The Head's Vantage

Welcome to The Head's Vantage - a blog examining important educational topics by Andrew Webster, Head of School. 


Do What You Can To Get After It

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.

Posted by awebster on Friday June, 14, 2019 at 12:57PM


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