Ambleside and the Pursuit of Maturity

A few years ago, at my favorite pub on Capitol Hill (Washington, DC), I shared brunch with a former student. She had been part of the first high school class to graduate from Ambleside. Having completed her university degree, she was spending the summer working in Washington. The food was typical pub food, but the conversation was excellent. She was engaging, conversant in a wide variety of subjects, comfortable in sharing her thoughts and desires, her delights and struggles. And, quite atypical of a contemporary twenty-something, she was genuinely interested in the thoughts and desires, the delights and struggles of her former teacher. It was a rich time. As we neared the end of our meal, I leaned over the table and said, “Let me tell you the most difficult, the most painful thing in your life right now.” Her eyes opened a little wider, and she began to listen intently. I went on, “You are an intelligent, engaging young woman. The way you have conducted yourself throughout our time together, the way you walked into the room, your impeccable manners, the quality of our conversation, your interest not just in yourself but in me; all of this points to the character of a mature young woman. Yet, you are surrounded by wo-girls and man-boys (physically adults, but emotionally-relationally functioning like thirteen year-olds). And, that is a very lonely place to be.” A small tear began to slide down her cheek, and I continued, “But what is the alternative.”

In a recent TED talk entitled “The Demise of Guys” (see, Philip Zimbardo points out that we are facing an enormous crisis. In his ebook by the same title, Zimbardo maintains:

In record numbers, guys are flaming out academically and wiping out socially with girls…

Young men are motivated, just not the way other people want them to be. Society wants guys to be upstanding proactive citizens who take responsibility for themselves, who work with others to improve their communities and nation as a whole. The irony is that society is not giving the support, means or places for these young men to even be motivated or interested in aspiring to these things. In fact, society-from politics to the media to the classroom to our very own families – is a major contributor to this demise because they are inhibiting guys’ intellectual, creative and social abilities right from the start.

While I don’t agree with everything Zimbardo says and he doesn’t claim to have a complete answer for the problem, he has recognized something very important. In today’s European-American cultures, young men are increasingly a mess. The typical twenty-six year old male of today is a very different creature from the twenty-six year old male of fifty years ago. And, young women are not far behind. It’s not just that biologically young adults are increasingly functioning at lesser levels of psychological, emotional-relational maturity. Fewer and fewer have any vision for maturity. They dream only of perpetual adolescence.

What went wrong? As a culture, we have forgotten that maturity is an achievement. It must be intentionally cultivated and does not occur apart from hard work on the part of child and adult. Achieving maturity is not something we come by without effort. Almost two thousand years ago, Paul of Tarsus wrote the Corinthian church, declaring:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

In a highly indulgent, consumption-oriented society; this giving up of childish ways is a challenging task. It requires concerted effort on the part of young and old alike. It requires a community that has a clear vision of what maturity looks like and how it is to be achieved.

Ambleside is just such a community. In fact, perhaps the most distinctive thing about an Ambleside high school is its vision for and commitment to spiritual, psychological, and emotional-relational maturity. It is our goal, that when a young man or woman graduates from an Ambleside high school, he or she will be functioning at an adult level of maturity, able to think like a mature adult, work like a mature adult, serve like a mature adult, and appropriately regulate his or her emotional life as a mature adult.

We agree with Charlotte Mason’s words, “to direct and assist the evolution of character is the chief office of education.” Consider the graduate, who, in addition to having mastered a broad and rich curriculum, can manage emotional distress well and stay her best self; can stay on task when head and hand are tired; is careful, accurate, neat, and dutiful in work; has appropriate respect for appropriate authority; and maintains a good relationship with God, self, peers and teachers. Such a student will surely do well in university and even more importantly in life. It is just such a student that we seek to cultivate at Ambleside.