Honors and Awards at Trinity?

Sometimes we think too much about things around here. This might be one of those times, but then the transforming of our minds (Rom. 12:2) is more like growing a tree than waving a wand. Discussions about honors and awards go way back to the beginning of the school. I remember a vigorous discussion in our living room as we were deciding about grades in the elementary classes. I also remember an Advisory Council meeting back in 2002, when that group, at my initiative, took up the question of awards. I try to pick “hot topics” for that group every year—after all, what else do you need advice on—and I imagine that the graduation of our eighth graders somehow precipitated that discussion. Once again, graduation is looming, but this time Graduation, or even GRADUATION. And with it, really before it, college admissions. Somebody is going to ask about honors and awards. I know the college applications will.

Here are some things I’ve learned over the years.

People care about this passionately. It reminds me a little of uniforms and mascots in this way. People are invested. And divided, which brings me to the second point . . .

People tick differently. Motivation is a complicated thing. If I universalize from my own temperament and psychology, I will probably not create a system which is motivating to everyone. I’m not particularly motivated by extrinsic rewards; and I would much prefer to be surprised by an award than to work towards it. I’ve always been fascinated by Matthew 25, where both the sheep and the goats don’t see it coming. But when I’ve tried to construct a plan for Trinity which restricts awards to something the students didn’t know about ahead of time, I end up with something unworkable and weird. It’s hard to imagine any one award system working equally well for all. This is a huge challenge. It means that almost everything I’m going to say from here on will be contested by some. Oh well . . .

Affirmation and approbation are better than acclamation. This is what a blessing is. Our greatest reward is God himself (Genesis 15:1; Psalm 73:25, 26). And the blessing—the spoken benediction—of God is what we are all longing to hear. This is what God the Father uttered to His Son at the beginning of his earthly ministry: “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Whatever the crowns and feasting are all about, they can’t be better than God himself and his blessing. And this translates into school life in powerful ways. I’m pretty sure there’s no award I can devise for the school which could do more for a student that the “Well done” from a teacher who is respected and revered and—most important—loved.

Mason was right, I think: Awards can (she might have thought that they always do—I’m not sure of that) attenuate the true desires for knowing and understanding. The love of knowledge is strong and vibrant in a child, and our job is to nourish and guard that, not to spoil it. Like life itself, it is strong but still fragile, and it can be killed easily, or at least put under a great sleep from which it is hard to recover. Intrinsic rewards are for this reason better than extrinsic.

Spiritual awards seem especially dangerous to me. All awards are, by the way, dangerous. But as many are quick to remind me, so are many other things we teach our students to handle (like automobiles), and part of what an education should give them is practice and guidance in navigating the dangerous waters. So the danger of awards may not be a reason to avoid them. Still, it is hard to imagine an award for spiritual excellence which does not breed pride (which is the enemy of all true spiritual life. Further, although I believe in sanctification, to which our efforts contribute, I also think the spiritual life is a great mystery, the gift of God, so that it seems at best silly to honor the student who loves or forgives best.

Celebrations, however, are important. We celebrate what we value, and we value what we celebrate. I for one, was greatly moved by the celebrations of the life of John Paul II when that great man died. I would not want Trinity to be a school which couldn’t stop and give thanks to God for the lives and virtues of some among us who have been graced with extraordinary gifts and have demonstrated extraordinary faithfulness in stewarding those gifts. Perhaps these are not scheduled ahead of time, for every spring or every graduation; but when they spring up, we will know it is time to celebrate. And if we never celebrate a certain excellence, we say to the community that we do not really care about it.

I think I’m more open to awards and rewards which honor the common graces and the cardinal virtues than the special graces and the spiritual virtues. Common graces have to do with the blessings God bestows upon all, not equally, but through providence rather than regeneration. So, academic excellence is not a Christian excellence but a common one. It requires no spiritual maturity or Christian commitment. This may seem counter to Trinity’s mission at first glance. But in its favor is the argument that a much larger number of students are actually capable of winning such an award than the award for “Best Christian Character.” And as for the virtues, the Big Four of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control are, arguably, accessible to all people, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. (I do believe that all these virtues are mediated through Christ, but he lets the rain of courage fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.) So these are things which our students can all aspire to. On the athletic field, for instance, any player, regardless of talent, could rise to be the most courageous. I’m envisioning the Lion’s Heart Award, of something like that.

So I think we might be able to come up with some awards which fit Trinity and which have some fences to protect us from the greater dangers. I set the entire Trinity faculty to this task at a recent faculty meeting, and I’ll be eager to hear what they come up with. An awards system which honors the “Non Nobis” principle. Now that would be swimming against the current! We’ll see.


Daniele said…
(really sam)

This is too good for a blog, Chip. (Jenny would say too long, I suppose.)

Maybe honors and awards resonate with Trinity's culture in that they communicate that a student is known. Isn't that a major part of the joy of getting an award? I s'pose that's why we often say someone was "recognized" for their xyz. The beauty of being known at Trinity, however, is the intimacy of the relationship: it's somehow profound and private. The whole award thing puts it all under lights, which seems to cheapen it. Will the award ceremony have the trickle-down effect of cheapening all Trinity relationships? I strongly doubt it, but we run the risk of undermining relationships that stand alone, no certificate necessary.

This is mostly just thinking aloud. I have one deep sadness when I ponder awards. All the valid discussion of how not getting an award is a learning experience aside, it grieves me that we could inadvertently (and I may mean that the devil could quite purposely) tell a student: "You are less." All the true and good counsel can fall short in the face of this strong lie. The reality is that awards and honors are not the only way that this lie perniciously attacks. It's here at Trinity now; it's everywhere. But how can our award system fight against the lie? Certainly not by having an excess of awards. Then how? I guess it has to be relationship, day-in day-out relationship. That's what we're good at. That's what He is good at!

One quibble about your post: You mention the celebrate-value cycle, but then you support awards that stay away from spiritual things. Do we send mixed-messages by professing to celebrate what we value and then celebrating "common" things only? But, then again, maybe nothing is common.

I think Jenny would say this comment is too long, eh?

Thanks, Brother.

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