haircut, but manages to stand the bangs on end, or shave the sides like a pop star, the community should not be impressed. It may not be against the rules, but it should make everyone uncomfortable enough to say something. The same is true of girls who wear a skirt too short, or dye their light hair jet black. These attention seeking activities can be combated with good expectations supported across the community—in class, after school, and on the weekends.
If we want our schools to truly influence children to become wise and virtuous, we cannot center our school communities on platforms of “my rights,” “my individualistic expression,” “my personal preference,” or “my identity.” We can see what identity politics does to a culture. Real and lasting communities build on something better.
DAVID GOODWIN is the president of the Association of Classical Christian Schools.