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Parent Dinner 2024

Headmaster Jason Robinson delivered this speech to the parent community at the Parent Dinner in January.

It’s wonderful to see all of you this evening. I’m grateful for the special partnership the school enjoys with our families and thank you for all the ways you support the school and continue to keep faith with the promise of our mission.
By tradition, the Headmaster devotes the remarks at this Parent Dinner to a broad topic about education that speaks to the experience of families raising their sons in the context of our times.
There’s no shortage of topics this year, as we continue to live in what could most charitably be described as “interesting times.”
The title I have chosen for my remarks tonight is “A Tale of Three Men, A Tale of Two Cities.”
Before going further into the substance of my remarks, I first want to say that I am deeply proud of what this school stands for and the special young men we are privileged to teach. The year has been full of great achievements and successes, growth and discovery, moments when we all pause and are reminded of the gift we enjoy of being part of this special community.
But it has also been an unsettled year in which fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of the school have arisen. And for the first time in my six years at the school, the unity and clarity of mission that has always been a hallmark of this school has seemed less unified and less clear, with divisions in our community about who we are, what we stand for, and where we should be going. Many of these divisions reflect larger fault lines in the world beyond the school, as we struggle to educate our boys in an age of “high conflict” (Amanda Ripley) and polarization.
I’m not naive enough to think that a parent dinner address can solve all of these issues. But a number of parents have approached me this year and said things like: “We are all united in our love for this place. We just want the school to ‘Defend the Model!’” (with the implicit suggestion that the “Model” of who we are and what we do at St. Albans needs re-affirmation and rehabilitation in a world where some worry it is eroding).
Whether it is Richard Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men or Christine Emba’s provocative article “Men are Lost. Here’s a Map Out of the Wilderness” or just parents’ experiences raising their sons at a time of great complexity, there remains in our culture a genuine concern about how boys and men are doing—and what it would look like to engage this issue in a thoughtful way—to defend boys and the model of boys schools without becoming defensive—to name the very real challenges facing boys without succumbing to grievance, resentment, or impoverished, atavistic notions of masculinity.
This made me think back to January of 2019, my first year as Headmaster, when I devoted my first parent address to a defense of the enduring value of a boys school education in a post-#MeToo world, at a time when male institutions were viewed with increasing skepticism. I stand by every word I wrote in that piece and continue to believe our model of boys education is something rare and special—something worth fighting for.
2023-24 School Life
The challenge I think is that, like any community with a long history that is trying to navigate an increasingly complex future, different people have different expectations about what exactly our “Model” of education at St. Albans is and should be.
I’ve found in my six years at the school that it’s a valuable and centering exercise, especially when we are contending with a difficult moment or question, to return to first principles, to the pillars of our mission:
  • We are a boys school.
  • We are a community of intellectual and moral excellence.
  • We are an Episcopal school.
But I’ve learned there’s more to this exercise than just “reciting” the pillars of our mission. The greatness of our school, as well as the complexity of our work here, has to do with how we “fit” these three dimensions of our mission together into an integrated whole. And when we go through periods of difficulty, as we have during some of the stretches of this year, I believe it is because of uncertainty about how these three pillars—boys school, school of intellectual and moral excellence, Episcopal school—are meant to co-exist and mutually support one another.
Before this talk gets far too theoretical, let me try to re-ground us by telling a story. Stories, I find, are far more vivid ways of seeing and understanding ourselves. And true to St. Albans’s mission as a classical liberal arts institution, the first part of this story is about three men from the “great books' of the liberal arts tradition. Each man’s story speaks to something important about the three pillars of our mission.
The first man is Achilles, the mythic hero of the Iliad by Homer. Achilles, both in classical antiquity and in ways that echo to this very day, was the archetype of a certain understanding of what it means to achieve excellence as a man. It was, in the Homeric tradition, through heroic displays of physical strength and courage during what the Greeks called “agons”—or competitive contests—originally during battle and war, and, in ways the Greeks would later add, through strength and endurance in athletic contests, ritualized and stylized forms of competition that are surrogates for battle. As one classical scholar puts it: “Think of Achilles as the world’s greatest athlete and you will be on your way to having a feel for his greatness—for the greatness the Greeks see in him” (C.D.C. Reeve). Achilles is strong, brave, fearless, intimidating, agile, a specimen of physical virtuosity. He seeks opportunities to display his masculine virtue—of heart, strength, courage, resilience—in competition.
He is a compelling figure, though also a tragic figure. The opening line of the Iliad is, revealingly, about Achilles’s anger, his rage: “Sing, O goddess, the rage of Achilles, that brought ills upon” the world. Homer announces on the very first page that the entire book is a parable about a man’s tragic flaw, the Rage of Achilles. The Iliad is a celebration of Achilles’s strength, competitiveness, and fearlessness, but not an uncritical celebration. It also a cautionary tale about how these qualities can metastasize into more pathological forms if not properly regulated and channeled. Part of why the Iliad remains a classic work of literature is that it invites us to reflect on this eternal question: how to cultivate the good parts of male strength, competition, and courage, without giving license to the darker parts of the male id. The book shows us the beauty, grace, and power of a man who unsurpassed physical strength, skill, and bravery, but also shows us the tragedy that can unfold when these qualities are cut loose from any regulating moral framework.
2023-24 School Life
The second man is this story is also from the classical Greek tradition, but a different branch of it: the philosopher, Socrates, a man of thought rather than a man of action. Socrates is devoted to the contemplative life, rather than the competitive life, finding the deepest meaning through conversation rather than combat. He delights in ideas and knowledge, rather than physical displays of strength. He questions conventional pieties and received wisdom, encouraging others to lead an “examined life.” And while he is an iconic figure today in the Western canon of “great thinkers,” his message was not warmly received during his own lifetime. People thought he asked too many questions, rather than just paying homage to the old ways. And he was ultimately tried and sentenced to death for “impiety” and “corrupting the youth of Athens.” The subtext of all this, frequently amplified by his critics during his lifetime, is that if young men spent their days lost in abstract philosophical contemplation with people like Socrates, rather than building their strength in competitive pursuits, they would become “less of a man”—less like the way the culture had come to understand masculinity ever since Achilles—the great warrior, the great athlete, even the great commanding orator engaged in competitive contestation and rhetorical combat in the Athenian law courts and assemblies (like Socrates’s rivals, the Sophists).
The irony is that Socrates, through his life and his death, began to redefine the possibilities of what it could mean to be a man. He led a life of principle, committed to truth, intellectual integrity, and the life of the mind. He showed us a different way of being in the world. His was a different courage than Achilles: the courage of his convictions. And he showed no fear in going to his death for what he believed. His student, Plato, would in The Republic take up this project of imagining a new type of city where this new type of man, embodied by Socrates, would be seen not as the enemy of society and the enemy of masculine virtue, but as the foundation of a just society and the highest form of humanity.
The third man in this story is Jesus. He was born into the world of the Roman Empire, where greatness and power were measured in terms of lands conquered, peoples subjugated, wealth accumulated, and physical strength exerted. Jesus turns the world’s notions of power upside down. It is not the strong, but the meek, who will inherit the earth. If one is challenged to fight, Jesus says not to fight back—not to be Achilles, but to “turn the other cheek.” To cultivate humility and gentleness of spirit. To practice forgiveness, rather than to provoke confrontations. Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, but not through militancy or violence. He taught instead that the Kingdom of God would happen soul by soul, through an inner transformation of the heart. On the Christian view of the world, God’s grace and love find their way into our uncertain and disordered hearts. And as this happens, as we begin to walk with God, however haltingly and imperfectly, something begins to grow within us— something that Paul in Galatians beautifully describes as the “fruit of the Spirit,” which he defines as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
2023-24 School Life
There was in the 19th century a famous, or infamous, writer who blamed Christianity (and Socrates as well) for offering society an impoverished and weakened version of masculinity. This thinker longed for the recovery, as some do today, of the Achilles ethic of masculine virility—the unapologetic celebration of strong men, unafflicted men. But even this 19th-century critic of Christianity had a certain respect for Jesus and Socrates. Their lives represented a fundamental turning point in the evolution of our humanity. Achilles, for all of his strength and confidence, was not an especially deep or introspective person. As one scholar quipped, Achilles had only two modes of being: “I’m bigger and stronger than you. And come at me, bro.” Jesus and Socrates show men—and indeed all of us—the possibility that we could be more, that our humanity is not limited to the physical plane, but has spiritual and intellectual depths, if we choose to cultivate them. Jesus’ powerful insight—“The Kingdom of God is within you” —points towards the possibility that real meaning, real purpose, real strength involves not so much our brute physical strength, but an inward turn, the cultivation of an inner life, the development of a life of conscience. And his exhortation to love others as oneself pointed the way towards an understanding of masculinity that exists in service to others, rather than service to conquest and self-glorification. And towards a belief in the universal dignity of all humans as children of the same God.
And like Socrates, Jesus was willing to die for what he believed, to take upon himself all of the afflictions of the world, the suffering of the world. And through an extraordinary act of courage—but courage as love, courage as sacrifice, courage as self-emptying—he changes the world forever, inspiring a world-historical movement called Christianity that has transformed the lives of billions of people across centuries and geographies, across every barrier of race, class, and ethnicity. How can one read the Gospel narratives and not be struck by the power of this story? And the strength and courage of Jesus.
So what is the lesson of this parable of the three men, of Achilles, Socrates, and Jesus? I’d like to suggest that what St. Albans—as a boys school, a school of intellectual excellence, and an Episcopal school—is ultimately about is cultivating in our boys the best of what these three men represent. We are inheritors of the three traditions that each of them inaugurated: Achilles the archetype of the tradition that equates masculinity with competition and physical vigor; Socrates the creator of the tradition that views the cultivation of an “examined” life, an intellectual life, a life devoted to thinking and questioning, as the highest human calling; and Jesus the source of the tradition that sees the point of a man’s life as selfless love of God and love of others, and the courage to make these the heart of one’s life, even in the face of suffering and adversity. It falls to us to weave these three lives and examples together into an inspiring, integrated understanding of a boy’s life in its highest and fullest realization.
We are not the first generation to struggle with this question of how to synthesize the three tributaries flowing into our mission and identity.
2023-24 School Life
When I came to St. Albans in 2018, I sometimes encountered the phrase “Muscular Christianity” as a description of how St. Albans thought of itself and its culture, perhaps especially the way many alums of the school remember it. Iconic figures in the school’s history were often described by alums as embodiments of this ideal: former Headmasters Canon Lucas and Canon Martin, both Episcopal priests with imposing demeanors and towering intellects who led the school with muscular confidence; or Skip Grant, known for his deep faith, keen intellect, and his muscular, demanding approach to coaching and getting the best out of his student athletes. Muscular Christianity is what you get when you take the best of Achilles and Jesus and put them together into a synthesis, all in the setting of an academically rigorous school based on the classical liberal arts ideal embodied by the Socratic tradition.
Muscular Christianity was not just something at St. Albans, but an entire movement that began in the 19th century in British boys schools and in some precincts of the Anglican Church. The ideas spread from Britain to America in the early 20th century, with Theodore Roosevelt being arguably the greatest embodiment of the Muscular Christian ideal in the American context.
Like all complex movements, it was about many different things. But it seems to have been motivated by two primary concerns: the first was that men were leaving the Anglican church in the 19th century, as the church’s message was failing to resonate with them; the second was a concern that the image of masculinity in that era—the Victorian man of refinement and restraint (think of Prufrock in T.S. Eliot’s poem)—had lost touch with the traditional masculine virtues of physical strength and virility that were cultivated in agrarian life before mass urbanization and the Industrial Revolution. Muscular Christianity was a way to get men back into the fold of the church and to restore what many perceived as an older and more vigorous masculinity.
It turns out that athletics, both in Christian schools and in churches, was one of the key vectors and contributions of the Muscular Christianity movement. Churches, in an effort to draw men back into a life of faith, converted property around their churches into athletic fields; and soon churches were running soccer and rugby leagues, even boxing tournaments. Eric Liddell’s character in the film Chariots of Fire, a competitive Olympic runner and also a devout Christian missionary from Scotland, is a good example of the Muscular Christian ethic. The movement’s message to men was: “If you’ve come to believe that Christianity is only about meekness and asceticism, there is more here than you may realize. There is something here for you. Come back to the church to be with other men in physical competition, exercise, bonding, and brotherhood. God wants men to build their bodies, to compete, to display strength. Because this strength is needed to serve, to help others who are not strong, to carry God’s message and God’s will into the world.”
Institutions like the YMCA (the Young Men’s Christian Association) and the Boy Scouts grew out of the Muscular Christianity movement.
As did the practice of Christian schools, like St. Albans and its British counterparts, emphasizing athletics as a foundational part of their curriculum. Instill in young men a love of competition, a commitment to cultivating their physical strength, and they go will go forth into the world strong, courageous, confident, muscular—equipped to do God’s will. As we still sing in our school hymn, which bears the influence of the Muscular Christian ideal: “Men of the future stand ... to make your life what God has planned, to spread abroad his power.” The key work being done here is the fusion of the Achilles ideal of physical strength with the spiritual ethic of Jesus.
The movement reached its pinnacle in the late 19th and early 20th century; but as the world contended with the aftermath of World War I and World War II—with the mass casualties and devastation—the argument that the world needed more muscularity and physicality lost some of its resonance. And this tracks with a pattern we see historically, up to this very day: As worries about the excesses of masculine vigor are top of mind for society (after major destructive wars, for example), Muscular Christianity and similar movements seeking to reinvigorate a robust masculinity go into retreat. But then versions of it will resurface during times when society worries about “what is happening to men and boys” as larger cultural forces seem to be conspiring against men—or marginalizing certain notions of maleness.
And clearly within Episcopal churches and schools, where the idea of Muscular Christianity emerged, the ethic continues to play a role in shaping the way we think about our history and our mission.
Like all movements created by fallible humans, there were positive things about this tradition and limitations. So I’m not suggesting that transplanting something from the 19th century to our 21st-century world, in its original incarnation, represents a panacea for all our current questions and challenges.
But what the Muscular Christian movement gets right, in my view, is the idea that we are—given the nature of our mission at St. Albans—always engaged in a complex project of integrating the different traditions and influences at the heart of our mission: boys school, school of intellectual excellence, Episcopal school. At our best, we have been deeply committed to the idea that a boy can—and should—be many things: a scholar, an athlete, an artist, a chorister, an acolyte. And we have rejected the idea that a boy—or the school—has to be about one particular thing.
I recall my first year a member of the senior class who was arguably the most accomplished athlete in the school that year. But he went to great lengths not to be defined solely by his athleticism. When he was at my lunch table, he wanted to talk about his love of poetry and the poetry competitions he had entered. And about how much being an acolyte at the Cathedral meant to him. He’s now completing Officer Training as a Marine. As a new Headmaster, this made a profound impression on me. This was a school that had figured out how to embrace all of its mission, all of the ways a boy can become a man, to hold all the possibilities of our mission together in a unified way.
I know that this is still who we are. But for complicated reasons, it has seemed more of a struggle this year. Rather than a strong “integration” of the pillars of our mission, we’ve struggled with “fragmentation”—with uncertainty about what the mission ultimately is and how it all fits together into a coherent whole. In the absence of a stable synthesis of “boys school, school of intellectual excellence, and Episcopal school” that resonates with our boys and families, the risk is that we fall into confusion and division.
  • We get different inflections or combinations of the values from year to year, and from situation to situation.
  • Or the component parts of the synthesis become detached from one another (the “muscular” part becomes its own freestanding value, cut loose from the regulating and elevating influence of the Socratic and Christian traditions).
  • Or the pillars of our mission are seen as pitted against one another (that moral constraints emanating from our Christian commitments are somehow at war with “letting boys express the full nature”; or that being a scholar or thinker or artist—or caring about others —is somehow “unmanly”; or, running in the reverse direction, that being a person of faith or a person who loves learning means one has to forfeit one’s love of competition and physicality).
  • Or the risk that one part of the partnership becomes too dominant—that Achilles is in the driver’s seat and Christianity endures but only in a compromised or attenuated way.
I have become more and more convinced as I have lived through the complexities of this year—and indeed my entire six years at the school—that St. Albans needs to develop and articulate for our families and boys today a coherent and compelling understanding of how the three pillars of our mission fit together: boys school, school of intellectual excellence, and Episcopal school. How, in other words, in the world of today, do we take the best of Achilles, Socrates, and Jesus and create a stable, enduring synthesis to hold before our boys and our families?
I began thinking about this even before some of the challenges of this school year. Last spring, a man who had a profound influence on my life passed away. I shared some thoughts with the faculty at our opening meetings in August about what his life and example meant to me. And I would like to share some of this with you as families this evening, in the spirit of showing through this story an example of a more contemporary figure who wrestled with similar questions and attempted to forge a life that could be a model to us in our complicated time.
The man’s name is Tim Keller.
He began his life as the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation in a small Virginia town not unlike the one I grew up in. Tim is best known, however, for leaving this small provincial town in Virginia in 1989 to begin a traditional Presbyterian church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the heart of the modern cosmopolitan and secularizing world, where faith and traditional institutions were viewed with increasing skepticism.
It seemed, at the time, like an idea that had little chance of succeeding. But Tim’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian, near West 83rd and Amsterdam, had by 2007 become one of the most influential churches in New York, with over more than 5,000 attendees—mostly highly educated urban professionals from secular backgrounds who did not think of themselves as the churchgoing type.
Tim was also a gifted writer, and as he built his ministry, he became the author of dozens of books translated into more than 25 languages, including his most well-known work: The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. He was one of the most influential Christian voices of his generation.
Part of what was so interesting—and complicated—about Tim is that his ministry was not easy to fit into conventional ideological and theological compartments.
He did not think it served Christianity or the world to offer up a milquetoast version of faith, so his ministry was marked by a rigorous commitment to taking the traditional claims of Christianity seriously. He was a strong, confident man of faith.
At the same time, he was not a strident moralist or militant culture warrior. He preached with the “quiet charisma of a liberal arts college professor,” as one writer put it. Like Socrates, he saw the world in questions. And he created space for doubt and disagreement. If you go to the Redeemer Church website, there’s a prominent section entitled “Skeptics Welcome,” which acknowledges “that belief is hard and that it is worth acknowledging and wrestling with the questions, doubts, objections and skepticism around the Christian faith.”
Tim’s views on other issues followed a similar pattern that defied easy categorization.
He was criticized by liberals for being too conservative and by conservatives for being too liberal—and by others for being too moderate. A frequent criticism was that he was too “winsome,” too kind, too accommodating, too generous, an approach that some felt was outdated in a world where many argued that the church, in an age of increasing secularism, needed a more combative, pugilistic form of engagement.
But Tim never wavered in his belief, as he wrote in the New York Times, that “the historical Christian positions on social issues simply do not fit into contemporary political alignments.”
And pressing Christianity into the service of the culture wars missed the most important point.
“The real culture war,” he often said, is not out in the world but “is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.”
This was the focus of his ministry—the belief that faith involves an inward turn, the re-ordering of our hearts and our loves, rather than the public enactment of our grievances.
Tim had a wonderful lecture series called “Questioning Christianity.” And it revealed so much about who he was and why people responded so powerfully to his ministry. His life had been transformed by the grace of God, and he preached the Gospel with a courageous and confident commitment to its message, never shying away from the parts of Christianity that make difficult claims upon us. But his views, while deeply held, never calcified into a rigid set of dogmas or a brittle insistence that everyone think just like he did. He engaged with others, as one writer put it, “in the tone of a humble conversation partner rather than a browbeating crusader.” The deepest questions of life, he would always say, are profoundly complex. And thoughtful people struggle with these questions in different ways. That struggle—with its doubts and uncertainties—is not something to fear but is an essential part of our humanness.
His sermons were more in the style of a teacher than a proselytizer, filled with references to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, Darwin and Freud, orthodox believers to postmodern skeptics, the greatest minds on all sides of the greatest question about where we find ultimate meaning in life. He was deeply engaged with viewpoints different from his own, not in a soft-headed relativist kind of way, but in a serious humanistic way that endeavored to put faith in conversation with secularism, with doubt, with modernity. He had strong beliefs—moral absolutes core to his life—and he embraced the counter-cultural role of the Church in an age of skepticism. But his ministry was defined by grace, not grievance, an approach that always made others feel valued and invited into conversation.
There’s a wonderful story about Tim when he was in a debate with a secular thinker who disagreed with just about everything Tim believed. The person found himself struggling to find the right word or phrase at one point in the debate. And rather than seize upon this as an opportunity to embarrass the man or score a debating point, Tim paused and politely asked, “Is this what you mean?”
Tim then thoughtfully restated the secular argument of his debate opponent in a clear, honest, and generous way—in effect arguing against Tim’s own point of view. The other speaker agreed that was what he had meant, and Keller then continued, respectfully countering not a straw man version of his opponent’s argument, but the best version of the opposing view, one that Tim had taken the time to truly enter into conversation with before seeking to argue against.
In a tribute to Tim’s life written this past summer, the Anglican priest and writer, Tish Harrison Warren, reflected on that moment in the debate.
“[Tim’s] generosity and understanding toward those with whom we disagree helped shape the way I now see the world. It had more of an impact on me, as a Christian, than any argument could ... He was in pursuit of truth and kindness, not point scoring. That night I saw what Christian leaders should be like.”
At a time when there is considerable fear and anxiety among people of faith and among those who live and work in traditional institutions, Tim never seemed afraid or embattled or embittered. He was “at ease with difference and disagreement.” He was “courageous but profoundly humble.” And his reasons for being this way were not about making a statement. “Tim wasn’t kind, gentle and loving to others as some sort of strategy to win the culture wars or to achieve a particular result. Tim loved his neighbors, even across deep differences, as a response to his relationship with God, because he was a man who had been transformed by the grace of Jesus” (Warren).
That got me thinking about what all of this might mean here at St. Albans as we navigate an ever more complicated world—what it looks like for us, as parents and educators within an Episcopal school, to be moral and spiritual leaders, to teach our boys how to live our mission in ways that reflect the best of ourselves and our school’s spiritual ideals. Tim Keller, for me, is an example of how the three pillars of our mission can flow together into a life worthy of our honor and admiration: how a man can live with strength and courage, with deep intellectual integrity, and with the deepest truths of Christianity at the heart of his being.
And this brings me to the end of my story. I said at the beginning that this talk was a “Tale of Three Men, a Tale of Two Cities.” We’ve talked about the Three Men (Achilles, Socrates, and Jesus), the three traditions they represent, and what they can teach us about the three pillars of our mission.

What of the Two Cities?
One of the many things I learned from Tim Keller—and that has been much on my mind this year—is that every city is two cities. Every human community is two communities. Every school is two schools.
The first city is what the theologian St. Augustine calls “the city of Man”—the one ruled by our confusion and disordered hearts, where the part of our self that shows up in our life and our relationships is the part of us that is still a “work in progress,” the part of our hearts still ruled by fear, grievance, exclusion, and false idols.
But then there is the “city of God”—the part of our communities, our school, and ourselves that has begun to be transformed by the grace of God, where we live and act from the best parts of ourselves, from the “fruit of the Spirit” that has begun to grow within us.
Every person, every school, every community exists in the liminal space—the choice—between the two cities.
When we at St. Albans have been at our best, when we have deservedly earned the love and loyalty of generations of alumni, boys, and families, it is when we have felt the call of the higher city. This doesn’t mean we are perfect or can’t have a difficult day or even a difficult year. The other city, the one that pulls us back downwards, remains an enduring feature of our all-too-human condition. Every city is two cities. Every school is two schools.
But we are blessed here at St. Albans, and in our broader Cathedral community, to be surrounded by symbols and reminders of who we can be when touched by the better angels of nature. This is our gift and our responsibility as we work to sustain a community worthy of our highest ideals, a place of light and hope in a broken world, a world we steadfastly insist, even in our hardest moments, remains filled with God’s promises and the redemptive possibilities of our faith.
You’ve been a wonderfully attentive audience. I thank you for your thoughtfulness and most of all for the gift of working with your sons.  
2023-24 School Life
Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.