On behalf of the faculty, staff, Class of 2020, and students of St. Andrew’s, I welcome you to the 2019-2020 year at St. Andrew’s. We are particularly excited to welcome our new parents, grandparents, and relatives to the extended St. Andrew’s community. Together with our returning parents, you collectively form a crucial foundation for the values, spirit, and aspiration of this School. You will find that over the next few years you will inspire and support so many of your child’s classmates and parents. We hope you feel the hospitality, generosity, and love of our senior class today, their way of committing themselves to the care and support of each new member of the community, their way of asserting that the role of a senior here is not about power, privilege , or hierarchy but rather an expression and cultivation of the School’s highest values and aspirations.
St. Andrew’s has participated actively and energetically in 20th and 21st century conversations about and explorations of the art of education, and with every passing year we regenerate, renew, and sharpen our mission and aspirations to fit the growing needs of our students, the nation, and world.
We have been working very hard on all aspects of the broad educational program in the School and believe that we have a spirit, an intention, a momentum that is unique within the universe of American secondary education. This approach to education emerged through the challenge and opportunity our mission provides; through a careful study of best practices at the college, university, and public and private secondary levels’, and through a careful re-definition of the remarkable grace and potential of young people, so eager to be part of an educational movement that is meaningful, engaged, thoughtful, inclusive, and connected to the work of our democracy and the world.
We decided to re-invent the notion of the American private school, first in 1929 declaring that our School was designed for students from all socio-economic groups and now in the 21st century proposing both to create a community of diversity in all its exciting and emerging forms and to create an academy of learning that blends human and intellectual excellence in pursuit of a public good.
This is a countercultural movement, firmly opposing all the forces in American education that have diminished the responsibility and potential of our students and schools. To counter rote learning and the passive, compliant, and strategic collection of credits and credentials, St. Andrew’s has celebrated the power of academic passion, discovery, and exploration. To relieve the anxiety, panic, emptiness, and pressure of the 21st century private school tradition, St. Andrew’s has changed the narrative, inviting students to create a personal and collaborative approach to rescuing and restoring human dignity and contributing to causes larger than themselves. To reject private and boarding school elitism, arrogance, and privilege, St. Andrew’s has responded to Bryan Stevenson’s call for proximity, radical listening, and humility—all habits of mind and heart that teach us about the miracle of life and our common humanity.
The best creators and articulate interpreters of this St. Andrew’s culture surround you in this room today: our faculty have the generosity, commitment, and energy to turn a school into a community, a classroom into a place of epiphany, a dorm into a family, a boarding school into a second home. As teachers, they have so much energy, passion, and expertise to share, and they are ready to inspire your children in the coming months.
Danny Lee ’19 spoke in Chapel last year, four days before his graduation and told our students that he was spending his last days on campus having coffee and conversation with as many St. Andrew’s teachers as he could. On graduation day itself, School Co-President Noor El-Baradie ’19 urged younger students to learn from the humanity, intelligence, and experience of every member of the faculty. Their voices remind us today that the transition and success of our new students always rely on their connection with as many adults as possible within this community.
For us here at St. Andrew’s, part of our planning for the new school year always involves a study of and conversation with our national and international culture. St. Andrew’s has always been a place for a thoughtful and articulate approach to the challenges that confront our country.
We might think, after the summer we just witnessed in America, of the words of Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, who in 1958 responded to lynchings, cross burnings, bombings, and violence in his temple and in America with these defiant and inspiring words:
“Never did a brand of violent men so misjudge the temper of the objects of their intimidation… Out of the twisted hearts of bestial men has come a new campaign and a new hope.”
We might consider the response of Douglas Pavlicek, a character in Richard Powers' great novel The Overstory, when he discovers on a road trip west that what appears to be a tree line and forest adjoining the highway actually masks the full-scale destruction of every single tree beyond the superficial boundary. Powers writes:
“He spends his days traversing the silent slop filled, sloping dead zones. He drags himself on all fours, losing his footing in the impenetrable slash, hauling himself forward by his claws over the chaos of roots, sticks, branches, limbs, stumps, and trunks, fibrous and shredded, left to rot in a tangled graveyard. He masters the art of a hundred different ways to topple. He stoops, makes a little wedge in the ground, stuffs in a seedling, and closes the hole with a loving nuzzle from his boot tip. Then he does that again. And again. In starbursts and scattered nets. Up hillsides and down denuded gullies. Dozens of times an hour. Hundreds of times a day. Thousands by thousands every week until his whole throbbing 34 year old body puffs out like it’s filled with viper venom… A saying comes to him as he lies down at night, stiffened with pain, words he once read to his charges in his prior life as a ranch hand. ‘If you’re holding a sapling when the Messiah arrives, first plant the sapling and then go out and meet the Messiah.’”
Or we might mourn and honor the great American novelist Toni Morrison who argued that the sole purpose of education has to be the cultivation of humane people, people capable, she suggested, of understanding and dreaming alive a world of grace and peace. She writes:
“If education requires tuition and no meaning, if it is to be nothing other than careers, if it is to be nothing other than defending and husbanding beauty or isolating goods or making sure enrichment is just the privilege of the few, then it can be stopped in 6th grade, or the 6th century, when it had been mastered. The function of 20th century education must be to produce humane human beings.”
Or we might consider the words of Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill last week responding to a 7th grader who suggested that we should be learning how to work together in this country rather than breaking apart. Sherrill responded:
“As military veterans, we have always kept country first and never had a problem working with people across the aisle… I never went on a helicopter mission and said we are just taking Democrats or this is just a Republican mission….”
We see it now, I think. Education should help our students respond to the old ancient, destructive doctrines of hate (the great historian Jill Lepore described them as “old rubbish bags full of festering incitements, resentments, and calls for violence”)—our response should be clear, courageous voices of love, reverence for human rights, and dignity.
Schools should help students see beyond the hedge rows that hide the ravages of greed, materialism, and destruction.
Schools should teach empathy as a commitment to human values and humane habits of mind and heart.
Schools should model how intellectual conversations lead to a synthesis of new understanding, new paradigms, and innovation.
Schools suggest that the first stop before college or career is national or international service.
Ultimately, we all might study and embody these words shared by Rabbi Karyn Kedar this summer of hatred, suspicion, and violence:
“God, help us choose what kind of neighbor we want to be. Help us choose to wake up our self-centered souls and not look away from the glare of cruelty. For just who are we, God. And what have we become?”
This culture of intelligence, discernment, and courage emerges each year by the collective discipline, intention, and generosity of all of us: students, staff, faculty, and parents. Our pursuit of empathy, human dignity, and grace moves us away from self-obsessive behavior towards an ethic that is more dynamic, liberating, and transformational. This pursuit of human dignity and grace is moral; it is an authentic pursuit of what Abraham Lincoln describes as “moments when we are touched by the better angels of our nature.”
Perhaps you too have been awakened by the deterioration of civility, integrity, and humanity in our country and the world. Perhaps you are ready to plant those seeds with Douglas Pavlicek on soil literally and metaphorically exhausted and depleted. Perhaps you yearn for an education built for the spirit, soul, and heart. Perhaps you can define a vision of America and of the world that brings us all together and banishes the forces of darkness and hate. Welcome to St. Andrew’s.
- Headmaster News