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Our Commitment to Inspire – Parents Weekend Remarks

October 22, 2011

In thanks to all of you for your great support and enthusiasm over the weekend, I offer you the seven points I have identified as the essential commitments we as a school and a parent group need to make to inspire our students to lives of service, creativity, kindness and leadership. These principles deserve the attention and energy of a group of adults collaborating on the art of education and parenting.

I. Education’s Role in American Democracy
At a time when the ambition and potential of private school has diminished, we celebrate education’s historic role in deepening the essence of American democracy. Education at its best is an invitation to citizenship, to leadership, to a life informed by judicious and thoughtful consideration of the most essential questions facing humanity. Such a vision of education needs our support, our voice and our affirmation, especially at a time when a strategic view of education is ascendant—this narrow view suggests that education is an instrument to be manipulated, controlled and used for individual ambition and achievement. It is a vision that disheartens the student, empties the classroom of passion and curiosity and rewards a form of learning that is passive and flat. We strive to create and enact an education designed to awaken our students to life-long commitments to intellectual curiosity, thoughtfulness and creativity. We as adults must bear witness to the transformational role education must play in our students’ lives.

II. Education as a Source of Community Values
We live in the most enlightened time in our country’s history. In our lifetime, we have seen prejudice and discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class, ability, sexual orientation and age collapse as the dogmas of hatred, exclusion and power have given way to a deep respect and reverence for difference, for diversity, for human rights. With these remarkable achievements in play, why would schools and colleges stand by as vestiges and remnants of intolerance and prejudice take on their tired last stands?

We seek to bring the culture of respect and dignity for every human being into our campus each year, and we strive to encourage our students to take that moral and spiritual strength to a world in need of kindness, compassion, empathy and understanding.

III. The Power of Grit, Resilience, Perseverance in School and in Life
The research is in, and the conclusions are both obvious and important to consider. The most important habit of mind we need to foster, strengthen and encourage in students is the capacity to work hard, to overcome frustration, obstacles and failures, and to commit themselves to the achievement of long-term ambitious goals. In his recent New York Times Magazine article, Paul Tough cites recent research that disrupts the unfortunate American assumption that it is natural talent and intelligence that lead to success in school and in life. Tough’s article suggests in contrast that students and young adults need the experience of failure to develop the skills of perseverance and resilience that will stay with them for a lifetime. Drawing on research emanating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology movement, Tough describes how we or our students and children could test our capacity for fortitude and perseverance by reflecting on the following statements:

  • I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
  • Setbacks don’t discourage me.
  • I am a hard worker.
  • I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.
  • I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.
  • I finish whatever I begin.
  • I have achieved a goal that took years of work.

The implications of this work are enormous. We can inspire our students by setting high expectations in students and encouraging and coaching them to work steadily and courageously to achieve them.

IV. Education for Happiness?
Our Episcopal identity and mission teach us that our ultimate responsibility at St. Andrew’s is to inspire students to find meaning and happiness in their lives by living lives of generosity, empathy and goodness in our nation and the world.

At the same time, recent research on happiness confirms that we as adults experience fulfillment, health, creativity, vitality when we live with a larger purpose than the satisfaction of our own individual needs and appetites. In a recent talk, Corey Keyes shared his research on flourishing, noting that adults who embrace the following questions find themselves growing, learning and leading. Men and women who flourish answer “almost every day” or “every day” to the following questions: How often during the past month did you feel . . .

  • that you had something important to contribute to society?
  • that you belonged to a community?
  • that our society is becoming a better place for people like you?
  • that people are basically good?
  • that the way our society works makes sense to you?
  • that you like most parts of your personality?
  • that you are good at managing the responsibilities of your daily life?
  • that you have a warm and trusting relationship with others?
  • that you have experiences that challenged you to grow and become a better person?
  • that you are confident to express your own ideas and opinions?
  • that your life has a sense of direction or meaning to it?

If education fails to awaken students to a search for meaning, a way to connect meaningfully to problems, dilemmas and opportunities in our world, we will continue to find students turning to alcohol/drugs or other mindless forms of distraction and entertainment. Flourishing does not mean satisfying our own greedy egos, it involves generosity, collaboration and action—every day.

V. “A Culture of Integrity”
As schools turn to narrow and strategic markers of achievement and progress and students buy into a culture of resume building and strategic learning, it is inevitable that students will be tempted to cheat a system that rewards not dynamic learning but rote learning. Cheating is a by-product of a mentality in our culture that seeks success and advantage at any cost.

We seek as a school and as a parent body to embrace an ethic that asks students to be honest, straight, transparent in what they do and what they say. Just as it is easy to fall into a habit of lying, a habit of deceiving, a habit of cheating, it is easy to get into the habit of telling the truth, doing one’s own work and never, ever cutting corners. The St. Andrew’s model will lead to success and fulfillment, not through cheating but through rigorous and determined commitment to ambitious goals.

VI. The Cultivation of Young Men and Young Women for Life in the 21st Century
One of the revolutions I described above was the birth and success of the women’s movement in education and in American society. As a result of the courage, sacrifice and work of generations of women and male allies, women in the 21st century enjoy equal access to schools, colleges, universities, graduate schools and every profession and leadership role imaginable.

Perhaps it should be surprising then that attitudes about women, about sexuality and about relationships continue to reveal old habits, destructive assumptions and lacerating behavior. Colleges describe a transformation that occurs on Thursday through Saturday evenings as men assert control over a social environment and insist upon a culture that is not respectful or affirming for men or women on campus. Men can translate feelings of fear, immaturity and cowardice, by asserting a model of masculinity that relies on the degradation of women. The media is happy to confirm this portrait.

St. Andrew’s must continue to assert a gender vision that honors the full complementary collaboration of men and women on campus.

VII. Alcohol/Drugs in the 21st Century
For some private school and college and university students, alcohol and drug use remains a powerful factor in their lives. Such use dramatically disrupts student capacity for involvement in the life of school and college. Such use destroys student development of skills of resilience and perseverance. Such use leads to increased incidents of sexual assault, destruction of property and a breakdown of trust in a community.

We as adults have the responsibility of asserting the power and the vitality of an alcohol/drug-free culture in our schools and communities. We must create the same expectations at school, at home, whether we are in session, on long weekends or on vacation.

Ultimately, it does matter how we as a school and we as parents talk about education. If we think in small and petty and strategic ways, we may inspire our students to adopt mechanical and stagnant approaches to the opportunity of a lifetime. If we remind them that education at St. Andrew’s seeks to empower them to fight for a better school, a better community, a better democracy and world, our students will embrace the full potential of this form of education. If we embrace these questions, I believe the mindset and spirit of our sons and daughters will soar:

  • What are the gifts you are preparing to share with the world?
  • How do you enact an ethic of responsibility and stewardship for your friends, your neighbors and the world?
  • What is your definition of your direction and sense of meaning in your life?

Such questions are so different from the ones our current educational culture is posing.

We have the capacity as adults to keep our students focused on the large essential questions—let’s not miss this moment!

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