Letter and Spirit

April 16, 2012

First, a link to the Yahoo news piece:

A 17-year-old varsity baseball player in suburban Cleveland is being banned from walking at his own graduation for racking up two too many unexcused absences. While those circumstances might be considered the fault of the athlete in most cases, Carrollton (Ohio) High senior Austin Fisher’s case is a rather extraordinary one: His absences were all brought on by time he spent caring for his mother, who has spent the past six years battling breast cancer.

Notice that actions have consequences.  Having been through the public school system myself, administrators are fairly good at annoying the student about every absence and also pointing out excessive absences.  At some point, I’d guess before the 12th or 13th absence, Fisher was told that 14 was the most he could have and be permitted to walk for graduation.  I am very confident that at some level he was aware that missing an X amount of days from school would have severe, negative consequences.  He made the choice instead to care for his mother.  He now lives with the consequences of his actions.  That how life works.

But there’s no reason to stop there.  Most people would agree that he made the right choice.  I certainly think so.  Even though he has no control over the fact that his mother is not married (be it some reason so frivolous as “I didn’t love him anymore” or something so serious as his father died tragically) and therefore does not have a partner for emotional, physical, and financial support, he stepped up to fulfill needed roles to the best of his ability.  I believe he made the right choice given his circumstances.  Family is more important than walking down the aisle with your graduating classmates.  While many people may say this, he actually had the courage to do this.

This brings us to the matter of the rules.  The rules state that missing more than 14 days of classes (unexcused) means a student will not walk on graduation night.  This rule seems very lenient (14 days–that’s 8% of the school year!) and is meant to keep bad, lazy students from being perceived as good, industrious students.  While this rule alone will not insure that this happens, it can at least weed out the fringes, one would hope.

But this breaks down, like many other rules which regulate intentions.  This is not some moral law or some variation of a moral law, rather, this rule is made to codify actions with intentions and penalize the presumed intentions.  However, if the intentions are different than what the actions normally would signal, the rules violate their very spirit and thus become illegitimate.  This is not to argue against rule of law, but to argue against law of rules.

Rules are made to provide a mechanism for good to occur in specific situations.  Unlike Laws (by this I mean Laws based on morality and ethics), rules are good or bad depending on the situation and the underlying morals.  While rules may function well in 99% of the situations, in the !5 of situations they do not they should be recognized for what they are: regulations which failed in guardianship of their intentions.