Given the horrific shootings in El Paso and Dayton last week, and the sadly familiar divides apparent in their wake, I know that my colleagues at schools across the country are trying to understand whether and how to talk about the tragic events and what they mean in a responsible way. How do we declare what we value as enlightened institutions, and signal to our students and families that we see them, care about them, and want to be part of the solution to these divides, without assuming a posture that appears “political”? Do we even try to address it during these exciting opening days of the new academic year? Or do we wait, knowing that in a week or two, the urgency--and the opportunity it provides to teach--will have waned? Do we leave these conversations to others?
I don’t know that I’ve figured this out yet. But my deep instinct as an educator is that we cannot be more concerned with appearances than we are with our missions, most of which place the growth, development, and wellbeing of our students above all else, but many of which also include helping students to develop qualities of character that will serve them in their lives. We want to help them to be strong in themselves—to have integrity—and strong in the world—to have moral courage. Doing this requires creating a culture of kindness and respect, where members of our community feel that they belong and are understood in their own unique ways, even as we expose them to powerful ideas and teach them to think and act independently.
The respectful and exuberant exchange of ideas is at the heart of what we do. Without it, our philosophies are apt to be ill-defined, our intellects anemic, and the character of our citizenship unproductive. I’m always eager to ensure that students hear many perspectives on topics, and that they both think deeply about important, enduring ideas, and learn to assemble an argument well enough that the convictions they develop will be well represented in the public square. I hope that they will learn to distinguish between genuine arguments supported by evidence, research, and facts, and mere ideology. If they feel assertions are specious or lack rigor, I will always want them to question them. This is how we make progress and tack toward truth.
But because they require a willingness to be uncomfortable and uncertain, to remain hopeful and compassionate, and to see or admit things we might not wish to see or admit, progress and truth-seeking will always require courage. It is worth understanding better the role that courage plays in education--it might not be too much to say that teaching courage is the most important thing that we do. To me there is no question that teaching the courage necessary for us to make progress as a society is as important right now as it has ever been.
So I think it’s important for us to be clear: we should never apologize for articulating our essential values--integrity, respect, kindness, courage, compassion, whatever they may be--and asserting their relevance in the daily life of our communities, even if in today’s rhetorical climate it can feel political to do that. It is not political to express compassion, it is not political to insist on facts and confront lies, and it is not political to aim to include rather than exclude, respect rather than mock, understand rather than shun those who are different from us. It is crucial to me that our students know that there are some issues and ideas that are arguable by reasonable people, and some that are not--hatred, bigotry, xenophobia, ignorance, and the violent actions and speech that can stem from these are not issues to be debated, they are evils to be denied. We won’t agree on everything, and don’t want a world where we do: but we have to agree on that.
We believe in children: they are precious to us, and they fill us with joy. They are why we do what we do--and particularly in confusing moments such as these, when their worlds can feel contradictory and perverse, we must do our very best to know them and take care of them, and to help them to navigate toward lives grounded in truth, compassion, happiness, and purpose. How exactly we do that will depend on the missions and cultures of our individual schools. But I suspect schools who do it best will do it by having the courage to make space for the discomfort that accompanies real discussion of opposing views--and by being very clear about which forces our humanity insists we oppose.