The Head's Vantage
Welcome to The Head's Vantage - a blog examining important educational topics by Andrew Webster, Head of School.
Below is the Charge to the Class of 2019, delivered by Andrew Webster, Head of School, at the 136thCommencement Ceremony on June 14:
Good morning, seniors, nearly almost just-about graduates, parents, teachers, alumni, Trustees, and my mom. Look out at this crowd and recognize how many people have invested time, care, energy, and love into your lives. Think for a moment about others who have done so but who cannot be here today. Realize that you would not have reached this milestone and would not inhabit your current versions of yourselves without their support and guidance. Why don’t you blow them a kiss and give them a round of applause?
This year it took me a long time before I could sit down and start writing this speech. It is a newborn, hopefully one with clean diapers. I told you at senior dinner that your parents will want to stuff your head with all the wisdom they can cram in before they leave. With the exception of a particular senior, my son, my one last chance is today, and I hope you don’t mind if I try to swing for the fences on this one. As is true all over professional baseball these day, it will either be a home run or a strikeout. And all of you get to be the umpires.
As I started to write, yesterday afternoon, another administrator texted me with the suggestion that I should just write “get after it, Seniors” and leave it at that. By the end, you may wish I had followed her advice.
The fact that I am asked to give you a Charge implies that I know something about the “it” that you should get after. The problem for me is that I know too much about it to just paint a rosy future for you to inhabit, and I respect you too much to sugarcoat it. So, though I go through my days mostly in good cheer and with lots of laughter, I am drawn today more toward a charge that is serious and provocative. I know you will be able to hear it without it dampening your celebrations.
The simple truth that I see is that to create a rosy future for yourselves, you will need to help alter some damaging trends. I see this as an ethical perspective, though, of course, acting upon it has a political aspect as well. I am not asking you to agree with all of it, but also not to reflexively dismiss it. I have great confidence that you have acquired the ability to entertain a set of ideas without immediately agreeing or disagreeing with them. If that is not the case, you need to see me for a refund.
In one of my favorite commencement addresses ever, the speaker shared a brief story: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how's the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
The point of that story is that people can go through their daily lives and take for granted the things that sustain them, to the point where they don’t even notice them. Sometimes that seems not terribly important, but sometimes it can make people blind to the shortcomings of the ways they are living or to threats to their ways of life.
I traveled with our first school group to Peru in 2012 and then again accompanied by some of you on a second voyage in 2017. On the latter trip, I noted that all around us were mountain peaks that were a stark black, like they were made of charcoal. On my initial trip, these peaks were wreathed with glaciers that have now disappeared, exposing the rock beneath them for the first time in thousands of years. As Dahr Jamail, author of a new book entitled The End of Ice, notes, “The planet’s ecosystems, now pushed far beyond their capacity to adapt to human-generated traumas and stresses are in a state of free fall.” A vast number of species are disappearing as quickly as those glaciers have melted. Modern life has disconnected us from the natural world, and that has tempered our responses. We are consuming nature itself and have thus far refused to heed the warning signs. We haven’t paid close enough attention to the water we are swimming in. There are many who believe that the likely outcome of this disruption will be an equivalent decline of human institutions. To me, this is not yet an inevitable outcome, but I cannot in seriousness contemplate the future you will inhabit and fail to speak of the clear perils it could contain if you and others follow blindly the footsteps of your elders. Just this morning, I read in the news of happenings in a large swath of northern India, where a searing heat wave with temperatures of 120 degrees has dried up water sources. Hundreds of Indian villages have been evacuated as a historic drought forces families to abandon their homes in search of water, often leaving behind the elderly and sick and dying livestock. It is heartbreaking stuff. A recent report indicates that 40% of the population of India will lack access to drinking water by 2030. As climate crises like this one spread, do we carry on without noticing, or maybe with a humanitarian response but without giving serious thought about how situations like this will affect us in the future? Even if we are spared the worst of the weather, what will we do with the climate refugees? Are we humane enough to handle that challenge?
The choices we make as a society in the next ten to fifteen years will have an enormous impact on how we will live. You need to keep asking yourselves, how’s the water?
Here's my view of the water we swim in:
The economic and political system we have built is focused on extracting immense short-term gain for a few without considering the long-term damage done to others and to the earth. It is not sustainable, but because it seems impossible to change it we continue to work within it and try to make the best of it. We need to imagine a better society and think deeply about ways such a society could emerge and how it might work. There are economists and a range of thinkers and activists already coming up with ideas, and you need to pay attention to them. That’s what colleges are for, a place to examine ideas not just to prepare for a career. You will not come up with instant answers and you may not feel well-positioned to act in ways that would affect society quickly, but the ways you engage with the world and lead others to do so can have a profound impact. One characteristic of our current system is that we ask frequently “what are my rights?” and “how will I benefit?” We do not ask very often “what are my obligations?” An ethos that is firmly grounded in obligations rather than rights could create a more just and sustainable society. Regarding those climate refugees, will we define them as “them” or as “us?” How will we define our obligations to them? Do you see that it is impossible to write about these circumstances without using a them or us dichotomy? Do we need new language to free our minds to see the picture differently? Ludwig Wittgenstein, a giant of 20th century philosophy, wrote “the limits of language mean the limits of my world.” He titled the book the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which to me has a kind of Kendrick Lamar sort of flow to it. None of that weak Drake nonsense.
But I digress. My charge, then, is a serious one and it centers around 8 verbs:
Heal – Reach out to those who are suffering, including those species in decline, and help bind their wounds and make them well again. You won’t be able to do everything, but do what you can.
Embrace – We live in divisive times, where some groups feel empowered to act with hatred toward others. If you realize that there are no others--there is only us--you will not be led astray by demagogues who play on fears and prejudices, and you will treat all with dignity and kindness. Those climate refugees are not others, nor are those children at our borders – they are us. As the psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin wrote, "Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom." You won’t be able to always reach this ideal, but do what you can.
Sustain – Practice habits that feed your soul and bring you peace of mind. Do what you can to add to your long-term health, and that of our world.
Explore – Seek new vistas and new experiences that move you beyond your daily routines. You won’t avoid falling into daily routines, but do what you can to step beyond them frequently.
Imagine – Don’t conclude that you cannot go beyond what has already been done. Find new approaches and strategies. This is not easy work, but do what you can.
Examine – Choose carefully what you pay attention to, and make the effort needed to construct meaning from experience. The purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach you to discern what is of value. Snapchat streaks, selfies, reality tv, ridiculous internet distractions—is this really how we are going to spend the precious little time we have on this planet? A bit of escapism can be necessary, but do what you can to pay attention to what is important.
Broaden – Your college will offer opportunities to study fields you have no acquaintance with yet. Don’t limit yourself to a narrow approach that you see as pre-professional. Sample widely, and seek out the best professors regardless of what subjects they teach. Careers are important, but building a wide variety of skills and the ability to see through multiple lenses will give you the greatest adaptability, which is the key to thriving in the long run. You will eventually choose your limits, but do what you can to keep them broad.
Deepen – Do not rush to quick judgments, but let your ideas sink into you and test them mentally for a while before acting upon them. The world will insist that you hurry up. But do what you can to slow down and to dwell in the depths and not just the surface.
You’ve been climbing the mountain of school for some time now, since you were running around in shoes that light up, with superheroes on your backpacks. You may have noted that one cultural response to the feeling that the world is stretching to the breaking point, is an endless stream of superhero movies. But we don’t need superheroes or someone to come from the future to save us. We just need to look honestly at the world around us and work together to create change.
So, what does it mean to “get after it?” It means you need to prepare to face hard truths, and develop unshakable confidence in your ability to dig deep and make change. Do what you can.
I know you as a group of smart, funny, ambitious, hard-working, creative, and caring young men and women. I know some of you just want to find quick career success measured in traditional ways centered around wealth and status, and some of you have been shielded by prosperity from some of the challenges we all face. I hope you will come to understand that individual success is not enough. Yes, you will need to take care of yourself and perhaps a family, but you will also need to provide your children with a world worth inhabiting and that can only be done if you focus not just on yourself but on the well-being of others. I hope you will try to find ways to tie us all together in ways that will allow us to build a sustainable future.
You have earned a season of celebration and recognition of all you have accomplished. We are all proud of you and we have high expectations of what you will become in your next phase of life. As you venture forth, you will take a piece of my heart with you, and you will remain in our hearts here. I wish you kindness, wisdom, patience, faith in yourself, and allies you can lean on. Please know you can always lean on us and see us as a touchstone you can return to whenever you need to.
“…I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’ll have to think about that…”
Those of you who read the mission statement carefully will have noted that we made a small but important change by inserting the phrase “rigorous inquiry.” At the end of my last blog post, I discussed briefly the reasons for this change. Nearly every independent school aims at academic excellence, but we sought a phrase that would indicate what makes our brand of academic excellence distinctive. The phrase we chose denotes that we define academic excellence as the mental habit of pursuing knowledge through a thoughtful and probing set of questions, knowing that knowledge is created in this process in a cycle that is rarely finite.
As I write, I am in a bus full of fifth graders and their teachers on the way to WXPN in Philadelphia to learn podcasting approaches and techniques that can help them in constructing their own Capstone podcasts. The students have prepared a list of nearly 30 questions they wished to explore with their expert hosts. On the way down, I was able to speak with several students about their Capstone podcasts, which they are in the midst of creating. One of them provided the introductory quotation above, which is music to any teacher’s ear.
The Capstone this year is formed around an essential question, which is “What is culture?” Teachers paired students to interview parents and each other, starting with that broad question and then learning how to pursue aspects of the answers they find through deeper, more specific questions. They learned to narrow their focus without relying on questions that can be answered with short, factual responses. They are also learning how to edit responses to focus on the most important aspects of the answers, how to use music to convey feeling, how to make transitions between subjects, and how to present their own analysis of the responses they find.
In our conversations, the students shared questions that they found to be most valuable. One of them asked about one important tradition and one story that his mother kept from her home country of India. Another one asked about how the belief system her father grew up with differed from the one he follows in the United States. One asked about holiday and food traditions and noted an example that was common to his parents’ culture and one that was specific to his family but not shared across the culture. One found questions about why her father emigrated to be the most interesting. In the next phase, they will compare the responses they find and examine commonalities and differences, probing for reasons behind those differences. For example, one student noted that his mother spoke about how people in her ancestral country are much more welcoming than people here. In my bus seat chat with him, I suggested he could dig into that further and inquire what about one culture produces a welcoming response and how that differs from the culture here. If he ends up as a sociologist, I hope to appear in the acknowledgments of his first monograph.
Throughout their time at school, students will be asked to absorb knowledge and build critical academic skills, but they will also be asked to question knowledge and create their own meanings. Often these will remain in student memories as crucial learning experiences that affect how they think and learn in the future. Rigorous inquiry has become an essential part of our mission.
In my last post, I introduced our new Strategic Plan and indicated I would write about different aspects of the plan over the coming weeks. I will begin with the mission statement. The crux of the statement remains the same as it has been for over a decade, with one additional highlight.
About this time in 2006 at The Wardlaw+Hartridge School, we committed ourselves to a mission that centered on the phrase “lead and succeed in a world of global interconnection.” With a student body that emanates from roots spread worldwide, we set a high priority on global engagement, looking to explore and understand cultures, examine thorny international issues, and build a sense of stewardship toward the world.
Much of the learning related to this theme continues to take place in classrooms, but we have developed many ways to get beyond our walls and even our borders to provide valuable face-to-face learning. We currently have a group of over 20 students and several teacher/chaperones in El Paso for a border immersion program. Our students will see first-hand conditions and processes that are often misportrayed in a range of media, and they will interact with people who have been working for years on immigration issues in a variety of ways. In March, we will send another group to China, more specifically to Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. In Chengdu, students will stay with Chinese families and visit our sister school, the Shishi High School, originally built in 143-141 BC, during the Han dynasty.
Those trips will bring stories for another day. In the last two years, through the efforts of our Director of the Global Scholars Program, we have developed two successful local programs that build empathy and understanding locally. We have a large number of Upper School students who tutor refugee children in those families’ homes through our partnership with Interfaith RISE. Another group provides afterschool activities and tutoring in two Plainfield elementary schools and STEM enrichment activities in a third Plainfield school. The looks in the eyes of the kids our students serve tells you everything you need to know about the value of the programs.
For our students, the sense of purpose that is built in these experiences is of equal value, and I could not be prouder of our students’ efforts. Recently, two of our students found an opportunity to go well beyond the ordinary tasks of tutoring as the father of the family they were serving lost his job and was at risk of losing their housing. Through one of their parents, they were able to find him a job that met his needs and avoided this potential crisis. Not everyone gets to play the hero while still in high school, and these two have not sought acclaim but they’ve done something special. They’ve earned the right to wear the cape, as have their peers in the programs in many other ways.
In a few speeches to students over the last few years, I have quoted Arthur Ashe as advising us to “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That’s a pretty good mission statement for our service learning programs, which are one vital expression of our school mission.
The one area of change to highlight in our mission statement is the inclusion of the notion of “rigorous inquiry.” Academic excellence is at the core of who we are, but as a phrase it is too broad to capture our distinctive approach. In past generations, the notion of rigor always referred to acquiring more answers and at a faster pace. In this century, we have shifted that notion to the idea of learning to ask series of probing questions, not merely acquiring answers. We want students to learn how knowledge is constructed and to acquire skills that can be applied across multiple disciplines. There are areas of academic content that our students still must learn, but committing them to memory is not the end, but rather a precursor to higher level exploration of ideas. Our graduates need to move forward with a strong basis of knowledge but also with the confidence and mental discipline to ask questions that lead to further knowledge, and then to further questions. In that way, they will generate new knowledge for themselves and for the world.
Dear Wardlaw+Hartridge Community,
In Fall 2018, our Board of Trustees approved a new strategic plan. The plan includes a new vision statement, a mission statement with one small but significant addition, an unchanged statement of core values, and a series of strategic goal statements. As a whole, the document is intended to specify our school's distinctive character and identity and to guide the school's evolution over the next three years and often beyond.
Over the last five strategic plans, we have made one change to the core values and now one to the mission. Of course, a school that lives its mission will not make frequent changes to these elements. The strategic goals will change some over time as parts of them are achieved or perhaps recede in importance and are supplanted by new goals. Each strategic goal area has several shorter term priorities associated with it, but these are more susceptible to change and thus are not shared in this document.
In creating the strategic plan, we solicited and incorporated feedback from parents, faculty and staff, alumni/ae, and Trustees. Over the next several weeks I will write in more detail about the plan, and it will become less abstract. If you have questions or comments as we delve further into it, you can share those with me.
Head of School
Dear Wardlaw+Hartridge Community,
As we near the winter solstice, and the days grow shorter and darker, we seek the light. Religious and cultural traditions honor the light and speak of it returning to the world and spreading among us, and we look to the future with hope. When we gather clothing for those in need, we do so with hope that it will ease their winter burdens. When we send Christmas letters to young immigrants detained in the Tornillo detention center, it is with hope that the care evinced in the cards will bring hope to those who receive the cards. When we serve local elementary school students with tutoring and after school activities, it is with hope that they will be encouraged to see that they are valued and can set ambitious goals for themselves. When we work with refugee families, it is with hope that they will be strengthened by the sense that someone walks with them on their path toward new community.
Light is a powerful metaphor, but there are different kinds of light in the world. Some light blinds the eyes, while other light illuminates the spirit. As you gather with friends and family in the darkness of December, may you find the light that leavens your soul.
In the glare of neon times,
Let our eyes not be worn
By surfaces that shine
With hunger made attractive.
That our thoughts may be true light,
Finding their way into words
Which have the weight of shadow
To hold the layers of truth.
That we never place our trust
In minds claimed by empty light,
Where one-sided certainties
Are driven by false desire.
When we look into the heart,
May our eyes have the kindness
And reverence of candlelight.
These poetic words of blessing are taken from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us. I wish you all a peaceful winter break and look forward to welcoming you back to school in the new year.
Dear Wardlaw+Hartridge Community,
I wish you all a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving. For me, this holiday is the simplest one, and the one most steeped in memory. It is born of a harvest holiday tradition and woven into our national traditions as a foundational story, but most of us no longer live in fear of weather cycles that may determine our food supply for the winter and the thanks we give are not for divine providence that has allowed a bountiful harvest. We gather in nuclear and extended families, often with friends, to express thanks for the presence of one another and the simple joy of sharing a special meal. We give thanks for good fortune that has come our way in many ways large and small. We remember previous Thanksgiving gatherings and perhaps long for the presence of people who can no longer join us.
As Head of School, one of the main privileges of my position is the ability over time to witness and participate in moments of triumph and joy experienced by our students. I have seen seniors share important aspects of their lives in senior speeches, often to standing ovations; athletes achieving hard-fought victories or accomplishments; cast and crew and musicians delivering stellar performances after many weeks of rehearsal; artists hanging their work in our display cases; students giving of themselves through tutoring children in Plainfield public schools or refugee homes, or serving at the food bank and other venues; students in all divisions presenting Capstone projects or science research projects, or stories and poems they have written; seniors receiving college acceptance letters; students giving time and support to their classmates in so many ways; and alumni returning to renew connections.
No community that gathers hundreds of people together on daily basis will be without conflict, disappointment, and complaint. However, it is truly a privilege to work in an environment that produces such genuine human warmth and affection on regular basis. At a time when conflict and hostility toward others has become too prominent, that privilege seems even greater.
In a poem by Mary Oliver, the Buddha’s last instruction was to “make of yourself a light.” I am thankful to work in a community that would choose to pursue such a goal together, and I hope your lives are filled to the brim with meaningful reasons for gratitude.
Head of School
In late August of each year, we hold a New Faculty Orientation Day. Those teachers may have been hired months previously. They have had some interaction with new colleagues and spent time planning their curriculum and teaching for the opening segment of the school year. They are typically energetic and eager to begin, but also curious and maybe even nervous about what they will find in their new school.
We started the day with introductions, so they would get to know each other and a number of key people they will need to interact with. Quickly, though, I changed gears and asked them to spend three minutes considering and answering the following question. I wanted first-blush responses, without the opportunity to polish their answers or tailor them to some surmised expectation. The question was, “If I were to ask your students late in your first year what they value most about your teaching, what answer would most satisfy you?” I told them they were free to write in complete sentences or in fragments, and I share them with you now in unvarnished form:
•Foster an environment of curiosity and wonder.
•He takes my ideas seriously and always pushes me to a better version of what I first think.
•Patience. Understanding. Expects the best even when it’s hard. Push through the hard stuff.
•Always willing to help. Kindness. Loves my laugh.
•That I have empowered them to be life-long learners. I want them to say that I have inspired them to be in AWE by teaching them to pay attention, and be intentional about their life
•Positive attitude that gave/put me in a more positive/optimistic mindset.
•Easy-going, made it comfortable to take on new challenges.
•She made me love reading. She made me care about the questions instead of the right answers. She helped me find my voice.
•Compassion. Attention to details – changes, small adjustments and events matter. Personal impact on overall performance. Recognize each student may follow their own trajectory, that they were pushed when they needed it, and dealt a gentler hand when that was called for.
What do you note about this list? I am struck by what did not make this list. There is virtually no mention of curriculum. The focus is on what kind of person do they wish to help their students become and about the kinds of learning environments the teachers wish to create to support that growth. There is a sense of the teacher as ally and motivator, not as assessor or gatekeeper. There is nothing about grades or standardized test scores. There is a sense that qualities that cannot be counted may count the most.
As a parent, I find these goals to be inspirational and I value having my children learn in classroom environments that make these goals manifest. Visitors to the school often comment on how comfortable students are in our school, and I believe that has much to do with the broad, higher-level aspirations of their teachers. Curriculum and skills matter and mastering them is important. Teachers who approach their job with the goals shared above help our students do so in a supportive environment in which most students will thrive and develop a true confidence in themselves.
Scenes around campus from the last few days…
In late September, our girls’ varsity soccer team outlasted a tough Bishop Ahr squad for a 1-0 win. Because of injuries and illness, we were down to only 11 players for much of the second half. We were exhausted and on the ropes, but dug in and refused to allow scoring chances.
Likewise, a couple of days later, the boys’ varsity team faced a Middlesex squad that had beaten them earlier in the season 5-2. We held the lead for much of the game, but when we gave up the tying score, we could have crumbled, especially as a few good chances we generated came to nought. We took the game into overtime, which consists of two 10-minute periods. Suffering from dead legs, we battled on and managed to pressure their goal toward the end. With three seconds remaining, we scored and celebrated with jubilation.
Our seniors give their senior speeches to the Upper School students and faculty throughout the fall. Many of these speeches touch on difficult moments of pain and growth, sometimes relating to the loss of a parent or loved one, or moments where they had to make difficult choices and accept unknown outcomes.
These experiences, and countless less dramatic ones, help students develop resilience, one of many character skills we take pride in building at W+H.
At Wardlaw+Hartridge, we have always taken pride in the breadth and depth of our mission. Not surprisingly, the mission encompasses the development of strong academic and intellectual skills. Of equal importance, however, are a range of skills that are not purely academic but that relate primarily to character. These are not just “feel-good” skills, though that alone would make them worthwhile, but are skills in demand by employers.
Like many other independent schools, we have emphasized character alongside academic strength and have offered this emphasis as one of several fundamental reasons why families should enroll their children here. So how do we know how well we deliver on this promise?
Three years ago, we became members of an organization that had developed the Mission Skills Assessment. This assessment was created to help schools measure their effectiveness in teaching character, referred to by this organization as “mission skills.” With this information, we could then examine our programs for ways to enhance these skills and could develop a common language to define and emphasize their importance. The Mission Skills Assessment measures Creativity, Curiosity, Ethics, Resilience, Teamwork, and Time Management among Middle School age children, though it is now planning to expand to include Upper School age students.
Unlike the ERB tests, the MSA does not generate individual score results, but rather focuses on grade-level reports aimed at patterns within a large group. We can track the grade groups over time, and can also break them down into subgroups. Information we gain then shapes areas of emphasis within our advising system and sometimes in the design of assignments in our courses.
We have only participated in the MSA for three years, but are among the national leaders in the areas of creativity and curiosity. In other areas we fall into the average band, albeit average among a pool that includes the best independent schools in the nation. Time management and resilience are areas where we see a need for further focus. In the three years we have participated, the nationwide score for life satisfaction as reported by the students on the MSA has declined, whereas our score has risen steadily and exceeds the national average.
The point, however, is not to rank ourselves, but to understand our strengths and weaknesses in character skills and examine how we can support character growth much as we do with academic growth. If you have questions regarding the MSA, Dr. Crafton is our doyenne of mission skills, and she would be happy to discuss the ways we use it.
Andrew Webster, Head of School, delivered a welcome and closing remarks at the 136th Convocation Ceremony in Laidlaw Gym on September 6, 2018:
Greetings, and welcome back to school. Or welcome to your first day at W+H! With many of you, I have shared numerous convocations; this is my 14thhere. It’s always the same, in that it is always the beginning of something, hopefully something great. It’s always sweltering, but it always feels important to gather all three divisions together even if there’s some discomfort. And it is always different. You are older, changed in some way, and there are students and faculty no longer here, and others here anew. So it is always different and always the same.
In my work here over many years, I have learned so much, and mostly I have learned how much more I have to learn. And how wonderful it is to start again to tackle the challenge of learning more. And then to be astounded anew by something I have never known before and can barely understand.
I know it can be hard to go back to school, to adjust again to the framework of a school schedule, and to take on assigned work and get it done, again and again, for months at a time. But in so doing, you come to understand your world better, and often the assignments contain facts or ideas of interest. They prompt you to build your mind, which can then go in directions you choose. Through the year, I know I will see you take joy in learning and accept the hard work that is sometimes required to master challenging material.
One of the recurring challenges of school is recreating a sense of community in a student body that is constantly changing. In June, 49 students graduated from our community, and each year some others leave the school. Now, we have 90 new students, which is about 20% of our student body, and several new teachers and staff members. I would like to ask everyone who is new to our community this year to stand for a moment, and the rest of us will welcome you with a round of applause. As always, a special welcome goes to those of you who have joined our school for the first time from distant countries thousands of miles away from us. It takes a special courage to leave behind the comforts of home, and live in a new school, language, and home. We are proud to welcome you.
Look at this gym. It is hot, dusty, and old, not a showpiece like the Berry PAC or the renovated Lower Snowdon library. But what is most important to our school is here, and that is all of you. You are vital to each other’s education. The poet Wendell Berry wrote, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.” What then is your job as a friend, classmate, or teammate? It is to play that role in a way that teaches others to be better than they are. That’s an important job, and is best done by modeling your finest qualities and demonstrating how to be a good friend, a good student, and a good teammate. Those who set the best examples find that others will emulate them.
This morning, we will hear first from Mr. Rob Rizzo, the President of our Board of Trustees. Mr. Rizzo once sat in those bleachers and also starred on basketball teams on this court, and is now a very successful partner in a major accounting firm. We will also hear from a gentleman and a scholar, Stan DeLaurentiis, President of our Student Council.
Do you have a favorite animal? What is it?
How many of you have been to the Bronx Zoo? If not, I highly recommend it. You can spend a full day there and not come close to seeing all of the species they care for there.
I could tell you a long story about the history of zoos and how they have changed for the better, after a long period of being depressing places that offered little respect to the needs of the animals. But it’s too hot for a long story, even one that ends well. Zoos have often become places of learning, of research, and have become important in trying to assure the vitality of species, and they have learned to build habitats that are more respectful of the needs of the animals. As I went through my photos of my recent trip to the Bronx Zoo, I noted that they included some of the usual suspects—the gorillas, giraffes, tigers, snow leopards, bears—that attract the most attention. But they also included a golden poison dart frog half the size of my thumb, red lemurs, butterflies, tiny turtles, the world’s largest cattle, birds of many varieties, snakes, lizards and so on. All of these species contribute to making the world a special place, and the zoo represents that idea in its own microcosm.
We are not a zoo, of course, though you may find certain similarities, especially around lunchtime. We have only one species enrolled here. But within our species there are enormous differences, and our respect for the richness that these differences bring to our community distinguishes Wardlaw+Hartridge from other schools and organizations.
Your learning and growth here are of paramount importance. The setting in which that learning and growth occur is important, and they are in fact completely intertwined. Earlier I spoke of being the sort of friend, classmate and teammate that elevates others, and I want you to commit to that goal. Likewise, I want you to help us ensure that we create and uphold a community of respect for all of its members and for the school itself. If we take care of our community and learn from the best qualities of each other, as friends and students, we will truly shine.
I wish you all a wonderful year.
Below is the Charge to the Class of 2018, delivered by Andrew Webster, Head of School, at the 135thCommencement Ceremony on June 8:
Good morning, students, parents, faculty, Trustees and friends. We are honored by your presence and happy to join together to celebrate the graduation of a talented and fascinating group of seniors, the Class of 2018.
I have been giving the Charge, as this part of the program is known, for 13 years. Every year I resolve to finish it early, so I can burnish it to a fine glow, and every year I fail to do so. Every year I write until I feel my remarks are complete and say what I want them to, but I have never thought to time them. Last year, unbeknownst to me, two sophomores took it upon themselves to do so, and claim that I spoke for 16 minutes and 36 seconds. That seems entirely unlikely to me, but they swear it is so. And I cannot refute it. They expressed their assertion with such excitement that I could only conclude that they wish me to beat that record, and probably next year extend it again. Laura and Olivia, I thank you for your encouragement, and I can only say I will do my best.
Seniors, one of the traps your parents will fall into this summer is the urge to pack in every last bit of advice and direction they can muster. It is an urge that is pointless to resist. Your job is to nod, agree with a level of enthusiasm that makes them think that their words might just be sinking in (but not so enthusiastically that they know you are faking it), and forgive them for not quite having an unshakeable belief that indeed, you’ve got this. Some version of that parental urge leads me to speak too long, and so I’ll ask you to include me in that forgiveness.
I can’t help thinking that we are favored today by the presence of Jim O’Halloran, our friend, colleague, and teacher who passed away this Spring. Four years ago, Mr. O’Halloran spoke at the commencement exercises for the Class of 2014. I thought it would be fitting to borrow a portion of his comments from that day and redirect them to our graduates this year.
Class of 2018, in O’Hal’s words: Considering all that you have accomplished here at Wardlaw-Hartridge and the impressive college paths you are about to take, I can clearly see that you are expertly managing your present and planning your future. So, I am not sure what advice I can give you. Instead, I would like to make three somewhat unconnected but, I think, important requests, which I can express with three verbs: serve, vote, and talk. Let me explain.
First, serve. Many of you have already, at your young ages, accumulated a record of service that is humbling to the rest of us. Gandhi tells us that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” You have done that. I hope that Wardlaw-Hartridge has played some part in helping you to develop this ethic of service, and I am confident that you will carry it forward when you leave us.
Second, vote. Those of you who have been my students know that this is a personal obsession for me, and as a graduation gift I would like to pass it on to you. You are either 18 now or will be in a few months, and it is time for you to assume the principal duty of a citizen in a participatory democracy. In the next 29 months you will have the power to elect your representatives to congress and the next president of the United States. But you will only have that power if you vote. In my judgment, there is no such thing as an insignificant election. The fact that there is an election, and that you have the opportunity to participate in it, is itself significant. Graduations, or more specifically, commencements, are about the future, and so are elections. I am sure you would not relinquish control over your academic future or your career future, and I urge you to treat your citizenship future in the same careful way.
Finally, talk. You are already quite good at this, and I say that as a compliment. Look at the beautiful community you have created here at Wardlaw-Hartridge. Community is one of our core values; we say in our mission statement that “our community is distinguished by an ethos of care and mutual respect…, ” and you, as a class, have learned some important lessons. A community does not create itself, and it does not sustain itself. It takes participation, commitment, and an openness to growth. Stephen Hawking, a well-regarded smart person (who coincidentally also passed away this spring), had this to say:
“For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk, and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
Personally, I would reframe that idea to give stronger emphasis to listening. We are far better in our society at transmitting than we are at receiving, and we need to work on that especially with the advent of social media that are built to amplify voices but curtail real dialogue.
Like Mr. O’Halloran, I am a student of American history. In our great nation, we have built a national historical narrative around the power and freedom of the individual, and the merits and rights of one dominant race and religion. Over time, that vision expanded and became more inclusive, but not without hard-fought battles to control and project a different and broader narrative. Those battles continue anew. In our emphasis on the importance of the individual, we have given scant consideration to the obligation to others, to the broader society. These are uncomfortable thoughts, and some of you may think it is not appropriate to include them in a graduation speech. But it is an important and contested strain of our national narrative that you will be asked to weigh in on as you serve and vote and talk. As a school, the achievement that makes me proudest is that we have succeeded in placing a very strong emphasis on community, and an equally strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion. There are people who believe and are working hard to convince others that these ideas must be in conflict. It is not so. There are people who think they can thrive only by tearing others down. It is not so. We celebrate individual achievement without accepting that it must be at the expense of others. It is not for me to tell you what you should think about issues such as these, but it is my job to urge you to ask questions and think about your own responses.
You will have great opportunities to carve out a place for yourself in this world, to find success in a wide variety of fields. I recently heard a senior declare his desire to get rich. I understand the appeal of wealth but the goal needs to be broader. As Hamdi Ulukaya, the billionaire CEO of Chobani put it in his recent address to the MBA graduates of Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, build a world that emphasizes, Return on Kindness over Return on Investment. That advice will serve you well, regardless of your chosen field. Mr. Ulukaya has amassed great wealth, but rejecting the idea that wealth is the ultimate marker of success or that the drive for wealth should permit us to exploit others.
Many of you will acquire wealth and power. To what degree will you use that to pursue only selfish ends? Will you perceive an obligation to use a significant part of it to improve the lives of others? Is wealth and power a goal unto itself? And if you never get beyond merely accumulating more, will your existence become a hollow exercise? I hope you will carry the values we emphasize at W+H into the world and will remain true to them. You will see around you people who take the easy way out, choosing immoral or selfish actions, and are often rewarded. You may be tempted to do so yourself. Listen to your inner voice, the one that calls you to act according to principles you know to be right. Don’t let that voice be drowned out by the voices of vulgar ambition that are so prevalent in the world presented to you relentlessly through all sorts of channels.
In your public lives, you will be among citizens who will make decisions of enormous importance related to issues such as inequality, health care, climate change, war and peace, and refugee and immigration issues that will impact the world and all of its cultures. You may be the generation whose decisions will have the greatest impact on the sustainability of the world in many ways. I urge you to pay close attention, read broadly, and accept the burden of fighting for the best decisions. If people like you look away from these issues and think only of personal advancement and comfort, or just decide you cannot be bothered, as too many in my generation have done, the world will suffer. We need a clearer and more powerful understanding of our responsibilities to others, to look not to the particular interests of a narrow tribe but to the broad interests of all of humanity.
So, serve, vote, talk, listen, be good, do good. There’s a world waiting to be built that needs your voice, that needs people brave enough to step beyond the labels and limitations of the past and develop new approaches to solve profound problems that plague the world today. When framing your goals, include not just what you want but what the world needs. Accept the challenge, even if you can only do a small part, and aim high. That, in a nutshell, is my Charge to you.
Now, that’s a broad and long-term Charge. Your immediate challenges, thankfully, are simpler than that. Do the basics well. Eat well. Take your sleep needs seriously. Stay physically active. Do your laundry. Be respectful of your roommates needs. You are headed to colleges and universities that offer an enormous range of opportunities. Take the time to sample a bit and make sure you choose some new things that you have no previous interest in. Do the research to figure out which professors are best and take their classes, even if they have nothing to do with your intended major.
In your four years, work on habits of minds and skills that are needed in the workplace. What are those skills? Google last year undertook an extensive study of what skills are prevalent on their highest performing teams. They called it Project Aristotle if you want to look it up. They found that their best teams exhibited the following qualities: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard. This isn’t to say that technical skills are meaningless, but just that they are insufficient. So seek experiences that allow you to build those skills. Study abroad, engage in service, step into the historical, literary, artistic shoes of others. Learn how poets observe and how scientists observe, and how they create knowledge. Seek exemplars in the fields you choose to pursue, and seek internships to give you direct experience. Think patiently and deeply about the place you wish to create for yourself in college and in the world.
Seniors, I speak for all of the faculty and staff of Wardlaw+Hartridge when I say that we are hopeful and excited about what the future will bring for you. We will really miss you, and I hope you will keep in touch with us and visit often.
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