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.