The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

Raising Healthy Young Men, The Cardigan Way

At Cardigan Mountain School, we educate boys ages 11 to 16. This dynamic period in the lives of young guys is formative, when the natural terrain becomes more fertile with each passing day. Lessons learned are often hard won, achieved over time and following a fair bit of trial and error: actions, either impulsive or thoughtful, followed by consequences and leading to varying degrees of personal reflection and response. This cycle can be repeated several times and in successive fashion, often lacking any sense that traction is being attained. And then, beautifully, a switch has been flipped, and wisdom, gained through the most effective of all teachers, experience, is acquired.

For the boys in our care, the natural questioning of pretty much everything that is going inside and around them presents a world view that is as clear as mud. In fits and starts, attempts to figure out and understand how various aspects of life fit together are counter-balanced with the drive for instant gratification attained through any number of experiences, technological or otherwise. And while these boys search for answers, whether consciously or instinctually, they do so with a level of earnestness and enthusiasm that is both aluable and endearing.

“Relevant, engaging, and hands-on.” In our community, we have determined that these characteristics will provide the litmus test for program excellence, which we have placed at the center of our work together. Whether academic or residential, athletic or artistic, the age-appropriate program offerings that we develop for the boys we educate should be relevant to their lives, should engage them in a way that is authentic and genuinely sustaining, and should serve up a call to “action,” allowing these boys the natural opportunity to think, touch, feel, move, alter, shake, and otherwise activate more than just their gray matter.

The Cardigan WayAnd while the emphasis on building the right program for our boys seems obviously important, not to mention finding the right adults to implement the program, developing and nurturing the healthiest culture for our students represents the foundation upon which everything else sits. At Cardigan, the ethos of our community has evolved over 65 years. Our history is rich with folklore, legendary characters, and traditions, all of which inform who we are today. The distinctive and normative behaviors of our “Cardigan boys” are often cited by parents and guests to our school. Simple gestures such as a friendly greeting, a firm handshake, a confident smile, and respectful eye contact are part of this education and integral to our culture, yet we don't formally “teach” these behaviors; they simply exist here and have been passed along through the generations, cultivated and sustained through positive reinforcement.

At the end of the day, we are trying to raise healthy young men who have a clearer understanding of themselves as individuals. They will have experiences here that allow them to explore and develop their various passions and talents, all of which are important. But what kind of men will these boys become? How will they contribute to society and their fellow citizens of our world? Understanding the Pythagorean theorem, playing the cello, performing Shakespeare, speaking Spanish, practicing a slapshot, dissecting a frog, studying eco-systems, researching legitimate internet sites, and so forth, are all integral to a relevant education for boys, no question.

But, most important to raising capable, confident young men will be education of their souls. In our student handbook, I have written a letter to our boys, which concludes with the following quote from John Phillips, who founded Phillips Exeter Academy in 1781: “…goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.” At Cardigan, we have six core values that provide the framework for our lives together. Well known to one and all, the values of compassion, honesty, respect, integrity, scholarship, and fairness serve as the guide for “right living” in our community, reliable and time-tested markers that help define what we call The Cardigan Way.

We learn about, discuss, and live these values daily. Our Life Skills and Leadership curricula specifically address citizenship and service, our Residential Life program gives focus to these concepts as essential pieces for community living, and, in every other facet of school life, we rely on these standards as a sort of “community contract” — to the point where students are able to summon up the courage to call each other on a deviation from these touchstones.

Admittedly, I am not objective on the topic of Cardigan Mountain School. I had the good fortune of being a student here and consistently appreciate how the lessons that I learned then help inform who I am today. Our education is content-rich and delivered in a manner that appreciates the varying learning styles of those boys in our care. Still, much of our program focuses on helping our young men discern what is right and what is wrong, helping them establish the values and acquire the tools they will need for fulfilling, productive, and happy lives.

David J. McCusker, Jr. '80, Headmaster, Cardigan Mountain School
About David McCusker