An English jurist named John Fletcher Moulton wrote an article early in the 20th century in which he talked about something called “obedience to the unenforceable.” He identifies three domains: There are the things we can insist upon by law on the one hand and the matters in which we claim and enjoy complete freedom on the other. In the middle, he says, is the region where law does not bind our actions, but at the same time we feel that we are not free to choose as we would. This is the land of ought to… the territory that deals with our behavior in communion with others.
If we choose to do the things we deem as right, even when we cannot be forced to do so, Moulton says we are being “obedient to the unenforceable.” In true communion we choose this way more often than not. Not for ourselves alone. We sacrifice time, effort, money, simply because it seems good and right to do so for the sake of others in the community. The stronger the community, the greater is the span of this middle territory where we do as ought. We treat one another as kin. Here, all the things that cannot be legislated are found in abundance. Generosity, sacrifice, protection of the weak, forgiveness, reconciliation, expressions of gratitude, celebrations of another’s achievement, sharing of resources, inclusion… all these noble aspects of human behavior are found in this middle ground where we do what are not expected and cannot be forced to do.
How do we, in a school community, cultivate this territory of “obedience to the unenforceable,” in which the richest possible experiences will nourish and support the development of our children? I think the answer is quite simple to state, and very, very arduous to create. We tuck it into the stuff of daily life. We commit together as a staff to build community through our ways of relating to one another and to serving children. We agree that we are all here for the shared purpose of enhancing the life and learning of everyone in the school community… not just the children, because as we enhance the life and learning of one another, we create a richer resource for our children. As we enhance the lives and learning of parents, we build a trust and make a peace with them that will allow us to be real partners in their child’s development. We come to school to see, as much as we can discern, the work that needs doing, and to take on collectively as much of it as we can one day at a time.
Every act of obedience to the unenforceable, every smile, every greeting. Every exercise of patience, every attempt to understand, to give credit, reserve judgment, and forgive others. Every sincere apology, admission that we don’t know, confession that we are afraid. Every note of thanks, every phone call to praise. Every refusal to disregard an insult or an injury… If, in the myriad, tiny interactions in a single day we are obedient to the unenforceable, our community will flourish.