HOS Blog: Norms

Matt Green
Some of you may know that Mr. Lott and I went to middle school together; and since we’ve reconnected, we’ve shared war stories about the frequent and frequently long speeches our Head of School used to inflict upon us. That Head of School happened to be my father and though there were likely more than a few kernels of wisdom in those talks, as I consider my propensity for long-windedness, I am grateful to Mr. Lott for suggesting to me that when it comes to speeches or missives, less, or at least fewer, is more. I am afraid, however, that these remarks do not quite comply with that directive.

While some of you have read some of the newly revised Parent-Student Handbook (and we urge you to read all of it), likely, no one but Mr. Earley, Student Council President Ainsley Ramsey, Vice President Dylan Kadison, and I have read it cover to cover. And yet, somehow, Falmouth Academy continues to be a safe, respectful place conducive to learning and personal growth. So, how is it that when so few of us have a detailed understanding of the rules that govern Falmouth Academy, that we proceed quite swimmingly with minimal government interference? Well, here is the answer.

Most current students have no idea who this gentleman is but those of you old enough to have been fans of the 80s sitcom Cheers will recognize this as Norm Peterson, a regular customer of the fictitious Boston pub “Cheers” for which the show is named. At the beginning of every one of the 252 episodes of the series that ran over eleven years, Norm would enter the pub and say, “Afternoon everybody,” to which everyone present would respond in unison, “Norm!” and he would then order his beverage of choice with a variety of one-liners that became his calling card.

Now let me be clear, my invoking Norm Peterson is merely a cheap mnemonic device for remembering the vital importance of norms in a society, not a tacit endorsement of his particular lifestyle choices. No, my point is that at its best Falmouth Academy, like society at its best, is governed not by its rules but by its collection of shared understandings, by its norms if you will.

As evidence, consider today’s All-School Meeting (ASM). Everyone turned up because that is what we do without having to be told. Sure, Mr. Earley will send the occasional faculty member through the building for a sweep, but we don’t take attendance, we don’t make students sit in assigned seats, or check-in at the door… we just expect everyone to come and they do. Like most norms, it comes with a corresponding rule, but like any good norm, it operates at quite a distance from that rule. Healthy norms supersede rules. It is when norms begin to falter, when people, particularly people of power and influence, flout norms, that rules proliferate.

In a recent New York Times magazine feature, Emily Bazelon said of norms, “They lay out what ought to be, according to unwritten social expectations, and not what must be, according to law. Norms are entirely up to us-they exist only as long as there’s consensus, even unspoken, to preserve them because they are fragile. We say that laws are “broken”- a definitive act of rupture. Norms merely erode, slowly amid argument and equivocation about the significance of a breach, until they’ve been destroyed.”

This comment calls to mind what I sometimes think of as Falmouth Academy’s “prime directive.” A prime directive is a guiding principle so core to a society that it informs the decisions they make. In Star Trek, the Federation’s prime directive is non-interference:

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture.

We’ve got a prime directive as well. It’s not: “Harnessing the power of inspired learning in a world-renowned scientific and vibrant artistic community, Falmouth Academy emboldens each student to take creative and intellectual risks to confidently engage the challenges of our times.” That is our mission, and it’s a good one.

No, I’d argue that our prime directive is “Know Where You Are,” a statement that urges our community to live by a set of norms; as such, “Know Where You Are” is not only about what we can and cannot do, but what we should and should not do, or as your parent may have told you, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

Falmouth Academy students, I am pleased to say, get a healthy dose of Greek literature and philosophy, but I am not sure if they get to Plato’s The Republic, wherein the Greek philosopher methodically constructs his ideal state. Plato contended that a society, highly educated in reason and ethics, would not need rules. “Good men (people) need no orders,” he said. “They will find out easily enough what legislation is in general necessary. Disgraceful is that man (person) who is proud that he is an expert lawbreaker, up to all the dodges, and that he knows how to wriggle through to avoid conviction, and all this for mean and unworthy ends.” To Plato, a society with healthy norms does not need rules. To Plato, a school who counts as its prime directive “Know Where You Are,” is likely to be populated by philosopher-kings with nuanced and sophisticated understandings of right and wrong. (Our students.)

And the phrase can be applied in almost any situation: what should I wear to school? Know where you are. How should I write or talk to a teacher? Know where you are. How should I present or conduct myself online? When should I pull out my phone?

Which brings me back to Norm Peterson. In the coming months, we will look to our students to be the stewards of Falmouth Academy’s treasured and timeless norms; remember, rules can be broken but norms merely erode. And when you stray, as we all do, expect to be reminded to “know where you are.” I may even greet students with a hearty “Norms!” and hope they’ll do the same for me.