Head of School's Blog
It is probably obvious to everyone that 2016 – 2017 was a challenging year for schools in this country. As the election cycle permeated our national discourse on every level, including the “new” one of social media, so many Americans felt obliged to get involved, pick sides, and sometimes identify allies and adversaries. The backdrop for this exchange was a society that for decades had been changing, slowly but inexorably, in terms of its demographics, economic structure, and values, and with the end nowhere in sight. Summarizing the situation now, it feels like a perfect formula for raising our collective blood pressure and, along the way, testing the mettle of all our institutions.
In the process our schools became a fault line for these forces. On several local campuses, there were eruptions of discord that centered on issues rising from (or perhaps exposed by) the election. Since the 1960s, we had grown used to political tension at the university level, and now it had reached our high schools and in many cases even the lower grades. My colleagues around the country, from every conceivable kind of school, all recount similar stories. At the Midwest regional (ISACS) conference in November and again at the national independent school (NAIS) gathering in Baltimore in February, concern over school climate featured in most workshops and crept into every conversation, literally.
And of course Whitfield was not immune to these local and national trends. For example, as in election years past, some students sported political tee shirts or bumper stickers declaring their loyalties. But this time round the response was sometimes outspoken and not always friendly; this time round, people were taking the issues personally to the point that a genuine exchange of ideas was becoming a difficult proposition. The obvious up-side to these circumstances was that students were taking a heightened interest in politics, something that has been lacking among them for a generation at least; but it also became apparent that they, along with many of the rest of us, had become hypersensitive to the opinions of others.
At the end of this scholastic year, I am able to report that Whitfield has met this challenge successfully. As we sent off the inimitable class of 2017 and prepared to take our leave of each other for a few months, a tone of respect and, in our best moments, joy, reigned. More important, this year I believe we identified a way forward that will increase our understanding of each other and of the issues. Along the way we were reminded of some essential truths and, I hope, learned a few new ones. Throughout this challenging time I have been heartened by the strength of the Whitfield community and convinced anew of the rightness of our mission: where any of us erred in the moment, our commitment to the integrity and humanity of each student – and of each other – remained our north star and brought us back to the right path.
The notion that a college preparatory program must honor a multiplicity of perspectives is rooted, of course, in common sense: no one sharpens their mind or grows as a person where their ideas are received uncritically or where dissent is excluded - in other words, in an echo chamber. But since the early 20th century American education has also claimed a higher goal and purpose: to instill democratic values in those on whose shoulders one day the health of the republic will depend, when their turn comes. The first great exponent of this ideal, the American philosopher John Dewey in his work at the University of Chicago, insisted that our schools should be laboratories of democracy where the ongoing American political experiment finds local expression. Since the tenure of Head of School Mary Burke and our affiliation with the Coalition of Essential schools, if not before, Whitfield has been a school in this tradition, and I am confident that our families believe it is still the right one.
Each of us has a role to play in this work. For the school’s administration and faculty, we must ensure that the voice of every student is respected and that all students are encouraged to both express and refine their opinions. And this year we were reminded that, to conduct a successful dialogue, the adults in the room must keep their own convictions in check. For parents, a starting point might be to encourage your child to become the best listener possible, while keeping sight of the fact that having an open mind does not imply that all claims are equally valid.
One point on which I have heard only unanimity this year is that Whitfield’s character education curriculum, the centerpiece of our program, is essential to our success in this area. The “Habits of Mind and Heart” we seek to cultivate, including patience, compassion, and ethical behavior, are the qualities that will make a productive exchange of ideas possible and allow this community to continue to thrive. And as we maintain our commitment to the school’s mission, and in the process to each other, succeed we shall.
Last month I attended the Global Education Symposium in New York City. It promised to be an auspicious gathering, as it featured prominent educators from the university setting in this country and beyond, as well as researchers, scientists, and think tank members from around the world. It turned out to be a unique experience for me as I was nearly the only attendee from an independent school. The fact that the registration fee for educators was $50 was also a plus!
The main focus of the conference – the role of technology in global education – provided some revelations. For one, it was clear that those at the university level are scrambling to integrate technology into their programs organically. They are feeling pressure as they see young people entering the technology workforce quite successfully without or sometimes even in spite of university preparation. In fact, given the universality of IT in our lives, it is perhaps already fair to claim that the “technology workforce” is rapidly becoming simply the workforce, a reality that heightened the challenge to the institutions represented there.
Thus, an uneasy subtext of much of the conference dialogue was that a swerve toward a more workplace-oriented or, as we used to call it, “vocational” university experience may be in order if these institutions are to retain their relevance in the education market. And that is a prospect that the typical university or college has a problem with, and for good reason.
Paradoxically, it was also a clear assumption among these educators that the benefits of the liberal arts, with its emphasis on erudition, creativity, and clear thinking, not to mention the pursuit of beauty and meaning, all remain essential to forging both a successful career and a happy life. The question then for colleges and universities: how, effectively, to marry the two, technology and the liberal arts, so that every graduate gains competence in both?
The reports of the various presenters described other features of the educational landscape that add definition to the challenge at hand:
- In America, women continue to be vastly underrepresented in technology fields, both in educational programs and careers, and the extent of this deficit is a uniquely western phenomenon. Other parts of the world are doing much better, while the percentage of female representation in IT in the United States has actually shrunk over the last 30 years. The implications for reduced opportunity for American women in the global work force is therefore, obviously, alarming.
- The preparation of American students for university level work generally, in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as well as the other academic fields, is perceived as continuing to decline. This conclusion was based primarily on data from the California State university system (23 schools, 470,000 students), usually cited as one of the nation’s best.
- The trend toward increased specialization in IT and the higher order skills it requires, as a prerequisite for a gainful career, continues to grow on a global scale.
Although there is, arguably, more pressure on colleges and universities than on secondary schools to respond to these circumstances, the challenge is definitely there in a different form for us as well. And if there is some comfort in hearing that very competent thinkers at the next level are entertaining the same problems as us, that news shouldn’t lessen the urgency we feel at Whitfield as we prepare our graduates for what awaits them.
I was surprised that in the course of this particular conference I did not hear more specific reference to entrepreneurship, which looms as a promising element of the future of American education. It is a concept at which schools have been reaching for a few years now without many clear results. Understood broadly as the impulse to “create value for oneself and others,” entrepreneurial thinking may provide one key to the successful redefinition of our schools.
The best way to approach the changing dynamics of college, college prep, and the new global economy is as an enormous opportunity for schools such as Whitfield. And the only true failure in this context is to live in denial that many aspects of traditional education must evolve. As we continue, in our school, to ask hard questions about the effectiveness of our curriculum for success in the 21st century, we will honor the best of the past, to be sure. But we will also look for every chance to ensure that our graduates will be ready for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I loved every second of it.”
If, as an educator, you decided to make good on the wild idea of taking a group of midwestern high school students to China for two weeks, I don’t think you could hope for a better summary statement than this one after the fact.
Last spring, a group of 16 Whitfield students, plus four chaperones, embarked on just such an adventure, one that took us to the heart of Beijing, to Changchun, the capital of Manchuria, to Hohut, the principle city of Inner Mongolia, and to Xi’an, the historic home of the Chinese imperial dynasties and the fabled terracotta army. Along the way our group stayed in the dorms and visited the classrooms of two leading high schools, had an overnight stay with host families, trekked the Forbidden City and (of course) the Great Wall, honed their surprisingly sharp bargaining skills at the famed Silk Market in Beijing, expanded their Chinese language prowess, and experienced every manner of conveyance of modern life: bullet trains, buses, and airplanes for a total of more than 2,700 miles within the People’s Republic. When you add in 15,000 miles of air travel, you could say we covered a lot of ground!
One of the keys to this memorable trip— certainly the best that I have experienced in my three decades of working with young people— was our avoidance of the usual “global experience” programs that provide this kind of travel for schools. Instead, we were able to rely on the international partnerships we have created over the past two years, both on the ground in China and especially through a local Chinese friend, Allan Zhang. Not only did these connections reduce the cost of the trip, they also provided ready-made friendships with our various hosts in China. And if the Chinese are famous for their hospitality, having previous connections already in place only elevated our experience. And then there was serendipity: the fact that our own Mandarin teacher (and alumna), Harmony Bell, had such a strong network of friends in Inner Mongolia, where she taught English to university students for several years, made our visit to that far flung locale the highlight of the entire trip for many of our number. In case you never get there, let me just say that Hohut reminds me of Denver more than any city I’ve ever seen. (Who knew?)
We live in a time when globalization both defines the new 21st century reality and identifies what many people find amiss in our national and personal experience. That is, though this collective seismic event is inexorable, it is also difficult to escape the sense of dislocation it brings to one’s sense of self and country, not to mention the challenge to the world view that my generation in particular has until recently taken for granted.
It is worth noting that this sense of dis-ease is decidedly not the experience of today’s average independent school student, as was made very clear to me as I watched our Whitfield students immerse themselves in the many radically new experiences they encountered on this journey. It may well be true that while the rest of us were fretting about how we – and our country – might cope with all this change, the younger generation was preparing to welcome it as the new normal. In any case, the implications for education of all aspects of globalization are enormous, and the schools that are best equipped to harness the energy and seize the opportunities that globalization brings will be the schools that succeed in meeting job number one: preparation for success, and personal satisfaction, in today’s workplace and society.
We don’t often acknowledge it, but what we’re really after and what we truly wish for our children when we send them to school is not so much knowledge per se, but rather self-knowledge. I can’t think of a tradition, from west or east, that doesn’t value this experience of insight above any other benefit that might result from education, perhaps because self-knowledge represents the best preparation for, and protection from, all that the world might throw their way. Some of our travelers on this adventure discovered that they had no need for further travel in this part of the world; others couldn’t wait to return. Regardless, each returned with some insight that only a journey of this magnitude can convey— about themselves, about their previous assumptions, and about the peoples of the world. And each will have a new appreciation of Keats’ assertion that, “Nothing ever becomes real ‘til it is experienced.”
I have said many times since our return that the absolute highlight of this trip for me was my interaction with these 16 Whitfield students. In them, I saw a toughness, a spirit of cooperation, a patience, and an openness to people and experiences that I frankly had not expected. They rose to each of many challenges with a keen sense of humor, did not shy from genuine physical exertion and, at least in my hearing, never uttered a discouraging word. Their representation of our school and, yes, our culture was indeed something to take pride in.
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