A Rose of Jericho: February 2017

A rose of Jericho. What an evocative name for what I thought was a beautiful flower! For many years I was obsessed with it, even if I had never actually seen one. I first read about it as a teenager in a novel where a rose of Jericho mysteriously opened up at the precise moment when its protagonist started giving birth. This ultimate association with the life cycle made me yearn to possess one. Unfortunately, however, I searched and searched for years on end to no avail. Until about two decades later, when I was browsing by chance around a medieval market close to my native city of Barcelona, and a dreamy, timeless voice whispered to me from behind an array of bewildering goods on sale: “Sir, can I offer you a rose of Jericho?”

Neither a rose nor necessarily from Jericho, this desert plant looks surprisingly and humbly like a dead mesh of weeds. No kidding. But boy oh boy, when it comes into contact with water, it takes on a lush green colour as it uncurls majestically before it disperses its seeds with the help of the wind. Yes, it resurrects so that it can perpetuate itself. And, somehow, I can assure you, if you saw one of these so-called roses in the St. Lawrence Market or the Brick Works in its dormant state, you wouldn’t give a nickel for it. How could you know that its dry exterior hides the eternal gift of life?

A similarly valuable gift, I would argue, lies behind the fundamental, yet seemingly unassuming skill of discernment. At first sight, out of our core school values as identified in our Strategic Plan, discernment is the least tantalizing of the four. Integrity has a moral weight to it that resonates with educators, and the notions of respect and engagement are also appealing to any responsible citizen. Discernment, on the other hand, is often misunderstood and can look, in comparison, like an ugly duckling, like a prickly and lifeless rose of the desert, even if, as a matter of fact, it is the cornerstone of our value system.

A word first recorded in English in 1570, discernment can be best defined as the ability to judge well. Pope Francis recently stressed its importance, given that “not everything is black over white, or white over black: the shades of grey prevail in life.” Indeed, this value is intimately related to intellectual sophistication, as we need reason and logic to be able to interpret reality in all its complexity. The richer our vocabulary is, the more nuanced our understanding of the world becomes. Populist approaches to politics or religion, on the other hand, often use jaded linguistic clichés. Reason and a certain subtlety of thought are of course also at the basis of science, mathematics and any discipline in the humanities requiring solid argumentation.

In addition to its rational base, discernment has a clear emotional, ethical and even social dimension. When teenagers decide to befriend a particular boy or girl, they are exercising this skill as they weigh up, more or less consciously, the consequences of such a choice. If a child finds a wallet in the corridors of the Junior School and takes it to reception, he or she has discerned that this is the best course of action so that it can be recovered by its rightful owner as soon as possible. Stealing from it would be wrong. To give a last example, going to the polls in theory obliges us adults to analyze different political manifestos in depth so that we can make an informed decision, one which tests our discernment as citizens since, according to Rousseau, we must privilege the general welfare of the community above our own personal interests.

Parents and teachers should constantly stress this, dare I call it, virtue. Children at La p’tite école recently attended an assembly where, through a short film and a number of paintings (including Frida Kahlo’s “The Bus”), they were introduced to the concept of discernment as the faculty to make good choices by thinking before judging, by reflecting before acting. When the Grades 6 and 7 in the West Campus watched a video on the impact of climate change in Madagascar, they were confronted with the fact that more discernment is needed at a global scale in order to preserve the planet. Likewise, a group of Junior School students in Grade 5 delivered a PowerPoint presentation in which they propounded a higher degree of solidarity and team spirit among classmates. They went as far as to suggest avoiding the usual petty winter squabbles by getting everybody to join forces and build a massive snow fort together.

The Theory of Knowledge course in Levels IV and V provides students with golden opportunities to hone their ability to develop compelling arguments. For the unit on ethics, they were divided into small groups and tasked with choosing one of three questions for debate: Should the US Electoral College have upheld the results of the 2016 presidential election, or honoured the popular vote? To what extent are drone strikes ethical at times of war? Should the TFS cafeteria only offer vegan food? Students had to research both sides of the argument pertaining to their chosen topic, regardless of their personal point of view, and they were not made aware of which side they would be defending until the date of the debate. What an effective way to help our youngsters exercise the metaphorical muscle in their soul called discernment! A muscle which is as yet undiscovered by anatomists, but which they will have to use for every single rational, emotional and ethical decision they take in life, from choosing the right university program for them to setting up their own family in time to come.

The word “discernment” is a bit of a mouthful, and it is clearly not poetic. I would even say that it kind of gets stuck in your throat. But, without it, moral integrity seems orphaned, and neither respect for others nor engagement in society is actually credible or even valuable. Think of it as that unattractive, yet impressive rose of Jericho I first saw in a medieval market.

Can I suggest that you offer one of these roses to your children? They are indeed actors on the world stage who need your support, your cheering and your flowers so that they can take on the challenges facing humanity. Here is a deal: you present them with a rose of Jericho and we provide the water. The gift of life.

Gardening is no exercise in futility, I can assure you. Neither is education.

Dr. Josep L. González
Head of School