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What is the role of school rules?

“Aretegenesis.”

It was a word I had never heard before and one that I was could not even interrogate to decipher a meaning.

I came across it reading an article for Thaddeus Williams, multi-doctoral professor at Biola University, who, writing as a Doctor of Laws about the changing role of the Law in contemporary society, explained and unpacked it for his readers as a compound Greek composite meaning “virtue creator” – as in the Law holding potential not just to be “the executioner's sword deterring the citizenry from unwanted action but to also be the chisel sculpting a virtuous public”.

The article is dense but rich; well worth the effort required to read and digest it.

Student laughing in class

Drawing on various thinkers from throughout the history of philosophy Williams cogently explains the inevitable moral Pedagogy of Law – that it cannot help but act to instruct the community in regard to what is considered “virtuous” - type of people they should aspire to be, what type of values they should hold to, and what type of behaviour they should hold to.

Confrontingly, the article also maps a discernible shift in the operation so Law in our culture from being a guide rail to good character to being a defender of individual rights, giving power to the premise that no one understanding of moral good should impinge on the right for “self-determination” of their own understanding of good.

As I read this article, I was could easily see connections with and implications for our school community.

Perhaps it was because during this year we have been wrestling with fleshing out our Behaviour Management Policy or maybe it was because the impact of legislation on religious freedoms has been a recent focus of concern, but I was left challenged on two key ideas.

Firstly, assuming the extension of Williams’ reflections on the nature of Law to also encompass School or Classroom rules, I was left wondering how “aretegenetic” – virtue creating - they were. We learn clearly from Paul in Romans that this was God’s original intent for the Torah. If you are like me you can easily forget that the Jewish Law was not only religious but also civil: it was to govern personal spirituality and social responsibility. It was also understood to have a pedagogical role in both these domains – to instruct us what was required for individual righteousness (Romans 7:7) and what would result in collective human flourishing, or in bible speak “shalom”.

This begs the questions – are our school rules serving to develop character and virtue in our students and how well might they be doing that?

Secondly, I was confronted by the challenge implied by Williams’ reflection on the role of “rights” in determining community expectations of behaviour, on the role of our school rules (our Law) in ensuring these for individuals, and on what pedagogy are they providing.

In other words – are our rules important just because they restrict behaviour that might intrude on the rights of others or because they point to behaviour that is intrinsically virtuous?

Our Executive team has just spent a good deal of time developing an agreed upon student Code of Conduct that includes a table of student rights and responsibilities.

“Each student has a right to Learn” sounds like a noble principle that should rightly be defended by appropriate class and school rules, but I am wondering if it is the right starting point for the behaviours we want our students to demonstrate.