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Becoming Our Best Selves
Head of School Jeff Bissell
September 01, 2017
Welcome to school year 2017-18. It is a great honor and privilege to serve this community and to endeavor, with a great team of colleagues and on a daily basis, to effect learning that is in some measure life changing. And it is my sincere belief that if we as parents and educators are successful, your children will grow up and make world changing contributions, great or small. Tall order, but not too tall.
I’d like to begin with where we left off at the conclusion of the 2016-17 school year. In June we unveiled a new school philosophy statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion (shorthand: DEI). The process of composing this statement was time consuming (a year), inclusive (students, parents, board, faculty, staff, and—of course—consultants), and grounded in the CAIS mission. The statement pledges a commitment to learning and teaching, home/school partnership, community diversity, policies and practices, and measuring our progress. Concurrent to articulating our philosophy, in 2016-17 we took concrete steps toward many of our commitments. I urge you to read and re-read our philosophy statement.
Almost immediately the relevance of our DEI philosophy statement became clear. This summer we were all reminded that in our country (and even in our own backyard), there are those who vehemently and violently disagree with the principles the CAIS community has just affirmed. Intolerance, hate, prejudice, and violence are not new. What is new is that our President seems to have chosen this moment in history to step away from the historical role of moral leader. What I heard in the aftermath of the Charlottesville riots were equivocal responses. For me, the President failed to champion ideals to which our country has aspired and which our community has articulated with a unified voice. Some think this has emboldened the purveyors of hate. In this political context, what should our response be as parents and educators? What do our kids need? It’s a bit of a minefield, and the simple answers are, well, too simple.
First, I am alarmed and discouraged by what I view as a growing intolerance—across the political spectrum—for free speech and civil discourse in US public life. Increasingly, Americans of all political stripes seem okay with a kind of “scorched earth” approach toward people or institutions with whom they disagree. I want to be clear that at CAIS, we are not interested in indoctrination or force-feeding a set of locally popular values to the children in our care or the adults in our community at the expense of critical thinking and free thought. However, this tolerance should not extend to equivocating about the moral unacceptability of doctrines that preach violence against or exclusion of certain races, religions, or ethnic groups. The risks of complacency, avoidance and indifference are insidious; are we satisfied with our kids simply not being overtly racist, homophobic, anti-muslim, sexist etc? Or, do we wish for them to learn to speak up proactively and take meaningful action in the face of injustices that they recognize?
I have heard some concern in the community that CAIS is engaging in a kind of tradeoff between intellectual rigor on one hand and diversity, equity, and inclusion on the other. I respectfully disagree and think that this is a false dichotomy; why can’t our kids can be both kind and compassionate and strong readers and writers? Why can’t they be respectful of difference and excel in the STEM disciplines? Have the courage to stand up to injustice and unfairness and the courage to express themselves artistically? Be tenacious in their pursuit of equity and tenacious in their pursuit of academic excellence? In the end, a student’s ERB or SSAT scores and their admission to selective high schools and colleges are of little consequence if they are equivocal about where they stand morally on issues of justice, equity, and inclusion. If they permit—through their silence, passivity, or inaction—those on the wrong side of history to propagate hate and injustice, then their own education and upbringing have failed them, regardless of how gifted or talented they may be. I’m pretty sure Harvard is not interested in kids like that. The CAIS DEI philosophy statement says, “excellence comes with, not at the expense of, diversity.”
I want to leave you with a couple of recommendations. I am a big podcast fan, and every morning as I walk to CAIS I listen to a podcast called “The Daily.” Maybe some of you are familiar with it—it’s put out by the New York Times and it focuses on a single current event in some depth. Recently there were two episodes that were so compelling that I paused at the corner of Waller and Buchanan and just stood there, listening, because I wanted to finish them before I got to work. The first, “A Conversation With A Former White Nationalist,” aired Tuesday, August 22 and tells the story of Derek Black, a young man raised in a white nationalist family who disavowed the movement in college. The second, which aired Wednesday, August 30, is called “Two Lives Collide in Western Arkansas.” It tells the story of Abraham Davis who was embraced by the Muslim community in a small Arkansas town after he and his friends had defaced a mosque in a drunken rampage. I was humbled and inspired by the compassion and optimism of the people in both stories who refused to retaliate and adopt the violent and hateful tactics of their enemies. If I am completely honest with myself, I am not sure I could have taken the high road as they did. If you have a chance to listen, ask yourself whether you would be proud of your own children if they showed the same magnanimity toward those who attacked them. I found their example for us as parents and educators to be uplifting, particularly at this challenging time in our country’s history. We can set any example we wish. Let’s provide the moral leadership for our kids that they need. As a community let’s choose the path that is life changing and world changing. A well-known Asian figure from the fifth century BCE (whom I will not name) is reputed to have said, “Conquer the hateful man with love; conquer the bad man with goodness; conquer the miser with generosity; conquer the liar with truth.”
I’d like to extend a special welcome to our new families, welcome to this community. Have a great weekend, everyone, and I’ll see you around the campuses.