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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

Joy McGrath ’92
  • Head of School's Blog
Joy McGrath ’92

“Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books...”

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Dear Families,

This week, we reconstituted a St. Andrew’s tradition that goes back a little way, a full school trip to Washington, D.C. I am thankful we can take this trip now, at the start of a presidential election year in the United States. As global citizens, we have a duty to be informed, to listen carefully (especially to those with whom we disagree), to debate and discuss ideas, and to vote. This trip offers opportunities for students to inform and inspire themselves, gather new perspectives and points of view, and prepare themselves for full participation in democracy.
 
In addition to having the run of the National Mall, our alumni offered students 13 different meetings and tours with alumni in their places of work—from the offices of U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) to the executive offices of Deloitte to the State Department to National Geographic. The IV Form went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and 100 students had the opportunity to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Mall itself afforded students endless opportunities for awe and discovery in the realms of art, architecture, engineering, culture, literature, and science, to name a few.
 
Why should an entire school go to Washington? We started the calendar year gathering after the winter break in Engelhard, where I reminded the students that St. Andrew’s is a nonpartisan school by its constitution—like any nonprofit in the U.S. we do not participate in partisan politics or campaigning. However, as a school we certainly have an obligation to prepare our students for citizenship in a democracy. Here, our students develop their own voices, their own principles, their own ways of expressing themselves. And their expressive freedom is fundamental to their education.
 
At all times I hope we are engaging in the debates and issues of the day, that we are seeking out news from reputable sources, that we are testing our ideas against each other. We recently brought back print copies of major U.S. newspapers to the dining hall each morning. And, a group of students and faculty have volunteered to organize programming for the election year, to help us understand multiple sides of critical issues as well as the unfolding of the electoral process itself. If you have any suggestions about topics or speakers, I would welcome them!
 
We are a pluralistic community by design: we are not monolithic, and we all bring our own experiences, opinions, and values to any question. As I shared with our students, I do not expect that we agree on crucial issues. In fact, as a school as diverse as we are, I would be disappointed if we did. Political conformity and ideological orthodoxy are counterproductive in a school. We could not learn much without debate, without sharpening and improving our ideas against other ideas, and sometimes even persuading others or changing our own minds. And we are here to learn.
 
I do expect, however, that when we disagree that we see the humanity in each other. In my experience, people often want the same things. But we may want the same things and see different ways to get from here to there. That is to be expected and encouraged, and that is why debate and dialogue are necessary in a democracy. We aim to model and practice that at St. Andrew’s. And when we fall short or hurt each other, I hope we learn from that, we apologize, we give each other grace, and we assume good intent. But we must also be courageous in continuing the conversation.
 
When I was growing up, I had a VHS tape recording of a televised broadcast of Frank Capra’s 1939 film, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” I watched it so many times that it finally wore out.1 As our school traveled to Washington this week, I recalled Jefferson Smith’s timeless reflection on the importance of children learning to prize and defend their freedom. He said, “Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books... [People] should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. [Children] ought to grow up remembering that.”
 
I hope our trip this week was fun and joyful for the students, but I also hope it brought to life the special responsibility we have as citizens to think for—and express—ourselves, and how closely that is tied to our education.


1 As I type this, I realize this is material I can only use in a parent email—examples involving VHS tapes and broadcast TV would draw only blank stares from our students!

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