What I'm Afraid You're Learning

On October 1, I addressed our weekly Town Meeting of students and faculty to share my concerns about the lessons I fear they may be learning from the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Brett M. Kavanaugh's nomination to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Address to Students and Faculty, Town Meeting (October 1, 2018):

First, I want to make sure you know the story. Last Thursday, the country was riveted by the Senate hearing of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who is a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at Stanford School of Medicine, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who is a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States, as each answered the questions of a Senate committee vetting his nomination. Both were testifying about Dr. Ford’s recent allegation that Judge Kavanaugh, when they were both in high school, sexually assaulted her. Kavanaugh denies the allegation, and those of two other women who have said he was sexually inappropriate with them while in high school and college.

I have struggled with whether or not to read Dr. Ford’s allegation in her words, because it is hard to hear. But again, I want to be sure that you know what the immense, painful, and potentially revolutionary fuss has been about, and although this fuss began centuries ago, and has continued tragically until this moment, this allegation is where our current furor begins. Remember that both Ford and Kavanaugh were privileged, white students at elite prep schools at the time of this incident. In terms of their maturity, their development as people, and their ability to be held accountable for their actions, they were not unlike yourselves. Here is Dr. Ford’s allegation:

“I was pushed from behind into a bedroom. I couldn’t see who pushed me. Brett and Mark came into the bedroom and locked the door behind them. There was music already playing in the bedroom. It was turned up louder by either Brett or Mark once we were in the room. I was pushed onto the bed and Brett got on top of me. He began running his hands over my body and grinding his hips into me. I yelled, hoping someone downstairs might hear me, and tried to get away from him, but his weight was heavy. Brett groped me and tried to take off my clothes. He had a hard time because he was so drunk, and because I was wearing a one-piece bathing suit under my clothes. I believed he was going to rape me. I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. This was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life. It was hard for me to breathe, and I thought that Brett was accidentally going to kill me.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee, charged with vetting Supreme Court nominees, listened to this testimony, and to Ford’s answers to the questions being posed to her. Then the committee listened to Brett Kavanaugh, who vigorously denies Ford’s story and claims she is telling it as part of a political conspiracy against his nomination. Kavanaugh read a statement containing the following testimony:

“Over the past few days ... false and uncorroborated accusations have been aired. There has been a frenzy to come up with something—anything, no matter how far-fetched or odious—that will block a vote on my nomination. These are last-minute smears, pure and simple. They debase our public discourse. And the consequences extend beyond any one nomination. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country.”

Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

Now remember, members of the Supreme Court are supposed to be non-partisan, so that we can be confident that they will not rule on cases according to politics, but according to their independent and reasoned interpretations of the U.S. Constitution.  Most members, however, tend in their rulings to be fairly consistently aligned with liberal and conservative positions because of what appear to be more and more fundamental differences in values—liberal and Democratic, conservative and Republican.

I want to be clear that despite the fact that Kavanaugh, the nominee, is heavily favored by the Republicans on the committee (all 11 of whom, incidentally, are men) the hearings on Thursday were not—or should not have been—political in nature. What we heard on Thursday was a serious allegation of sexual assault by a woman, and an equally serious refutation of that allegation by a man accused of sexual assault. What was at stake was a lifetime appointment to a job requiring judgment, integrity, and respect for all of the people of the United States, including women.

Colleagues at other schools have been talking with their communities in many ways about this multi-dimensional situation, but I think that whatever angle they take they are all wondering about the same thing. That is, what concerns all of them, as it does me, is what young people are learning from what they’re seeing and hearing as these events unfold.

You might be learning that our government is partisan to the point of paralysis—split into opposing factions so immovable that looking for truth and justice and serving citizens often seem secondary to the goal of staying in power, and beating the other side at all costs.   

You might be learning about the ways that the actions and behaviors of some white men of privilege are excused, mitigated, and downplayed when they are bad—but are defended, emphasized, and praised when they are good. You might be learning about the ways that women’s stories are serially disbelieved, marginalized, and downplayed when they involve white men of privilege behaving badly, especially when believing them involves also believing that those men should not be in power.

You might be learning about the circumstances in which men are allowed to be angry and show emotion, and those in which to do so for a woman would be to undermine her credibility, strength, and authority. Then again, if you are reading The New York Times, you might be learning that the radiant despair of many women bearing witness to this spectacle—one in three of whom have experienced sexual violence in their lives—is not just sorrow or disappointment. It is rage. They see a woman telling a story completely familiar to them, and telling it with courage and care, being disbelieved and called a political operative who must be doing this for her own gain. When these women cry, their tears are tears of fury.

But you may also be reaching very different conclusions, as many are.  These might include that this is what Kavanaugh calls a “circus,” and a “farce,” and that the whole thing is a shameful attempt to smear a good man.  You may be concluding that there is no end to which Democrats will go to prevent a conservative Supreme Court Justice from being appointed, including ruining the career of a brilliant and accomplished Judge.  These are some conclusions you would be forgiven for reaching as you watch this situation unfold. I see it as our responsibility as people charged with educating you to help you understand ways you might address them.  

Because the most disturbing lesson that I fear you may be learning is one that is perhaps the most crushing of all for women. It is this: that this is not a matter of people disbelieving Christine Blasey Ford at all. At least half of the people conducting the Senate hearing believed her.  Most women in the world believe her. Even President Trump found her testimony compelling. All but the most politically or ideologically rabid, in fact, are being forced to admit that her story feels like a likely story told by a trustworthy person.


The lesson that I am terrified that you may be learning, as high school students who have the chance to make the next wave of leadership and power different, and better, is the lesson that having committed a sexual assault at any time in your life does not actually matter. I worry desperately that the girls in this room are learning that they have no power to hold men accountable for harming them in high school or college, or indeed ever. And worse, that even if you are brave enough to report something that happens to you, that the adults in your community might not take you seriously, and that your report might end up hurting YOU more than it hurts the person you’re accusing. And you girls are probably also learning that even if all of those things make you angry, make you furious—you are not allowed to be angry about them publicly, you can’t yell the way Kavanaugh did during his hearing, and you certainly can’t shed those tears of fury, without risking being called unstable, over-emotional, irrational, bitchy, abrasive, aggressive, and my favorite: weak.

I also worry very much about the boys in this room, because of the role models this situation offers you. I worry that from this you are learning that a little drunken horseplay when you’re a teenager, even if it utterly traumatizes someone else, will not be held against you. I worry that you might not know how to recognize that a girl is saying no to you, because the messages you’re receiving from our leaders suggest that those “no’s” are just part of the game. I worry urgently for the white boys of privilege in this room, who are probably NOT learning that some behavior is hurtful and unacceptable, because our current social climate appears to accept or excuse most of whatever you do by saying things such as “boys will be boys,” which is a formulation that hurts you terribly. If “being a boy” means disrespecting anyone different from yourself; being cruel to individuals for your own amusement; or supporting a culture of misogyny by minimizing and objectifying women, what does that mean for those boys who would never, ever do those things? Of course being a boy doesn’t mean these things—but what a terrible burden that idea is to all of you.

These and many more are all conclusions available to you, as high school students, and I know that many of you are already speaking about them and trying to make sense of their implications. So I hope you know that we are your allies in this sense-making. We care deeply about you all—we care about who you are and whom you are learning to be when you’re here. And we promise that we will listen to you and take you seriously if you bear a serious message, or come to us with genuine intent to understand.

Some of you have said that Indian Springs can feel like a “bubble” where many of the bad things we see in the world are held at bay. I hope that in some healthy, informed way that can be true, because it can be an important condition of learning. But we are far from immune to the forces that are being brought into focus by this moment—to the extent that we live in this country and this world, we are subject to its culture. But we are subject to its culture only until we become educated about the experiences of others, the history of our society, and how power works. Once we understand those things, if we have also learned how to empathize with people, and how to respect them fully for who they are, then we get to shape the culture instead of submitting to it. We get to create it, and be in charge of it; and most importantly, if it needs changing, we get to change it.

Please think about what you might do personally, or in your friend groups, or in your families, to bring light to these subjects by studying them and paying attention to them. Please listen as much as you talk. And please be open to seeing the world in a different way. We have to.

Just Breathe

One of the many reasons I decided to ditch my Apple Watch was that it kept insisting that I pay attention to it. Too often, its digital nudges made me feel—sometimes literally, with a small bristling on my wrist—a curious combination of inadequacy, annoyance, and resolve.

“Time to stand!” it would chirp, usually when standing would have been inappropriate.

“Work toward your exercise goal,” it would admonish, showing a mostly untraveled circuit  that indicated my current lack of progress.

“Go to your meeting,” it would suggest, with a cheerful flash of the calendar.  

“No really, go to your meeting,” it would insist.

“Your meeting started five minutes ago,” it would say—not in words, but instead in the doleful display of how many minutes ago the meeting had begun, and was probably proceeding awkwardly without me.


My sedentary posture, my laziness, my unresponsiveness to text messages, my seemingly incurable tardiness: The watch foregrounded them relentlessly. Only occasionally would it commend my behavior:

“Congratulations, you’ve reached your stand goal!” it would gush.

And of course for a moment I would feel a species of elation; until I remembered that this wasn’t the kind of accomplishment one could really share with other people.

But the end really began when suddenly a new icon, a serene blue dot, appeared above one word: “Breathe.”


I tapped the dot. An animated blue-green flower appeared, then began opening and closing slowly, presumably indicating the pace at which I was meant to inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale, and restore my body to some sort of order.  

Had I not been breathing? Had I been breathing, but not correctly? Perhaps erratically? Think about the occasions in your life when someone has told you to “breathe.” More often than not, they are trying to get you to calm down, and they mean “breathe deeply.” Also, when you’re breathing deeply, you can’t speak. So they probably also want you to stop talking. Why was my watch asking me to calm down and shut up?

It was disconcerting. I knew my watch could monitor my heart rate, so probably it was reading some irregularity in my breathing, and suggesting that I take a moment to restore my equilibrium. But who asked it to do this? One day it didn’t care about my breathing, the next day it did—without any prompting from me.

Was my watch also going to start telling me when to engage in other autonomic processes? Would it suggest that I sweat? Would it tell my hair to grow?

Of course I’m exaggerating my degree of naïveté about this. But I mention it because the genuine intrusion, distraction, and low-level anxiety my watch introduced into my life (to a finally unbearable degree) feels analogous, on a small scale, to the kind of intrusion and distraction that smartphones and smart devices introduce into all of our lives. And worse, these devices that give us constant, uninterrupted access to certain versions of the world and each other also seem to contribute to an epidemic level of anxiety and depression among young people. When kids are confronted with relentless communication and “updates” from friends and organizations whose primary goal is to get them to pay attention, we can imagine the combination of inadequacy, annoyance, and resolve (with that little hit of elation) magnified a thousandfold.  

As educators, I’m convinced that we need to respond somehow. This year, among other things, we will be considering—not only emotionally, as we often do, but also rationally, methodically, and with the help of diverse perspectives—what effect smartphones are having on our school community. There is no clear consensus at the moment about this effect, much less about any proper response to it. But there is no shortage of wailing and hair-tearing, and a general sense that we are in a world of dangers without a map. So we find ourselves needing to be our own guides. To that end, we will be assembling a working group of faculty, staff, and students (our “Screen Team”) to help begin to lead us wisely and reasonably through this unfamiliar territory to higher ground where we might see our way more clearly. This fall, we will show the film Screenagers, which many schools have used as a catalyst for conversation—there is a parent version and a student version, and a lot of material to help us discuss.   


At the same time, and hopefully in support of their work, I will be exploring here in “Of Education” some of the issues with smartphones and screen use that we are seeing here on campus, and trying to put those issues in context both of new research and of the steps others (sometimes whole countries, such as France) are taking to confront them. My hope is that we will soon be better-informed as a community, and readier to take healthy action in support of students.  

At the very least, we will remind one another to breathe.  

Ben Franklin Gets Involved

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.”

Now, before you say anything, I know this quote is not Benjamin Franklin’s. It is actually a somewhat inelegant version of a Chinese proverb that has been speciously attributed to Franklin so ubiquitously that it appears to have been printed with his name on at least four different floral greeting cards.

But it isn’t crazy to attribute this proverb to Franklin; it actually fits neatly alongside the ones he offered by the hundreds between 1733 and 1758 in the voice of “Poor Richard,” the hero of his annually self-published Poor Richard’s Almanack. You may not even know you know some of these pithy maxims, but you probably do:

God helps them that help themselves.
Necessity never made a good bargain.
Three may keep a Secret, if two of them are dead.
At 20 years of age the Will reigns; at 30 the Wit; at 40 the Judgment.
Haste makes Waste.

Incidentally, you likely don’t know this one; and I’ll confess I don’t really get it, though I’d like to:

He that lives upon Hope, dies farting.

There is speculation that this was a typo, and it should be “dies fasting,” which makes more sense but isn’t as fun. Anyway. There are lots of them, and some have faded away for good reason.

My point is, that first quote—“Involve me, and I learn”—is just likely enough to be Franklin’s that it is too handy for educators to pass up, especially Dewey-influenced educators dedicated to learning through living. We’d like to think there is something fundamentally American about the idea that real, messy experience needs to be part of learning.

We've asked students and faculty to read Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography this summer, as a way to launch a more general contemplation of the idea of “Involvement” during the upcoming school year. Involvement is one of Springs’ “core values,” 1 and we have chosen to begin exploring these periodically, so that they will be well known by the school community as we do our work together. Involvement is an unmistakable requisite of being at Indian Springs—for one thing, our genuinely functional student government, which is essential to the school’s identity, depends upon it. But none of the other joys of education are truly available to any of us if we are not willing, even eager, to become involved.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Having been a student of history and literature, and sometime “Americanist,” I have taught Franklin’s Autobiography a number of times, and in a number of contexts, and am always gratified by how avidly students respond to it. They are happily surprised to find that Franklin was an actual human being with foibles, humors, and desires (many, many desires), and not only a mythic figure. We tend to canonize our Founding Fathers to such an extent that they can lose their humanity—and it is their humanity that allows us to engage them as supple examples instead of stiff icons. Indeed, none of them were saints; and Franklin writes so candidly about his own shortcomings, so honestly shows himself struggling to find purpose, that his account of his life feels particularly real (his biographer, Walter Isaacson, suggests that he is “the founding father who winks at us” 2 ). And insofar as his story was embedded in a time and place, that time and that place come to life as well.

Franklin’s time and place (1706-1790, early America) was a great deal like our own in many ways. The proliferation of new media (newspapers, gazettes, broadsides, pamphlets, almanacs) was creating an unprecedented flood of information and “news,” which was often more opinion than fact; the world’s economy was convulsing in response to the products being generated in the American Colonies; new inventions and discoveries were changing people’s lives at a fast pace; and people argued endlessly about taxation. All against a backdrop of dramatic disagreement about what America should stand for, how it should be governed, and how its people should or shouldn’t be subject to absolute power.  

And Franklin was at the center of the novelty and excitement. His work as a printer led to his becoming everything from postmaster to Ambassador to inventor—of, among countless other things, bifocals, the “electrical battery,” rudimentary refrigeration, the public library, and my personal favorite, a soup bowl that stayed steady in a rolling boat—to Founding Father of the United States. This is how most of us know him—as a bespectacled, tricorn-hatted statesman inextricably involved in the founding moments of our country.  

But he became that only after years and years of trying things—of diving into projects and endeavors with optimism and wit. Franklin’s modus operandi was to become involved wherever he happened to be, and to create the conditions for involvement if they didn’t exist. He is famous for founding several clubs and salons where people would exchange ideas and share work, and his early sharing library is the model for our current system of public libraries. In his early life he shows a similar penchant for getting mixed up in things, whether as a rabble-rousing anonymous writer for his brother’s newspaper or as the leader of a pack of neighborhood boys stealing stones from a building project to build a pier out into a local pond. Franklin saw clearly how involvement of others in execution of one’s ideas was the definition of leadership. And because he understood how being in the printing business allowed him to create the conditions for his own involvement in public conversation—and so to his own leadership through ideas—he continued to sign himself “B. Franklin—printer,” until the end of his life.

Three pence Colonial currency from the Province of Pennsylvania, printed by Benjamin Franklin.

Three pence Colonial currency from the Province of Pennsylvania, printed by Benjamin Franklin.

So the Autobiography and its context provide unique ways to explore what it means to be “involved.”  The word derives from the Latin “volver,” to roll, and “in-,” into. To be involved is to be “rolled-in”—to be enfolded, part of something fully, entangled, entwined, not just alongside or observant, not just a bystander, but a crucial and inextricable element. We prize involvement as a sign of worthy enthusiasm for life and work, and look to young people especially to be involved in things.

There are so many ways we can speak about involvement—we’re involved in a project, involved in a relationship, involved in a community, a political cause, a movement, etc. When we involve ourselves in each other’s lives—when we don’t just watch at a remove, hold ourselves apart, and criticize—we understand our experience as deeply contingent and shared, and ultimately come closer to understanding our common humanity.

And when you do that, the fact is, you can start changing the world. Just ask our friend Ben. I bet he’ll say something like:

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.

That, or:

Fish and visitors stink in three days.

1 The others are Intellectual Curiosity, Inclusion, Innovative Thinking, Integrity, and Infinite Respect.
2 Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Just the Sort of Place for a Surprise

Before the Thanksgiving holiday, I spoke to our weekly Town Meeting of students and faculty about our recent Development Day speakers and how we might think about the remarks they shared with our school community. 

Address to Students and Faculty, Town Meeting (Monday, November 20, 2017): 

A friend of mine who is the head of another boarding school just published a book called Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces dealing with the deepening issue that college campuses in particular—but also independent schools—are having with both ideological conformity and lack of productive dialogue. I know I talk about this a lot, but if a community is to be just, as we would like ours to be—and if “just” means fair, equitable, balanced, and rightly aligned with truth—then a community has to become safe for its members to move in opposition without fearing a threat each to the other.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I have found myself thinking about this concept, particularly the phrase “safe spaces,” which has accrued a penumbra of political correctness and is often ridiculed because of its misapplication in so many educational settings.   

I thought about it on Friday, November 17, when we had two very different speakers come to the Springs campus: John Merrill, the Secretary of State of Alabama, and the journalist John Archibald, who writes a column for AL.com.  Both had been on television in the days leading up to their visits: John Merrill on CNN refusing to deny his support to Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore despite numerous allegations of his sexual misconduct with minors; Archibald on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow, who wanted to hear his take on whether or not Roy Moore would, nevertheless, win the Senate seat in Alabama.  We were fortunate enough to have their visits as bookends to our day of service, “Development Day.”

When I heard some of the reactions to those talks—lots of very different reactions (some even trying to figure out who “won,” which was an intriguing question I hadn’t anticipated), I thought about what we should do next, how to “debrief.”  We will always have as many different reactions to things presented to us as there are distinct individuals in this concert hall, but if we don’t discuss those reactions then we have no way of knowing how any speaker was received by the community.  So we do this debriefing work in various ways here, including in our advising groups, and in these conversations I find I learn a great deal not just from the responses themselves but also from the fact that there is such a huge range of responses to the same shared experience. John Archibald mentioned that even in situations where something notable happens, and two people see it happen at the same time, each person’s truth about what happened could be miles apart and no less true.

Imagine how much more space for division, how much wider still are the spaces between our truths when we’re not just talking about actions but about words, about what somebody said, which is at its simplest a representation of reality and at its most complex a set of ideas put into lively relationship to one another then allowed to take meaning anywhere it’s willing to go. Each word has a slightly different meaning for each of us depending on the context in which we learned it (correctly or incorrectly), heard it used, used it ourselves, read it in connection with other equally slippery words, and on and on. The possibilities for misunderstanding grow exponentially with every word that goes by.

Dr. Sharon Howell

Dr. Sharon Howell

I hope all of you have read Winnie-the-Pooh, and if you haven’t that you will read it as soon as possible, but there’s a passage in one of the stories when Owl is talking to Pooh about having arrived at a dangerous place, and this wonderful mistake happens (keep in mind that “gorse” means “thorn”):

"It's just the sort of place," Owl explained, "for an Ambush."

"What sort of bush?" whispered Pooh to Piglet. "A gorse-bush?"

"My dear Pooh," said Owl in his superior way, "don't you know what an Ambush is?"

"An Ambush," said Owl, "is a sort of Surprise."

"So is a gorse-bush sometimes," said Pooh.

That’s an extreme version of what happens linguistically every time we talk to each other—you can mishear or misdefine a word and then use it to make a completely new truth.  The French and people who enjoy French philosophy call this slippage “différance”—which is a combination of “difference” and “deferral.” The idea is that meanings conveyed by language never quite come into focus—are always a little beyond our grasp—and are by nature fundamentally different from any objective reality.  

All this is to say that on November 17 we stimulated an absolute festival of différance here at Springs, and I don’t want to lose the opportunity for a collective analysis of what happened—not in terms of the topics that were discussed, though these are rich grounds for analysis and I hope we will confront them all eventually, but in terms of what being willing to tolerate a bit of confusion says about our values as a school.

I want to be clear that to my mind what happened was a precious educational experience, mainly because it was so uncomfortable. You’ll remember that being willing to be uncomfortable is one of Bryan Stevenson’s prescriptions for positive change in our summer all-school read, Just Mercy—alongside “getting proximate” to people, places, and things that are unfamiliar or even scary. Being willing to be uncomfortable is being willing to learn.  

Students, I don’t need to remind you that you are all to some extent or another experiencing actual growing pains in your bodies. Those pains are a useful analogy for the pain that any kind of growth causes us when it is real and significant. That’s why it takes some courage to undertake it.  Our bodies force us to go through it, but our minds and constitutions need to be dragged along sometimes.  The Latin source of the word “education” is “educare,” a combination of “ex-” out, and “ducere,” to lead.  At our very best, we are leading you out—and you are leading each other out—somewhat strenuously (“ducere” has a little pulling in it) into spaces where you will be more vulnerable to being transformed by ideas and observations. That vulnerability and discomfort are conditions of the kind of living that is learning.  

Last week I heard from some people who thought it was appalling that someone who had just been on CNN refusing to deny support to Roy Moore was coming to speak at Springs—particularly because that support can be read as a tacit approval of what most of us are pretty convinced is criminal behavior toward young girls. What message, they asked, would it send to our 14-year-old girls that we invite and listen to a man who seems to support sexual abuse?  

I get that question. It’s the right one. And what I want to say is this:

When we take the opportunity to listen to a man who is an elected official in this state we all live in, a man who represents you and me in the lawmaking body of Alabama—when we listen to him we are hearing the prevailing will of the people who live here (or at least the people who lived here before 2015, when he was elected to office). That is undeniable reality, and it doesn’t help to ignore it.  So the message I think our willingness to listen to John Merrill sends is that we are taking seriously the reality of our shared life, and allowing it to occupy space and to educate us.  

It is no different when we listen to a columnist from AL.com, who clearly states his biases and editorializes on some of the same facts (about voter registration, for example) but comes up with very different conclusions.  If what you hear from either of these people about voting rights, separation of church and state, gerrymandering, or anything else disgusts, frustrates, or exasperates you, hold on to that reaction—that reaction is the beginning of you being led out into a space of ideas and opposing views.  It is you being made to look at the divisions between people’s truths, and to try and understand what they mean.  It is probably you realizing that you need to be better informed or learn more in order to understand.  It is you being willing to be uncomfortable.  It is learning, and it is what we are all here to do.  

Which brings me back to the idea of “safe spaces.”  The accepted meaning of this term has become “spaces safe from conflict and division, safe from trauma and triggers of trauma, etc.”  There is always going to be a time when we as individuals need this kind of space to be sheltered from harm.  That is very important and I’m not minimizing it.  

But I hope we can think about Springs as a safe space not in this way—not as a space safe FROM discomfort, but as a space where it is safe TO engage in dialectical conversations, safe to be heard, safe to acknowledge and look straight at difference and division.   Springs needs to be a safe space to disagree and learn together about what is arguable, how to recognize the bias we all bring to every encounter and conversation, and to recognize the deep contingency of our own historical moment as well as just how much the “truth” as we think of it is dependent on a dizzying number of contexts and contingencies.  

That’s why it was so bracing when Isaac Zhou '19 reminded us that we were taking the virtues of our own context for granted.  We were like the fish who gets asked by another fish, “How’s the water?” and answers: “What’s water?”  By the way, there is no other school in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, or Louisiana where this illumination could have occurred in precisely this way.  Isaac reminded us of the complete government control of media in China because it has been his lived experience—he reminded us of how fortunate we are to have a free press, open dialogue, and argument in the public square—and how essential it is to our democracy.

Mind you, as I have said, there are things that aren’t arguable, and to argue about them in the public square demeans that space.  As some of you reminded us forcefully in your questions, the facts about and the nature of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse are such things. That is, they are not issues to be debated, but evils to be denied.  I’m going to say more about these things another day, because there is an inescapable reckoning around them going on in this country that we as informed citizens need to be aware of. 

But for now, I want to leave you with a couple of questions to contemplate over Thanksgiving, along with your gratitude and pie (which hopefully will be served to you in giant slices).  I want to ask you about how this Town Meeting space functions. It is one of the only places we gather as a whole school, so:

What if at Town Meeting you heard things that helped you understand the state of the world?  What’s happening in government or science or technology or the arts?

What if at Town Meeting you heard each other’s stories and ideas, and those stories and ideas surprised and amazed and humbled you?

What if at Town Meeting you aired community issues and ended up changing things here for the better?

What if this was just the sort of place for a sort of a Surprise? A brave space? What if we started our weeks together with some collective courage?

Think about it.  I hope you know that being part of Indian Springs is one of the things in my own life that I am most grateful for ... when I look out at your faces I am thankful that this is the very particular school-community where I get to live and work.  So have a very happy Thanksgiving, get some sleep, read Winnie-the-Pooh, and get ready to be brave when you get back.   

Talking, Writing, and Getting Complicated

People do lots of talking in schools. All day long. Talk is the primary mode in which we teach, when we gather in one place.  

But many writers will tell you that you can't really know what you think about something until you've written about it.  

Sure, we think in conversation, and in contemplation, too—and some people would say these are the ways they think best, including, I suppose, Socrates, who thought that the scholarly disputation was the most effective route to understanding. But that's not the kind of random access thinking I mean. I'm talking about thinking that puts concepts and objects into coordinated motion, creating orderly, locomotive meaning out of messy experience. It's not the kind of thinking we can do before we begin writing, and then transcribe faithfully, except in the most aphoristic and unusual circumstances. Instead, synthesizing and drawing conclusions about something bigger than a bumper sticker requires an encounter with actual syntax.  

Or at least, that's what it requires from me. And we should remember that Socrates believed that the emerging technology of "writing things down" would endanger our ability to remember them.  

Chandni Modi '19 writes in Critical Reading and Analytical Writing class.

Chandni Modi '19 writes in Critical Reading and Analytical Writing class.

I work in an environment—a secondary school—where there is lots of speaking: lots of questions and answers spoken in real time, lots of meetings where we announce and opine and discuss. And discussion has a role to play in education that is crucial and inimitable—conversation at its best can offer the satisfactions of both an art and a sport. The presence of good talk, honest interchange, open dialogue, and robust, civilized debate may be one of the best barometers of a healthy community.  

But we also need to learn to write, and that is most often a non-communal activity—it is how we learn to think for ourselves, as ourselves, individually. Secondary school was where I myself found literature, realized that it was essential to a suitably complex existence, and started to try making some for myself. I started to write in a composition book, and got hooked on the life of the mind. Writing for me meant having the power to bring to life a world where I could make anything do anything, where I could say exactly what I meant, and where there was space for my ideas—indeed, the only thing on that blank page was space for my ideas and imaginings, so I started having more and more of them. I managed to do this in some cases despite a rigorous boarding school schedule of classes (even on Saturdays), sports, and extracurriculars—on rambles in the woods and hours alone in the library. There was even one late spring two-hour detention (for missing required morning chapel) when I discovered William Carlos Williams' Spring and All, about which I eventually wrote part of my dissertation.   

What I knew then, and what I recognize continually anew, is that because the world is complicated, and our feelings about it are complicated, we can't only skim the surface of it and be full human beings. Complication is not chaos, but a species of order.  It's the kind of order our thinking takes as we write sentences that are complex—sentences that fold, crease, and articulate. And as they do that, ideas too become more layered, more substantive, and more characterized by depth. "Complicate" derives from the Latin "complicare," or "to weave together." This is what we do with language when we write. Our loose thinking needs the loom of writing, just as loose threads need an actual loom, to become a sensible fabric we can use.

We don't always catch the weaving maneuvers that writers make to help us reconstruct their logic for ourselves and understand their meanings. But even if we are not conscious of it, the machinery is there, and good writers are using it. When I realized I could also use this machinery to make myself understood, and to take readers to a mental place where they could see what I saw, it was like discovering a super power. I had to practice it in the backyard of countless journals like the X-Men (with similarly catastrophic moments), but it was worth it.  

If we're going to approach the world's complexity and attempt to reflect it in our thinking, we need to be able to write, using all our resources: grasp of syntax, precise vocabulary, prosody (cadence, tone, rhythm), and structure. So let's keep on talking. But let's get writing, too. 

The Town Meeting

Since I've been here at Indian Springs there have been three "Town Meetings" that have fallen outside the ordinary model of announcements and updates from commissioners—with the occasional student reflection. These outliers have resembled more closely, I think, the Town Meetings that used to happen at Springs when students wanted to talk about an issue that mattered to the community.  

The first was held right after the election of President Donald Trump, and it gave us a chance to hear from students directly in what was a very raw moment for many of them. The students who spoke were feeling and thinking such a wide range of feelings and ideas that in order to be a community we needed simply to be together, listening to one another generously.  

I have followed up that meeting with a series of smaller gatherings where those conversations have continued, and these have filled me with much-needed hope. Not long ago I had lunch with a joint meeting of the Springs Young Democrats and Young Republicans; in speaking with their leaders, it is clear they want both to find common ground and to be more informed by coming into contact with differences of opinion. I think many of these colloquies can trace their origins to that Town Meeting in November. 

The second meeting was last week, when Mayor Dewey Wilbanks called us together to discuss the role of privilege in light of recent random acts of disrespect. Dewey framed the conversation as a way to start "unpacking our privilege" and understanding the ways we take for granted our levels of access to the world, and comfort with ourselves in relation to others. 

Spring 2017 Mayor Dewey Wilbanks '17 at a Town Meeting in March

Spring 2017 Mayor Dewey Wilbanks '17 at a Town Meeting in March

I am always very proud of the students who rise and come to the microphone in these forums: It takes lots of courage not only to decide to share a thought, but also to try to fit that thought into the larger discussion in a way that makes sense. While this can certainly be challenging, that day I was impressed with students for trying, and with their classmates for showing them respect in a vulnerable moment.

It also became clear to me that we need to make room for more of these gatherings, so they can be what I have heard they used to be and have the potential to be again: time and space where students engage their intellects and passions, in real time, to address things they care about. So far, every student's attempt to voice complicated and potentially combustible ideas in this public way has been genuine and fervent: two very good things for a student to be.

Finally, these meetings should be opportunities to approach together what is on our minds, and to go beyond shallow mention of fundamental questions (e.g., what should a respectful community look like?) to a place of deeper collective understanding. And as a happy byproduct, we will know each other better. We're fortunate that we get to do this—we have command of our time in ways other institutions do not. So, students: Care, try hard, and bring your whole self to the trying—be genuine and fervent. If you'll do that, I promise we’ll continue to expand the time, space, and substance of Town Meetings to make more room for your voices in deeper conversation.


The Idealist

As an idealist in an independent school, I spend much of my time feeling impatient.  

It is idealistic impatience, born of the certainty that there is more to be done to serve our students than we can ever do, well enough, in the time we have—and the simultaneous certainty that we are obliged to keep trying, because it can be done. What I mean is, we can make education better not just for our kids but for the world of kids out there, and we could do it faster if we tried harder and were braver about it. The faster we do it, the more kids will have a chance to see what they can accomplish. The more kids will have transformative educations.

The rest of my time I spend feeling extraordinarily lucky to be part of an endeavor where there is almost endless possibility for innovation, and where the chief goal is an ancient one: to guide young women and men as they try to find freedom, meaning, and joy in their lives.                     

I came to secondary school leadership in 2014, having spent many years at Harvard University as an academic dean, faculty member, and senior administrator. Living side-by-side with hundreds of students each year, I came to understand them very well, and to admire them immensely. Over the years, though, I also became more and more concerned with what I was observing in these super-achieving students, and in our capacity to educate them. These were some of the most “successful” students in the world, but they were struggling profoundly.                      

How could we help them to be braver? To be more willing to make mistakes, and take risks? Not just to learn what they thought we wanted them to know, but to go after things, to take initiative, to take detours? They needed to know one another and themselves better—how both to reflect and to truly converse, not just to network—to talk about important things with each other without agendas or mediating devices. To truly achieve their potential, they needed to be less anxious and abstracted, and more able to be fully present in their lives.                        

We needed, in short, a way to help them expand what they understood to be excellent. Harry Lewis’s 2007 book Excellence without a Soul had a whole chapter on the Harvard residential system, and how we were failing to help students understand education not as a series of transactions that would lead to credentials, but as something much more mysterious and profound. Since then, many books have pointed to risk-aversion and lack of intellectual and emotional range—as well as cupidity and cynicism—as significant problems that schools and colleges are not addressing.*  

But as it turns out, I decided that I needed to start working with students earlier: during those teenage years that are arguably the most transformative.

Which is how, a couple of years later, I landed here at Indian Springs, a school that has confounded my expectations in life-changing ways. It is easy to talk about a transformative educational experience—where students express and cultivate their individuality, act freely, learn through experience, learn skills to serve vital and authentic ends, make the most of opportunities as they present themselves, and become intimately acquainted with a changing world. These are John Dewey’s great forces against transactional education—and they are still guideposts for us as we try to do what we know should be done in our schools.                 

Indian Springs School Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

Indian Springs School Head of School Dr. Sharon Howell

The challenge is to figure out how not only to talk about, but actually to create that transformative experience, and then to make it known as a better version of excellence. I think it’s urgent for Springs to be truly committed to doing this, and committed to trying things on the way, failing, and trying again, precisely as we hope students will do.

We need to teach students how to see each other as multidimensional people, how to seek out and respect one another’s stories, how to have fun together, how to be healthy and independent, and how to look beyond themselves while also looking deeply into their own experiences to understand and contextualize them. We need to know ourselves honestly in the context of the world—to understand what it means to be a progressive boarding school in Birmingham, Alabama—and not be afraid to claim our crucial importance. We need to know that our greatest power lies in people—and not just in the individual excellence of students and teachers, but in the collective power that is possible when we truly listen to one another and are brave enough to work together equitably.

For me, being here in Birmingham at this particular historical crossroad feels like a precious opportunity. Here, as across our country, the divisions among us are in a new kind of relief, and that means that we have a new chance to address them. I want us to take full educational advantage of being close to these real misunderstandings and apparent fault lines—to see them and speak to them in the spirit of bridging and healing them. How exciting to have the chance to teach students not only how to evaluate the barrages of stimuli they constantly encounter so they can get the world in facts and truths, but also to find common ground with one another and understand their actions and relations through deep mutual knowledge.

We have the chance to do that here.               

I am still impatient for the future in which all of what we do at school is urgent, relevant, transformative, and empowering. I also know my incredible luck in being able to help shape a school such as Springs. There may be more to be done than we can ever do, but there is no greater privilege than to try.


*See William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep; Kevin Carey, The End of College; and Mark Edmundson, Why Teach?, among others.