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.