It is a disheartening reality that the term “government” can often bring to mind negative associations. In my leadership class that I am privileged to teach, the students and I often reminded one another of the number of days for which the government had been partially shut down. It is my hope that we can restore a positive sense behind the word “government.” While it would be naive to think that we could make significant and immediate changes to the broader meaning of the term government, we nonetheless have the opportunity to consider the nature of one of our school virtues: self-government. I remember when my kindergartner and I first spoke about the term. Candidly, it felt a bit odd at first to be discussing such a weighty term with her.
The English word “govern” stems from the Latin term gubernare, which most basically means to steer or pilot a ship. Over time the word took on the meaning of directing or ruling. My daughter’s way of understanding the idea, thanks in no small part to her fabulous teachers, is that self-government is self-control.
What does it mean to have a community that is characterized by this sort of virtue? Of course there is a sense in which self-government may look different for kindergartners than it does for seniors. I have told the story previously of a teenager at my previous school. Upon receiving a detention, he declared that he “couldn’t help it because of his undeveloped pre-frontal cortex.” There is no doubt that students’ not-fully-formed brains can make self-government especially challenging.
Of course we want for students to show patterns of self-government that are noteworthy and worthy of public recognition. However, sometimes a display of this virtue could appear in a subtle or even unnoticed way. As one of my students wrote in a recent essay, a leader showing self-government “can be the one who stays a few minutes after lunch to clean the table!” Self-government does not mean simply the ability to control oneself for any purpose. That is, it is possible to be self-controlled, but selfish.
Self-government, properly understood within the context of our other school virtues, is best exhibited for the benefit of others. The health of our school community, and indeed our nation, depends in part on the extent to which we are continually growing in our ability to govern ourselves. While we will not embody this principle perfectly, we can take heart in the high call that we have to encourage this growth in one another. Whether speaking with kindergartners or high schoolers, I would encourage you to ask what practical expressions of self-government could be used in the service of others. My kindergartner has all too many opportunities to push me toward that end!