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

Faith in Our Potential
Ben Polak

These remarks were given by Benjamin Polak, William C. Brainard Professor of Economics at Yale University, at the installation of St. Andrew's fifth Head of School Joy McGrath

I am going to talk about three things: faith and learning, and Joy McGrath. These things are related.

To prepare for today, I read Joy’s remarks in her introduction to the school last April. The remarks are amazing. If you have not read them, I strongly recommend doing so. In those remarks last April, Joy said that: “truth emerges from the combination of faith and learning."   

Truth emerges from the combination of faith and learning.

Like Joy, I have spent most of my life in the calling that is learning, so I think I get the learning thing.  But I admit to being less familiar with faith.  Joy’s remarks have forced me to try harder to get the faith thing.   

Why is this harder?  Well, to be honest, I have not quite grown out of my adolescent self-image as a “champion of doubt." After all, sometimes you learn the truth by exploring the possibility that the obvious is false. I have tended to think of faith as more of an output than an input. That is, for me, faith has tended to come from learning, from observation, from evidence. This is perhaps a failing on my part, but it does allow me to say this. At Yale, I got to observe Joy McGrath and I learned what is evident. And as a result, I have complete faith—not even the shadow of a doubt—that Joy McGrath is going to be a wonderful Head of this School. 

Joy McGrath is completely committed to education, to learning, to light and truth. She is a leading example of what this great school can inspire its students to achieve. And she will be a leading example of how to lead by example. She holds herself to impossibly high standards.  She holds the rest of us to appropriately calibrated high standards that are achievable, if not always comfortable to achieve. That is, she sternly and firmly, but kindly jolts us from our comfort zones, and gets us to do better, to give more to others, to achieve more.   

At Yale, I saw that Joy speaks “truth to power”, and (believe me) she does not mince her words. But I also saw that, even more importantly, Joy speaks the same truth to the powerless.  And often that truth is that we are not powerless. She expects and believes more of us than we sometimes expect and believe in ourselves, and then she guides us to get there. She inspires faith in our potential.   

“Faith in our potential”

Let’s run with that idea for a bit.

In her introduction to the school community last April, Joy said that: “the journey toward truth requires us to learn: that is, to reason, to listen, to solve, to read, to understand, to create, to debate.” If she will permit me, I want to add: “to imagine."   

A week ago, I had occasion to visit the Church of St Mary’s in the village of Burwell, just northeast of Cambridge, in England. (I say “I had occasion” but to be honest, I had been wanting to go there for a while, and the approach of this occasion gave me an excuse to go.)    The church is magnificent, late gothic, and enormous.  It could probably hold the entire population of its village three times over. Some of it is Norman, but the main parts date from the 15th century; built roughly a century after the Black Death ravaged Europe, and about half a century before Columbus “rediscovered” the “New World”. The world into which the church was built was—like ours—in transition; in their case, no longer truly feudal, yet not yet truly modern. 

Far above the vast nave, the roof of St Mary’s is built of great wooden beams, into which are carved figures of what are supposed to be elephants and tigers, and camels and eagles, and other creatures referenced in religious texts of the time. But the wood carpenters of this small, English village in the 1400s had never seen even a picture of a tiger or an elephant or a camel, so they imagined them, and then carved what they saw in their imagination.  So how did they imagine these exotic animals to look? The tigers and elephants and camels they imagined, turn out to look remarkably like cows and pigs and horses, the domestic animals familiar to their village lives at the time. The tiger lacks a certain… fierceness. The camel lacks a certain … hump. And the elephant lacks a certain trunk and …, well, size. (I would have brought you a photo, but I could not—and there is a story in that as we shall see.)

But before we mock these villagers too harshly, we should perhaps put ourselves in their shoes. To them—remember this is fifty years before Columbus—tigers and camels and elephants may as well as have come from another planet as from another continent. When we imagine extraterrestrials—at least those we portray in the movies—we too do not stray far from the familiar. ET is basically a human baby minus a finger. Yoda is basically a human baby minus a finger and minus a knowledge of where, in a sentence, the verb to put. 

It’s not so easy to imagine a world outside what we know. But my point here is not to point out human failings, but rather to point out human potential—the potential in which Joy inspires our faith. These carpenters did not know much outside their immediate neighborhood, but they were curious, they yearned to know, and—where things were outside the boundaries of their knowledge—they were willing to imagine and to carve out a possible world… albeit one far less strange than (we now know) exists in reality.

In economics—I am an economist by trade—we refer to the boundaries of human knowledge as the “possibility frontier." (It is very rare for economists to come up with a poetic name, so when we do, we tend to brag about it a bit.) The “possibility frontier” contains within it all that is possible, all of human knowledge. It is a vast, multidimensional set, but think of it in three dimensions sitting around us. Much of learning is a wonderful journey around that set, exploring what is there, like looking for treasures in a dark attic. Teaching is providing a flashlight, sometimes pointing it in the right direction, sometimes letting the student hold it for themselves. And the treasures in the attic are food and fire, and literature and music; the things that make our lives longer, and the things that make those lives worth living. 

You will soon learn, if you have not learned it already, that the first thing that Joy brings to learning is the realization that learning is a joy. The best part of being ignorant—perhaps the only good part of being ignorant—is that, for the ignorant, there is more out there in that dark attic to discover for the first time. The first time you complete an electrical circuit and a light goes on. The first time you read Middlemarch… and a light goes on.  

So learning allows each generation to rediscover what is in that possibility set. But it also gives us the courage to imagine what lies outside the known. It gives the opportunity to expand the set itself: to discover treasures that were not already in the attic; to push back the boundary of human possibility.  

In her introduction to the school community last April, Joy reminded us that this opportunity—the opportunity to expand human knowledge—“confers a great responsibility.” Discovery—even rediscovery—has the potential to cause harm as well as good. Fifty years after our craftsmen in St Mary’s carved out their tigers and camels, Columbus expanded their known universe. The New World brought their world new possibility, new frontiers, new foods, but we know now that a lot of what followed was not good.  

Nevertheless, though leaning and discovery are risky, having “faith in our potential” means having faith in the potential for human progress. There are dangers that come with truth, but it far more dangerous when learning is suppressed and when human discovery slows down. Our fifteenth-century carpenters knew that. In the previous millennium or so, stuff had happened: the fall of the Roman empire, the Norman conquest, the spread of Christianity—it’s not nothing. But, especially in Europe, human discovery had been too slow. Even in relatively wealthy East Anglia, much of the population lived close to subsistence. When the Black Death hit Europe, about a third—that is worth repeating—about a third of the local population died.  

Don’t get romantic about the middle ages: they weren’t good times. The carpenters of St Mary’s had almost no access to education. They had few ways to better their lives, almost no possibility to discover the world beyond, or possibilities beyond that. And yet, they were curious enough to imagine what lay beyond. That they got it wrong doesn’t matter much. That they had the courage to imagine, matters a whole lot.

In the half-millennium since the work of those carpenters, learning and discovery has flourished. That human “possibility set” of which economist wax poetic has expanded far further than in the entire millennium before, and with possibility has come the potential—not the promise, but the potential—for human progress.  

And progress has been made. Learning and discovery has given us vaccines that now help to control epidemics, preventing the next Black Death. And with learning has come opportunity. Places like Yale and like St. Andrew’s allow people like Joy and like me, no matter from where we came, the possibility and hope to achieve. Imagine what creations our Burwell carpenters would have created had they been able to expand their imagination with you here.

In her introduction to the school community last April, Joy said that: “Your St. Andrew’s education will transform you—and you will progress in your journey to find out how you will transform the world." She is right. Learning allows us to participate in human progress. It allows us to share in human achievement. It allows us to better our lives and better the lives of others.

But it has not all been and will not all be smooth sailing. There will always be those who doubt human potential, who see discovery as a threat, who suppress hope and imagination, who want to restrict learning only for the rich or only for males. During the political and religious wars of the seventeenth century, almost all the decoration in St Mary’s was destroyed. Most of the imagination of the carpenters is lost to us. It turned out, however, that the inspection of the church to see that it had been properly purged, took place of an evening. It is said that the local clergy made sure that the candles they brought to the inspection were just insufficient to cast light on the dark beams high above the nave. The carvings of exotic animals were as invisible to the inspectors as they were to my iPhone flashlight three hundred years later. These small treasures of imagination were saved: reminders less of how far we have come than of our persistent yearning to go beyond.

Like Joy, I also went to a boarding school. It is still obligatory (I am told) that any talk about a boarding school has to have a reference to Harry Potter. I hope Joy will forgive this one. By far my favorite character in Harry Potter is Professor McGonagall. Professor McGonagall is strict but fair, an educator with a strong moral compass who cares about her students. (I am guessing you see where I am going with this.) Joy will fight as heroically for her students as Professor McGonagall fought for hers in the Battle of Hogwarts. Both McGonagall and McGrath inspire a little smidgeon of fear and a huge wad of respect. And although Joy cannot transform herself into a cat—at least I don’t think she can—like McGonagall, she can transform her students into better people. Both McGonagall and McGrath do this with magic. In McGonagall’s case, the magic is, well, magic. In Joy McGrath’s case, the magic is learning and faith in our potential

Even the “champions of doubt” among us can get that.