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 Diane Sheppard's Critical Reading and Analytical Writing class.

Chandni Modi '19 writes in Diane Sheppard's 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.