Saturday, April 22, 2006

How does a community discuss the "undiscussables"?

Yesterday's posting on "Nurturing a Culture of Teamwork" generated a thought-provoking comment that raises an important, but sensitive issue:

"I remain much less concerned about the culture of teamwork on the adult level than on the profound changes in the culture of our children at school/sports/play/parties as a result of the huge number of incredibly affluent national students."

I don't know.... I'm a big believer in what Samuel Butler (the 17th century English poet and satirist) said in his famous work Hudibras, Part II:

As the ancients
Say wisely, have a care 'o the main chance
And look before you ere you leap;
For as you sow, you are like to reap.

Students don't establish a school's culture. Adults do. We need to create the frameworks and scaffolds of shared values within which we expect students to operate and behave -- and then we need to provide them with the tools they need to live up to our expectations. In other words, if we, as an adult community, don't actively build a climate that nurtures mutual respect, empathy, kindness, openness -- and all the other values and character traits that we hold dear -- then we can't expect students to magically create that kind of culture by themselves.

But here's the bigger problem with the comment: it points a finger at a specific nationality, which is divisive and hurtful. Instead of focusing on race or nationality, isn't it better to focus on the behavior that's the problem? After all, no one nationality has a lock on bad behavior.

Better yet, wouldn't it be more helpful to create a conversation that encourages us, as a community, to zero-in on the values that we want our students to embody? Those types of values (things like perserverence, humility, empathy, kindness) don't have ethnic or socio-economic boundries. Talking about the kind of people we want our children to become is much more constructive than dividing the community into national or economic categories.

Let me give you an example. The high school district where I grew up (on Chicago's "North Shore") can only be described as fabulously wealthy. I'm talking mansions, super-luxury cars, swanky shopping, vacation homes in northern other words, rare air. While not all students came from families of preposterously huge net worth, everyone was immersed in an environment of extreme priviledge.

Yet amazingly, I don't remember this as ever causing a problem. Here's why: the school actively nurtured a culture of humbleness and debt to society. Teachers and administrators practically beat this message into the students: "You have been given incredible gifts -- the gift of an amazing education, freedom from need and want, and the opportunity to reach your full potential. But with this these gifts come duties. It is your duty to make the most of these gifts, and then to give back to the world."

This culture of noblesse oblige permeated almost every aspect of school life. No student doubted that great things were expected of him or her. In fact, when I returned to the school more than 20 years later to teach English, this cultural construct had been codified into a school motto: "To commit minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity."

Every student knows this motto. It's all over the school website. It's on many teachers' websites. You see it in the hallways. It's even been copyrighted. The motto is so important that it's the foundation of the school's mission statement. Students may roll their eyes when they hear it, but somewhere underneath their tough exteriors, this message is being woven into their psyche like a pattern in ikat cloth.

The payoff for this carefully crafted cultural environment: academic success (e.g. the United States' highest scoring school on the ACT) and a roll of graduates that reads like a who's-who in American politics, science and culture (Donald Rumsfeld, Scott Turow, Archibald MacLeish, Dr. Mary Claire King, Charlton Heston, Ann Margret, Liz Phair, John Stossel....etc. etc.). And the best thing: it's just a great place to be. There's a buzz in the hallways between classes of excitement, purpose, and anticipation. It's not always perfect, but it's a good model of how to try.

I'm not saying that demographics -- and the important decisions JIS must make regarding ensuring diversity while maintaining the school's primary mission of educating expatriate students -- are unimportant. After all, demographics directly affect issues like discipline, classroom instruction, communications with families, and student interactions. Pretending that these issues don't exist won't make them go away.

Discussions on demographics and their cultural ramifications should be honest, open and frank. But at the same time, as a community we should be extremely sensitive to the feelings of all involved, and frame the conversation in terms of the values, character traits and behaviors we want to nurture in our kids.


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