It is always an honor to speak on this occasion, six weeks into a promising and important new year, on a morning already so full of exciting and inspiring conversations among parents, guardians, and teachers. We are complete as a community when you are all here, for quite clearly you articulated and modeled the values we cherish as a school from the times your sons and daughters were very little. In return for your excellence in the art of parenting and in appreciation for your faith in us, the faculty, staff, and student body create this weekend as one to thank you for your belief in your children and love of this school. We want to give you a gift of renewal, optimism, and hope as you return to your work across the United States and the world next week.
For those of us fortunate enough to live and work here, we experience this process of renewal and inspiration every day as we create and strengthen a high school dedicated to the liberal arts and the cultivation of goodness in our society. What we are seeking to cultivate here is the radical notion that a school can seek and embody academic excellence and community excellence; or perhaps more accurately the school seeks a powerful synthesis between reason, empathy, creativity, and service. We are interested in creating a school culture and spirit that lifts the heart and souls of all who live and work here. We are committed to graduating young men and women who will lead and serve with generosity and integrity throughout their lives.
We view this blend of liberal arts learning and character and leadership development as the most responsible and ethical way of approaching 21st century education. The kind of schools we create, the kind of young people we parent and inspire will ultimately influence the tone, spirit, citizenship, leadership, and health of our nation and world. Our high school and college graduates will do more than work and vote; they will have to become the adults in the room as we confront the intractable issues facing humanity. The stakes are really that high.
It has always been an honor to be part of an educational community, but I have to say that this particular time for me, this era for St. Andrew's, this moment for America and the world is particularly stimulating and important.
We are facing a particular moment in time when education is our best hope for national and global renewal, for a clarification and commitment to truth, for a unification of a diverse nation and world, for a pursuit of moderation and compromise that honors human rights, equality, and responsibility, for a rescue of the earth. We have the ultimate choice between the prospect of goodness and reason prevailing or the triumph of lies, ideologies of hatred, and chaos.
Former President George W. Bush described the national moment this way in remarks made this past week:
"Bigotry seems emboldened. Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication--we have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it seems the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the voices binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions--forgetting the image of God we should see in each other."
It should not surprise us that in the midst of crises in institutions around the globe, in the midst of a crumbling of values and the common good, we now see a corresponding problem in secondary education, especially in the private sector. If the temptation in the larger culture is to divide, demonize, and polarize, in the private school the temptation is to surrender the school and its mission to a transaction, to define education not as an art or a sacred opportunity, but rather a commodity, an insistence on individual advancement at any cost. This obsession with the self, with private advancement, with success by any means necessary, with a radical narrowing of the very spirit of learning, with an anxious and privileged definition of success leads first to private school students who are alienated, empty, and numb and later to adults who do not know how to collaborate, communicate, be respectful, cultivate kindness, empathy and concern, and sacrifice for the common good.
The alarm call for this degree of educational distortion has been building for some time and emerged again recently from a New York Times article about an exclusive private school in the City that had reached a crisis of privilege and elitism and caused the Head of School to wonder how a school could teach students to care for "collective as well as individual well being" or develop "not only a commitment to advance their educational interests but to serve the common good and give generously for the rest of their lives."
Of course the problem emerges from the very form of the Head of School's question. There really is not a divide between the process of learning, growing, and maturing and the cultivation of an awareness and commitment to others. There are not two divisions in a school—one for the Darwinian pursuit of the individualistic prize, one for the less sensational and attractive and relevant pursuit of character and leadership. They are joined, connected, ever developing and emerging. If learning, ethics, character, and leadership are disjointed, separated, the results for a school and ultimately our national culture are disastrous. That is precisely why colleges and universities joined two years ago in a remarkable, though quickly forgotten document: Making Caring Common. Here is the executive summary:
"Too often, today's culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good. And too often—the college admissions process contributes to this problem."
This report makes the case that college admissions can send compelling messages that ethical engagement—especially concern for others and the common good—and intellectual engagement are highly important.
The report announces that our national culture has drifted towards honoring personal ambition and accomplishment at the cost of a commitment to the common good. The summary observes that college admissions practices have contributed to this problem.
But even as Making Caring Common announced a return to an emphasis on character and service, the authors fail to recognize that the very purpose of undergraduate education, expressed in mission statement after mission statement, connects the life of the mind to the cultivation of a civic community that is just, equitable, and generous. The colleges themselves fell in love with their own exclusivity, their own data, their own rankings, their own prestige and in so doing have indeed deepened the crisis of generosity and empathy we now experience. And a word on the title of the report: Caring is not common, even if it somehow becomes a human norm; rather, it is the expression of grace, love, empathy, and what Marilynne Robinson defines as "human grandeur." It is not for colleges to decide generosity is appropriate again. It is an enduring truth—not a fad to be gamed and undermined.
The question is whether the university, college and private school tradition in America is interested in contributing to and intensifying the problems we face or instead seeks to be part of the human movement towards reconciliation, rescue, goodness, and peace. Our own secondary school histories quite frankly are mixed on this question, for far too long the American prep school tradition has celebrated hierarchy, privilege, status, and complacency and underinvested in financial aid, student diversity and a connection to the work of our democracy. The private school in my view has to be part of the national movement and insistence on a celebration of the promise and values of enlightened citizens everywhere. If we retreat from our roles in civic society, if we become little, puny, entitlement zones, we contribute to the destruction of our democracy.
We embrace the pursuit of wisdom, the articulation of a public good, the pursuit of a better, more just and equitable world as the essence of the curriculum and residential school, and as
Marilynne Robinson writes in a current essay in the New York Review of Books, "the pursuit of knowledge in the liberal arts has led to decade after decade of progress, enlightenment, and hope in the world."
As an Episcopal school, we quite intentionally look with skepticism on the ways of the world: the way adolescence is fractured by social media; the way technology privileges superficial conversation, distraction, and narcissism; the way the hookup culture devalues and debases human respect, communication, dignity, and love; the way alcohol and drugs hinder brain development, maturation, and trust among students and parents, the way issues of hatred, intolerance, and cruelty seep back into our national conversation, the way some schools and students use service, exploit others in the name of service as a box to check on a college application, the way schools label students successful based on the name of the university they are accepted to attend.
We look instead for commitments, accomplishments, moments that are real, not contrived: moments when screens are down, cameras off, and students live for, sacrifice for, and commit to causes far beyond themselves and support, honor, recognize, affirm, and inspire one another; moments when students display courage and grace in the face of adversity and tragedy; moments when, in the words of faculty member Devin Duprey, "students care: live, sacrifice, serve, and honor others; moments when students stand up for kindness, integrity, and the feelings of those on the margins; moments when faculty mentors bring out the very best in their students' approach to life; moments when students commit to the process of learning, growing, maturing, especially when that voyage requires persistence, determination, and grit."
And yes, we do look at moments when the adult culture grows so disgusting, foul, disgraceful, and humiliating (think Weinstein) that they as students and scholars have to say enough.
As adults, we model an approach and commitment to civic responsibility and to the relationship between education and the common good. In gathering today and tomorrow on this campus, we collectively suggest our faith and affirmation in a new generation of leaders, preparing with great enthusiasm to succeed us and to pick up our commitment, our spirit, our energy, our passion, our hopes and dreams and aspirations. We must all work together to affirm the journey each one of our students pursues and do all we can to model in words and actions our own restless commitment to learning, changing, developing, and committing. Yes, the news of our time can be dispiriting and disruptive; however, that narrative can and must be countered by what
Marilynne Robinson describes as human grandeur, our best selves. She makes an eloquent call here for mutual reverence and grace.
"We are, as we have always been, dangerous creatures, the enemies of our own happiness. But the only hope we have ever found for this, the only melioration is in mutual reverence. God's grace comes to us unmerited, the theologians say. But the grace we could extend to one another we consider it best to withhold in many cases, presumptively, or in the absence of what we consider true or sufficient merit (we being more particular than God) or because few gracious acts, if they really deserve the name, would stand up to cost benefit analysis. It is good old human meanness which finds its terms and pretexts in every age. The best argument against human grandeur is the meagerness of our response to it."
We at St. Andrew's strive to teach, embody, model, and enact human reverence. We think it is time for human grandeur and human grace.