I hope everyone had a good break – we have so much to be thankful for.
The coming three weeks are some of my favorites here at St. Andrew’s. It’s a crazy toboggan run to our departure and we have a lot to do between now and then—starting winter sports, attacking a short leg in the academic schedule, preparation for holiday artistic performances. It’s all about the joy. Let’s have fun with it!
I know Mr. Rehrig spoke to you at the last school meeting about our decision no longer to use Grammarly because the software is predatory and counterproductive. The built-in grammar and spell checks in your word processing software are more than adequate to the task. We also do not think the software serves our educational objectives at the school. Over the break, I was thinking about the best way to capture what those objectives are so I can explain to you the “why” behind this decision and, most likely, future decisions about generative AI.
As adolescents, your brains are developing and solidifying. You are learning habits of mind, developing neural pathways, at the one time in your life when these pathways will take root and grow. Later in life, down the road, these pathways are formed. No longer plastic, they will not change easily.
The purpose of a St. Andrew’s education is, during these literally brain-forming years, to prepare you for a life of meaning and purpose, one in which you are able to solve problems—big, seemingly impossible ones—communicate clearly, work in teams, work independently. To do this you will have to be incredibly gritty and resilient, curious, brave, humble, relentless, and moral. Your education here—in the arts, sports, classrooms—is designed literally to open your minds and develop these tendencies. As your teachers, we believe in the power of ideas. Specifically, your ideas. The world needs you to think big and dream big, and to be prepared to fail, possibly many times.
Looking around, it seems to me, the world needs you to be heroes.
Speaking of heroes, I was at a conference right before the break and saw this video I am going to show you. One of the people on the NASA Psyche Mission team, Dr. David Oh, went to boarding school. And he explained to us how his boarding school experience led to his role on the Psyche Mission team, building independence, curiosity, and teamwork. Let me show you:
This video spoke to me as we were making this decision, because I am certain AI has been deployed for many if not most aspects of this project. For sure, AI will be used to analyze the loads of data the craft collects if and when it reaches Psyche. But is that what has made this project, which is one of the most ambitious scientific endeavors of this generation?
Here is what struck me: It’s a group of people, teammates, who have done something previously thought to be impossible. And crucially it might yet be impossible. The mission could fail, much could go wrong. Yet, it is daring, heroic. These people had multiple, connected, enormous dreams and the creativity and curiosity and work ethic to make them real—to ask the right questions, to search out answers through experimentation, debate, modeling, testing. They have a certain restlessness and drive, but we also know they have consistency, courage, discipline, and patience. Only human intelligence can do all this, something completely new and original and breathtakingly bold and potentially devastating and disappointing. No matter what, at the end of this mission, I can promise the main discovery will be that there is more to learn. This attempt is wildly ambitious and yet it is still just practice.
The world needs you also to think big and dream big. That means everything won’t come out exactly right as you practice and work your way through problems. Nothing worthwhile ever goes smoothly, but you always learn. As I’ve said to you before, if you are not practicing, which oftentimes means struggling, then you are not getting an education. You have to work through draft after draft, attack problems from one angle to another, share your results, learn to make progress both individually and how to ask for help and work in teams.
Artificial intelligence can stand in the way of all this at this time in your education. I understand the power of AI. You will use it in life, and it will help you accomplish great things. But these four years of high school are a precious time in the development of your brains, and I would not be doing my job if we were permitting tools to blunt your words with the ordinariness of the hive mind.
I have to write a lot for my job, and there are many moments when I am staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page in Word. I’ve been there! Look for inspiration or take a deep breath. In these moments, I always turn on Yo-Yo Ma’s recordings of Bach’s cello concertos. Know it will not be perfect. Like, for example, this speech. I’ll do better next time.
But when Grammarly says chirpily, “make your paper better!” It is not making your paper perfect, or usually even better! I installed it last year for a while, to see what exactly the program does, and its suggestions were uniformly awful. What I am saying is the point of your education is to learn to generate your own ideas, test them, and learn how to express them clearly and in your own voice. You must learn to do this—really learn it, not have it done for you—because your ideas and your voice are so important. And it’s necessary to learn to do this so that people take you seriously! And this is the time in your life when you can and will find your own special, distinct, beautiful voice.
It will not happen right away. Like the Psyche mission—think about working for years, putting this thing into space, and waiting six more years to get to the destination—like the Psyche mission, your education has a long horizon. Heroes do things today and tomorrow, that won’t land for 10 years, or maybe even longer. I actually say this each year to our new faculty—as the adults working with you, we are not on a day-to-day or week-to-week, or even year-to-year time scale. Your minds and your potential are worth so much more than that. Maybe this is what the faith means in “faith and learning.” The rewards of our work now will be reaped in the distant future. And if we’re lucky we’ll hear all about it at your 25th reunion.
While I was writing these notes, I thought of the poem Ithaka, by Cavafy. Referencing the heroic Odysseus’ journey home, the poem is a metaphor for our lives and for our educations, and it reflects the principles we have for your education. Let me read it:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
So as the poem says, “hope your road is a long one.” Be patient, be brave, enjoy yourselves, do not hold yourself to an impossible standard. Remember our heroes of the Psyche Mission or Odysseus himself: the journey here is not about an outcome or a quick answer. It is a journey for your lifetime, not for an assignment, or a term, or a year. And enjoy that journey, enjoy your own accomplishments and your own breakthroughs. The riches are not at the end of the journey—the wealth is found in wisdom and experience along the way. For me, it’s why I love being here with you—it is such a joy to witness your work and ideas, curiosity and teamwork, independence and courage, all come to life each day. To watch you becoming heroes, just like Odysseus, like the Psyche Mission team, like yourselves.
We only have three weeks here, Saints. Let’s make them good ones! I know you will.
Thank you, good night, godspeed.