Commencement Address, Phillips Academy 2016

Commencement Address
Phillips Academy, Andover
June 5, 2016
John Palfrey

Welcome, everyone – trustees, faculty, and staff; faculty Emeriti; alumni, families, friends, and – most of all – our beloved students.  Thank you for your presence with us today.

I would like to start with a note of gratitude to the adults in the Andover community.  Our community thrives as a direct result of individual and collective diligence, support, and love.  To all the adults who care for our students, who select our students in the admissions process, and who teach them all the way along: let us all express our thanks to these wonderful people this morning.  Please join me in a great big round of applause for the faculty, staff, and faculty Emeriti of Phillips Academy.

To the parents and grandparents, guardians and friends: thank you, too.  Thank you for the gift of time with the students you have sent to us.  I know, for many of you, that it felt like a great sacrifice to part with your children so early, for so many days out of the year – whether as boarding or day students.  For this gift of time, you have our enduring thanks.  The students you have shared with us have done you very proud.

And to the great Class of 2016: Theo Perez and Annette Bell, thank you for your inspiring words this morning.  Thank you for your exceptional leadership this year and all the years you have been with us.

To every member of the Class of 2016: thank you and congratulations.  You are a spirited group – a brilliant group – worthy of the honor we pay you today as we pronounce you graduates of Andover.  Your talent have been well on display these past few days, in our ceremonies and concerts.

I will always remember you.  You and I arrived at Andover together, four years ago.  You are the first class that I, as head of school, have been with all the way through.  It has been a delight to watch you grow and thrive here.  I remember you as you were when you arrived at Andover, whether that was four years ago – which seems quite a long time now – or this past Fall.  It is safe to say that every one of you has changed as a result of being at Andover – as a result of being with one another, in this very special place.

As we celebrate the great diversity in our community, I am struck by a wonderful combination in the Class of 2016.  Many of you are the first in your family to attend boarding school.  Though perhaps what is more noteworthy is that a significant number of you will be the first in your family to attend college.  We also have graduates whose families have been connected to Andover for literally hundreds of years – including one family with a graduate from the class of 1816, exactly 200 years ago, and a graduate today, in the class of 2016.

Whether your family is here at Andover for the first time, the second time, or the umpteenth time, you have brought much to this community.  You have done well at Andover; you have done Andover well; and we all have high hopes for what you will do with the goodness and knowledge that you have gained while you have been with us.  We are delighted to be connected with you from here on out.

My topic this morning has to do with the world beyond Andover, the world in which you enter, for good, this afternoon.  I hope that today, this Commencement – meaning, of course, a new beginning – is a chance for you to reflect upon where you have been over the past few years as well as how you might act, in the future, to make the world a better place.  How, in short, will you apply the knowledge and goodness that you have learned here when you get out there?

You leave us at a time of enormous transition in society.  The one thing I suspect we could all agree on – regardless of political persuasion – is that the rate of change is unprecedented in human history.  The problems that humanity will need to address together – and which will affect your generation for even longer than my own – make for a very long list.  We face these problems when some of our key political institutions are not in the best of shape.  The American political system, for one, is fractured – the United States Congress has a hard time reaching decisions on just about anything, candidates seem to be rewarded for making the most outrageous statements they can, and the common ground between American political parties appears to be microscopically small.

During your time at Andover, some of you have already focused on addressing the big social issues of our time.  Perhaps you agree with the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote:

“[a]chieving sustainable development on our crowded, unequal, and degraded planet is the most important challenge facing our generation,”

and you were among those engaged with EcoAction in its work on climate change.  Perhaps your concern is global poverty and hunger, and you worked on a Real World Design Challenge to help feed the billions who are hungry.  Perhaps you traveled with a Learning in the World group to help bridge cultural gaps across nations and peoples.  Perhaps you led a Technovation challenge to imagine and start building the next big start-up to create jobs and solve social problems at the same time.

Today, I want to focus your mind on a particular challenge and opportunity that lies before you.  As we rush to solve these huge problems, we often reach to technology to help us do that.  As you know, I am, myself, very excited about what our use of technology can bring.  On this campus, we have used technology in new and exciting ways in our classrooms; and we have been finding ways to use technology to share what we have at Andover with others far from here.

At the same time, I fear that the unfettered use of technology will bring with it bigger problems than it solves.

Your time at Andover has been marked by the rise of many different technologies.  Consider the sharp rise in the use of drones over the past four years.  That Real World Design Challenge team from Andover that won the Massachusetts challenge?  This team proposed the use of a drone to aid farmers in their efforts to grow crops more efficiently and healthfully.  The United States relies increasingly on drones for important combat and intelligence missions.  Less profound, but more likely to affect you directly: Amazon.com announced earlier this year that it is testing the use of drones to deliver your packages – perhaps those who follow you at Andover will get their packages directly at their dorms, instead of at Central Services in GW.   These drones can save lives, improve the economy, and help feed the hungry.

The same goes for self-driving cars.  If Andover were in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, we’d already see Google’s self-driving cars making their way around town.  These autonomous cars are well on track to come into mainstream use before long, with the promise of reducing traffic fatalities, saving tens of thousands of lives in the United States alone each year.

The list of things that are in the process of being transformed is growing with enormous speed.  Artificial intelligence – derived, as you probably know, from the work of Marvin Minsky, Phillips Academy Class of 1945, who visited us this past year and who passed away recently – is behind these many changes.  These changes are coming to our kitchens – through the Internet of Things – and into every workplace.  These innovations are automating language translation, transforming industrial production, and altering our economy in radical ways.

What do these profound changes mean for you, soon-to-be graduates?

One might draw the conclusion that the important thing is for graduates to know how to master this array of automated systems.  To some extent, that is surely true.  There are jobs to be had in programming, security, and marketing of new technologies.  The government, of any nation you come from, needs you to help secure systems and borders – in cyberspace.  The private sector needs you, to grow and to expand our economy, in the United States and around the globe.  That is all true – and I do hope some of you pursue these kinds of occupations.  I know you will be quite successful in these pursuits if so.

The bigger conclusion that I draw, though, is that we also need the humanists.  I hope that all of you, with your newly-minted Andover diplomas, will take full advantage of the liberal arts experience you have had here.

To solve the problems that come along with advanced technology, society will need people with expertise that is deeper than the technical.  Increasingly, companies and governments are finding that the people needed to tackle computing problems have not just technical expertise, but the kind of imagination that comes from a liberal arts background.

Think ahead, beyond the immediate.  Imagine the kinds of thorny issues that we can expect from a world that is more automated than it is today.  With more computers making more decisions, including life-and-death decisions on the roads and in the air, in our waterways and in all imaginable form of transit, we need ethicists who will set sensible rules ahead of time.

Two self-driving cars, for instance, find themselves on a collision course.  What answer?  Perhaps imagine a drone in the mix.  Though tricky, this problem turns out not to be a new one.

There is a long philosophical tradition of the Trolleyologists, who have considered such problems for roughly half a century.  The Trolleyologists were a group of moral philosophers who took up a series of questions that may sound quaint today.  While there are variants on the problem, the classic version goes something like this:

A trolley – in our parlance, a train – goes out of control.  It is speeding toward a crowd of people.  The people in the crowd face certain death if the train hits them.  You are standing nearby.  You realize that you could save them: by flipping a switch, you could send the train in another direction, onto a spur.  In doing so, you would divert the train and surely save their lives.  Here’s the rub: a man is chained to the tracks on the spur.  That man would be surely killed if you divert the trolley away from the other group.

The Trolleyologists spent their time wondering: should you flick the switch to save the group of lives and kill the one man?  Though the language sounds old-fashioned, the topics that the Trolleyologists took up long ago are about to explode with frequency and importance.

It turns out, you have huge advantages when it comes to tackling hard problems like this one, and the others you will face – problems that have eluded those of us who are a bit older than you are.  At Andover, you have learned much along these lines.  You have devoted yourself to the study of a broad and deep set of materials and topics.  You have all engaged in the arts, in the sciences, in the study of languages, in English, in history, and in philosophy and religious studies.

You have learned, in a long and grand tradition, how to make good decisions.  Sound human judgment is an essential element of a strong society.  Especially as we head into a more and more automated world, the decisions that humans make – often up front, or “ex ante,” before the problems occur – will only take on a greater importance.

This liberal arts tradition is not new; nor is it by chance that you are well-prepared for these hard issues.  In his inaugural address as headmaster of Andover, John Mason Kemper took up a similar theme:

“There must be faith that in every human being there is a generosity of spirit which will respond to decent treatment and the stimulus of selfless leadership. Tolerance, sympathy, respect must inevitably result in team work. Team work, in turn, can solve many community problems far beyond the capacity of any individual to solve.”

Kemper also said, that day, that:

“[…] knowledge of many fields, a wide range of interests, will enhance the understanding of the interrelation of events and activities.”

The Andover of today – your Andover – is not far different from the Andover of 1948 in these essential respects – no matter how many drones may swirl overhead.

You have a second essential advantage.  You are bridge-builders.  We have asked you, in many ways and in many contexts, to spend time with other youth from every quarter.

You will bring to these essential, emerging problems your ability to get along with one another and to listen to one another.  I know that we have not been perfect at that these past four years.  (We have not been perfect at that these past four weeks, for that matter.)  But I put great stock in the fact that you’ve had a lot of practice.  You have lived, worked, argued, and played alongside an extraordinarily diverse group of peers and faculty.  You have disagreed with one another, quite vociferously at times.  You have hurt one another’s feelings and you have struggled through hard days and long nights.  But here you all are.  You come together today as a class, the Class of 2016, graduating together.

I can’t possibly say what the biggest problems of tomorrow will be, exactly.  But to solve the problems that face society today and will face society going forward, I am certain that we will need people who can listen to one another; people who can appreciate other points of view; people who cherish diversity in all its forms; and people who can work across difference, turning the other cheek, setting aside hate and anger – choosing, instead, empathy and love.

The founders of Phillips Academy and Abbot Academy were devout Christians.  Though today we do not invoke religion as often as 238 years ago, I am reminded of a passage from Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”

Those who have gone before us have also urged us to do so in the spirit of making a difference.  In the words of former Abbot Academy principal Phebe McKeen:

“Girls are urged to consider their education incomplete till they have learned to do some one thing that the world will count it worth paying for.”

We seek, at Andover, for our work to be connected to the world at large – just as the Abbot women of the past urged their graduates.  We talk of an Andover Bubble, but we aspire to be more than a place of isolation.  Through our work on campus and in off-campus community engagement, we aspire to make a difference in the world.  Mostly, thought, we aspire to do that through you – our graduates.  What you go on to do is the source of our greatest hope and our greatest pride.

You may have thought your work at Andover has just concluded; I am here today to tell you that your work at Andover is just about to begin.  That work is not about exams or races or concerts or plays or art installations on campus – it’s about how you will act in a world that needs your care, your support, your leadership, and your good human judgment.  As we bid you adieu, we have enormous faith in what you, the class of 2016, will do – in all your humanity, with all your grace.  Congratulations, and Godspeed.  Thank you.

###

All School Meeting Address, May 4, 2016, Phillips Academy

All School Meeting Address (Excerpt)
May 4, 2016
John Palfrey, Phillips Academy

[…]

I was in North Carolina recently, at Duke, and I talked with a recent graduate from the class of 2014. He just loved Andover and told me how much he missed it. I asked him what he missed the most about it. He told me he really missed ASM – he missed coming into Cochran Chapel and having time, with all of his classmates, to reflect. I hope this ASM might have that effect, too, for all of you […].

The message I had in mind today was to celebrate two things at once: diversity, on the one hand, and free expression, on the other. These are both values that we hold dear at Andover and that we hold dear in America, and in many other countries around the world. They are not all that easy to hold at once, sometimes, but it is very important that we try.

When I was in law school, I had two groups of friends. It just worked out this way, but one group of friends was very liberal and the other group of friends was very conservative. One thing I really admired about my law school was that there was a broad range of opinion, both on the faculty and among the student body.

But it was a funny experience. I would have lunch, most days, with my liberal friend group, after, say, Property class. We’d inevitably talk about the cases we were reading – it’s sort of a first-year law student disease, which is that you can’t stop talking about the cases – and at some point, someone would say something like, “I can’t believe what that conservative kid said about the judge’s opinion.” And another person would say, “Yeah, I can’t believe how conservative this place is.” Almost on a daily basis, the lament would be about how conservative the law school was.

Then, in the evening, I’d be hanging out with my study group. This group of students was by and large conservative. The kids were equally smart and equally hard working – they just saw things from a very different angle, through a very different lens. I found studying with them to be electrifying, actually, and a real challenge – in a great, intellectual way. At some point during the study group session, usually in a tiny windowless room in the library, one person would say, “I can’t believe what that liberal kid said about the judge’s opinion.” And another person would say, “Yeah, I can’t believe how liberal this place is.” Almost on a daily basis, the lament would be about how liberal the law school was.

When I first noticed this funny pattern, I thought to myself, “how sad!” Both groups felt somehow not supported in their political views, alienated by an orthodoxy that they perceived within the institution – that it was “not easy” to be liberal, or “not easy” to be conservative.

I don’t know for a fact, because I haven’t asked all 1100 of you, but I would guess that a roughly similar dynamic exists at Andover. I do know that some of you have told me that it is hard to be at Andover if you come from a family that has not gone to boarding school in the past, or from a family that pays a smaller portion of the tuition than another family does. I have heard from some of you that you find it hard to be at Andover and to express the challenges of coming from a particular culture or race or heritage or place on the gender spectrum or sexual orientation, and especially so if your particular background has been marginalized or has historically had less power in American society. I have heard from others of you that it is hard to be a person of faith at Andover, that your fellow students – and even sometimes your teachers – don’t act with respect when you talk about your beliefs. I have heard from some of you that this culture is not supportive of athletes, especially those who are white and male. Others of you have said that if you are a legacy at Andover, people wonder if that’s how you got in – and that you are made to feel less worthy.

I’ve been thinking about this problem for a while, and I’ve come to see this pattern in a different way. Instead of seeing a problem – this place is too conservative or too liberal, too supportive of legacies or too supportive of those who have come to boarding schools more recently, too supportive of athletes or too supportive of artists – I see it as an opportunity. I choose to see it as the glorious promise of diversity and of learning in a liberal arts environment.

This morning, what I’d like to tell you all is that I credit that you are feeling these things. I want to say, for the record, that the entire game-plan for Andover is to have you here together. I want also to say how much I appreciate you in all your diversity, and as individuals. And I want you to be able to share your views in serious, respectful ways that make our community smarter and stronger. I want you to lean in to our diversity and to make it a strength.

I suppose there might be those who look at me on this stage and dismiss what I am saying. Easy, you might think, for you to say. It is easy to have a lot of power and privilege. And it is easy to spout high-minded ideals when it is your people who have, for the entire history of this school and this country, written the rules.

And to a degree, you would have a point. I stand before you clear in the knowledge that I come from a place of privilege: I have ancestors who came on the Mayflower and on the Abigail to America. I have ancestors who were slaveholders and ancestors who were abolitionists. Members of my family have gone to boarding schools for the entire time that there have been boarding schools in America. When I was in high school and in college, I committed myself to competing at athletics at a high level.  There’s absolutely nothing I loved doing more at your age than competing with my teammates for my school – I am proud to be an athlete. As your head of school, I have the microphone, today quite literally, the ability to shape the dialogue and to set the agenda at this school. So yes, it is quite true: I stand before you with the deck stacked in my favor. Put another way: I’m aware that I was born on third base and that I didn’t hit a triple to get there.

But that, I hope and trust, is not the sum total of what you see when you look at me, or at your neighbor beside you in the pews of this chapel. More important, I hope that you see a human being – someone with hopes, fears, dreams, and daily struggles. I hope that you see someone who cares, loves, and respects other people.

And that, Andover, is really what I want to say this morning. I appreciate each one of you. I’m grateful to each one of you for who you are and what you bring to Andover.

I appreciate the activists. There are those who have taken up causes from the right and from the left. There are those who have gotten engaged in this year’s presidential campaign and those who have been inspired by Jane Goodall and Ai-jen Poo. There are those who have sought racial justice and sexual justice and social justice of myriad stripes. Sometimes your activism takes me or the school’s administration as your target. I love that all these things exist on our campus, and I extend my respect to all of you, regardless of your political commitments and beliefs. So long as you are serious and respectful in what you do and how you do it, I celebrate your activism in all its forms.

I appreciate the artists. I appreciate the visual artists and the performing artists. I appreciate those with enormous skill and those who merely apply what little skill they can muster – and, when it comes to the arts, I’m very much in that latter camp, myself. I am inspired by your play with instruments and voice; I am inspired by your acting and dancing, your stage-production and lighting. Our community is vastly richer for your talents and your efforts.

I appreciate the athletes in the room, and that means essentially all of you. One of the great things about Andover is that there are students who undertake athletics for the purpose of staying fit and well. And there are those who are athletes with the goal of winning championships and playing in college and beyond. I am psyched for you when you hit walk-off doubles to win a game in the fizzling rain – whether on the softball field or the baseball field — and I am proud of you when you pull hard but come up short. I love your sportsmanship, your teamwork, and your enthusiasm. Go Big Blue!

I appreciate everyone in this room for your academic strengths – and by that I do mean everyone.

I appreciate all those who commit themselves to a life of non sibi through community engagement – and I hope that will mean everyone, for the rest of your years. Finis origine pendet.

I appreciate those of faith, and those who choose not to express their faith.

I appreciate those who are all of those things, or any number of them.

It doesn’t matter to me whether your family has just come to the United States, or if your forebears came to this country, or if no one in your family is from the USA. It doesn’t matter to me if you hold one passport or two, and whether neither one says “USA” on the front.

My call to you is to appreciate one another. This is diversity. We have it here, in all its many forms. That means acting with tolerance and respect. It means avoiding saying the hurtful things about the backgrounds of other people – and if you do say something hurtful, it means saying you are sorry. While it may be legal to say hurtful things to other people, it is inconsistent with our community values. We can do better than to belittle one another – in any way. That’s what I got from listening to Ai-jen Poo and to Jane Goodall this past month in this chapel – what’s the point of acting other than with love and forgiveness and kindness toward one another?

My call to you is to speak and act with respect to one another, and also to tolerate views that may seem deeply wrong to you. Actually, I’d go one further. I’d urge you to seek out those with views distant from your own and see what you can glean from hearing about them. Sure, you may simply come away convinced that you were right all along.

Nothing good, in human history, has come of societies retreating to homogeneity or to demagoguery. It can be tempting, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s not a good idea. And we, here in this intentional community – we can do better.

I hope that we might agree that we want Andover to be a place where everyone on this campus can strive to achieve their dreams. I want Andover to be a place where everyone can strive to be their best selves. I want Andover to be a place where we support one another as we all pursue our dreams – where we don’t cut one another down, but rather support one another, in our words and in our actions. This is a choice, Andover, and it is a choice that I know you can make.

I want to bring you to your feet, Andover – to encourage you to Rise Up, as Andra Day says in her song – to rise up to achieve your own dreams, like Serena Williams and like the Relay for Life team here on campus a few weeks ago, and to commit to support one another as we all pursue our dreams here at this school.

Thank you.

Head of School Bookshelf, Spring, 2016 Edition

This Spring term, I’m putting out on the bookshelf outside the Head of School’s office copies of the following books for the Andover faculty.  The idea is that the books can go and stay home, come back to the bookshelf, or end up as a gift to someone else.  The Spring, 2016 list includes:

Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café.  This book is not of the sort that I often include on this list — which tends to be focused on matters of education, child development, and digital media — but I read it over Spring break and hugely enjoyed it.  Ms. Bakewell takes the reader on a jaunt through the lives of leading existentialists, beginning early in the 20th century and extending through the end of the life of Simone de Beauvoir, one of the main characters.  There’s a fair amount of resonance with current cultural and political debates in the themes she takes up.  Anyone who read the existentialists as a young person and was intrigued will enjoy coming back to them via this book.  The story is a blend of the lives of the philosophers and the way in which the author (Bakewell) experienced their works.  It’s a lot of fun.

Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.  Such a powerful, sad story.  A précis can be found in this New York Times review. Those of us who work in academic settings that seek to bring together talented young people from everywhere (“youth from every quarter,” in our charter), the issues that this narrative raises are essential to consider.  Actually, anyone who lives in America should read this book and consider the hard issues that this account of Mr. Peace’s life and death pose for us as a society.

Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure.  Ms. Lahey takes aim at how many of us parent and educate today — and tells us that we need to let our students fail more often.  This book is in line with many of the faculty meeting conversations we have at Andover, as we consider how we can support all our students in both their successes and their inevitable adolescent failures.  As young people perceive they need to be “perfect” to get into their “dream schools” for college, the job of enabling them to fail safely and recover well is increasingly important.  Though not entirely new as a message, readers will enjoy Lahey’s perspective as a middle-school teacher, someone on the front lines of this ongoing debate about how best to raise a generation.

Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker.  I seek to include at least one work of fiction on each Head of School bookshelf list.  This novel is a few decades old (1995); it still resonates in terms of the cultural issues it raises, and it holds up well as an enduring work of fiction worthy of study in its own right.  Our English teachers at Andover often teach it.  The characters are beautifully wrought.  And the use of language (itself a theme in the book) is lovely.

Liz Murray, Breaking Night.  This book is not new, either (2006) — and many will have seen the made-for-TV special about Ms. Murray’s life.  The story is both challenging and uplifting.  For those of us in boarding schools that have students from every socio-economic bracket, some of the lessons in this book are hugely important.  There are many powerful messages in this first-person account of an extraordinary life, written by a young person early in her career.  (Murray’s book is paired with the book about Robert Peace, above, in terms of the challenges faced by those who bridge cultural gaps in coming to elite educational institutions.)  With a h/t to my colleague Heidi Jamieson at Andover for passing along a copy of the book last term.

Leonard Sax, The Collapse of Parenting.  Dr. Sax is a practicing physician and author who writes based on his long experience seeing patients and advising families.  His latest book, The Collapse of Parenting, quickly hit the best-seller list when it came out a few months ago.  I admired his previous book about Girls on the Edge (including on a previous HOS bookshelf list).  Some parents and educators will love his no-nonsense approach; others will consider it too confining.  The book is easy to read and prompts important discussion.  (I’ve paired it on this list with the Lahey book, above.)

As usual, I’m also putting out additional copies of books by recent speakers on campus.  Two of these: danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (on a previous HOS bookshelf list) and Moustafa Bayoumi, This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, both well worth the read.

Links to a few recent lists: here (mostly on tech and sexuality), here (innovation), here (teaching, talent, and testing), here (fiction), and here (a mix, as this Spring’s is, too).

All School Meeting Address: Sexuality and Healthy Relationships

The text below is of an All School Meeting address of September 22, 2015.  Warning: I use graphic language below.

Good morning, Andover.

Yes, you did hear right: this morning, we are going to talk about sex in this chapel. I realize that might sound awkward to some of you, but I ask for your close attention in this All School Meeting all the same. What I have to say involves every person here. That includes our faculty, who are with us this morning to underscore the importance of this topic to our community. This issue is universal.

What I am about to say may be more than awkward for some of you; it may be downright upsetting. At the end of my remarks, we will introduce members of the community who are specially trained to talk with you on these matters, and I encourage you to do so.

Before we get to the matter of sexual development and healthy relationships, let’s start by stepping back a bit: Why are you here? Why are we all here? I don’t mean it as an existential question – why are we on this planet – but rather, why did you choose to come to Andover? What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

Most people say, one way or another, that you came to Andover for the “excellence.” That excellence might mean a fabulous learning experience in physics, English, music, or the arts. Maybe you came to Andover to pursue great academics as well as excellence in lacrosse or drama or in playing the flute; maybe seeing Eight Bells in the Addison blew you away on your revisit (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please go find out before you graduate). These are all good reasons to come to Andover and to be at Andover. I’m proud of what all of us – faculty and students alike – can and do accomplish when it comes to these kinds of excellence.

Today, let’s focus on an equally important form of excellence: how we relate to one another in this community. I mean in particular how you as students relate to one another when you make the decision to have an intimate relationship with another person, whenever that time might come, and whatever that might mean to you.

While I suppose it has not been often that heads of school have talked about sex in this chapel in the history of this school, it is a topic fully in step with our mission as a place of teaching and learning. As you know by now, more or less everything we do is grounded in our founding principles. In this case, the principle in question is the idea of knowledge with goodness. In our Charter, Samuel Phillips and the other founders told us that:

[… A]bove all, it is expected, that the Master’s attention to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under his charge, will exceed every other care; well considering that, though goodness without knowledge – as it respects others – is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.

In modern-day terms: “knowledge with goodness” has to do with how you treat one another – how you care for one another.

We often talk about how Andover is the most diverse community in which most of us will ever live. We are proud of that fact and we seek to build upon that diversity all the time. One important skill that we want you to learn is how to get along with one another in an extremely diverse community. We come from different faith traditions and different family backgrounds, among many other forms of difference. Being excellent as a student here means caring, respecting one another, being in partnership with one another – not despite our diversity, but in keeping with it.   This diversity means that you will come to any relationship with potentially very different beliefs about what is morally right.

Let me pause here – on this topic of moral perspective – to address one possible concern about sexual education, lest my message this morning be misconstrued. Some adults worry that more talk about sex with kids means an encouragement to be sexually active sooner than you otherwise would. I don’t believe that any of you would hear me that way, but let me make it plain: regardless of your gender or your age, you have every right to abstain from sexual activity. We, as adults in this community, strongly support that decision. No one is obligated to participate in a hook-up culture; no one is obligated to make a choice about your sexual development that is out of keeping with what you believe is morally right. As you leave this chapel today, I trust that each one of you will feel that we, as adults, are here to support you as you work through what is a especially challenging part of teenage development – including supporting your sound decisions not to engage in intimate relationships during your time here.

Just as we emphasize academic integrity with your pursuits in the classroom and personal integrity with regard to following Blue Book rules, this topic too is about integrity.  We want you to make decisions and engage in activities while you are at PA that honor your integrity—in line with your personal values and ethics. You need to support one another as you make these important choices in your life, whether here at Andover or once you are in college.

Put another way: we do not encourage sexual activity at Andover, but we do acknowledge that some of you choose to engage in sexual intimacy while you are here. It is our job as adults in your life to help you make safe choices and to ensure that you know where to turn for support.

I want to share with you today, in terms as clear as I can make them, our community expectations when it comes to healthy relationships and sexual activity. Some aspects of this topic are clear and obvious; others are a bit more complex.

First, a crystal-clear statement: we cannot and do not tolerate sexual assault of any kind at Andover. If you are worried that what you are engaged in is sexual assault, then stop. If you have experienced something that you wonder was sexual assault, seek help – more on that from Mrs. Elliott shortly.   If you don’t know what I mean when I say we cannot tolerate sexual assault on campus, please come talk to me or any of us up on the stage today.

Also in the category of “clear:” the law in Massachusetts says that you cannot consent to sexual activity if you are under 16 years old. If and when we learn of sexual intimacy between students where one or both student is under 16, we are required to report it to the police and to the state of Massachusetts; we also discuss it with your parents. This requirement is not theoretical. For those who might be wondering: oral sex counts as sexual activity for these purposes. This is not my opinion; this is the law in our state.

Third: consent to any degree of physical intimacy on this campus must take the form of an affirmative “yes.” The Blue Book spells it out clearly: we are a “yes means yes” school. That’s new and that can be awkward. But it is very important. It is a shifting of a burden from one person to say “no” to both people to say “yes.” If you are not sure, at the start or at any point during an intimate encounter, you must ask and you must hear a “yes” from your partner before you continue. If you hear a “no” or see or feel anything that resembles a “no” (or anything less than an enthusiastic, unambiguous “yes”), it’s on you to stop.

There’s a rule of thumb that might help in respect to consent. You no doubt have heard of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Consider instead a Platinum Rule in the context of intimacy: do unto others as they would choose to have done unto them. That said, I’d also urge you not to think of sexual relationships as being about what you do “to” someone else – which makes it sound adversarial – but rather “with” someone else. These are distinctions that can make a big difference in changing a culture.

One point that is more subtle: Gender and sexual orientation are unmistakably a part of any discussion about sexual health, but the conversation should not be thought of as exclusively heteronormative.  OK – there were a lot of big words in that sentence.  Let me unpack.  By that, I mean that a discussion of sex is not only about a dynamic that exists between boys and girls. It is hard to have a conversation about sexual health, and especially about differences in expectations and power dynamics, without talking about differences in gender. I’d urge you, at the same time, not to let stereotypes dominate these conversations. On our campus, we have community members who are boys; we have those who are girls; and we have those who do not self-identify as either or who are in transition. (My PGP is: he/him/his.) And we have a range of sexual orientation at Andover. Every student is learning about their sexuality during this period of life, but not everyone is experiencing the same thing. That diversity is important. We respect everyone equally at Andover.

The bottom line is that everyone has a right to feel safe and respected on this campus – regardless of your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, your moral perspective, your faith. As many of you have pointed out, too many students, here at Andover as elsewhere in the world, have suffered from unwanted sexual encounters. The New York Times reports this morning that 1 in 4 young women have experienced sexual assault at some of our most prestigious colleges. As a community, we shouldn’t stand for that. In fact, we must stand for something very different – respect for one another, support for one another, caring for one another. At this high school, we should all be part of the solution.

What I call upon us today to do – adults and students alike – is to step up. Andover, it’s on us. We need to be courageous in talking about sexual intimacy and sexuality. This dialogue must honor each one of you during your time at Andover and set you on a course of healthy relationships for your entire life – much in the way that our academic excellence at Andover education always has set up students for productive lives of work and service.

Andover, we can do this. I know it’s awkward. We can make our community better and healthier, day by day, Saturday night by Saturday night, relationship by relationship. We owe it to one another to do just that. Everyone has a role in defining this type of excellence at Andover and in building a positive culture of healthy relationships. We can show that we care about one another and respect one another. This kind of learning – this essential kind of character development – is, in fact, why we are all here.

To close this morning, Mrs. Elliott will share with you some thoughts about those people on campus who are special resources on this topic. She will also give you a sense of what you can expect in terms of discussions in your dorms, and in classrooms, in the weeks to come on this topic.

Mrs. Elliott: over to you, and thank you for your very strong leadership on this important topic, building on the work of many others who have been committed to these issues for a long time here at Andover.

An unfortunate incident, a teachable moment

Below is a letter I sent to students and parents of Phillips Academy in response to an unfortunate incident involving a group of our recent graduates.

On Sunday, we celebrated Commencement in our 237th year under blue skies. We graduated 328 exceptional students, capping a fine year at Andover across the board—in the arts, athletics, community service, and academics. These students and their families as well as our faculty and staff have every reason to be proud of the community’s accomplishments this year.

A few hours later, 74 of our new graduates found themselves in protective custody in Sunapee, New Hampshire, for alleged acts at a party in a rented home. According to police reports, 51 of our graduates passed a breathalyzer test; 23 of our graduates did not and, as a result, face a court date in August for underage consumption of alcohol. Fortunately none of our graduates was hurt. All were released to responsible parents and guardians.

Continue reading

Head of School Bookshelf: The Teaching, Talent and Testing Edition, Spring 2015

The long flights to and from East Asia this Spring Break afforded time to catch up on a stack of books I’ve been meaning to read for a while.  For this Spring’s Head of School bookshelf, I’ve selected a series of titles focused on psychology and policy relevant to the secondary school field in education.  There’s a lot of great work that’s been done in the recent past and some new books highly worth reading.

Spring 2015 List: Teaching, Talent, and Testing

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (Bantam, 2009).  Published a few years ago, this book examines the question of how to develop talent.  Coyle considers the question that has probably occurred to most everyone at some point: how is it that some communities, at some moments of time, produce a disproportionate number of geniuses or other types of extremely high performers?  Coyle examines the conditions necessary to produce “greatness” at a collective level (or “hotbeds”, including in schools, as he calls them).  He also considers the specific commitments of individuals necessary to reach high potential and to help others reach high potential.  This book considers academic success of the ordinary sort, but also athletic, musical, and artistic prowess, among other areas of growth.  Coyle also keeps up a website with lots of good examples — such as the practice routine of Odell Beckham Jr. — that illustrate his point.

Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2014).  Along similar lines to Coyle’s book, Duhigg takes up the question of how habits are formed, broken, and reformed.  Though perhaps more geared toward a business audience than toward educators per se, the premise is highly relevant to us at teachers.  How do students (or adults) learn to learn?  What is the cycle by which habits are formed, which lead to effective learning?  There’s a good section on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (chapter 8), which leads to a discussion of how movements come about (relevant to the section of US History I am teaching this year!).

Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Ballantine, 2007).  Prof. Dweck’s crucial book on the growth mindset is not new, but it is as good and relevant as ever.  At Andover, many of our faculty are focused on how we can promote and develop a growth mindset among our students.  Prof. Dweck is joining us in early May, 2015, as a guest of the new Tang Institute and to speak to our faculty.  Prof. Dweck also posts more information on mindsets on a helpful website.  The book and the website are both very clear and well-written, with loads of specific examples for how to understand and deploy her findings.

Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Doubleday, 2014).  This book, which came out last year, is a terrific history of 175 years of the teaching profession.  (If we do not learn our history, we are bound to repeat it, right?)  Journalist and author Goldstein gives a strong sense of who has gone into the teaching profession, especially in America, and why; what has happened to teachers and the teaching profession during several key periods in American history; and how we might empower teachers in the future.  (Side-note: Goldstein includes some interesting observations of the role of faith and gender in education, both of which are important, much-debated topics on our campus today.)

Anya Kamenetz, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have To Be (Public Affairs, 2015).  Everyone is talking about testing these days. It’s a great blessing at Andover not to worry about “teaching to the test,” but our society at large seems testing-obsessed — and our students, of course, take plenty of standardized tests along the way.  This account, by NPR journalist and author Anya Kamenetz, takes both an historical view and one that points us to a future that doesn’t have to be all about high-stakes testing.  It’s a very timely and interesting book, and we have an invitation out to the author to encourage her to come to campus soon, too.

Special Mentions: Other Fascinating New Books — not all exactly on the topic of the list, but included as recommendations:

Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (Norton, 2015).  Prof. Foner, of Columbia University, is a truly great US historian of Reconstruction and other 19th century themes.  I’ve been teaching from his college-level textbook (“Give Me Liberty!”) for my section of US history at Andover this year; it’s very good.  This new history of the Underground Railroad includes several stories never before told in a major book, and draws on archival material that was certainly new to me, and will be to virtually all readers.

Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015).  Written by a computer software developer, this book examines the question of the effect of Moore’s Law (the premise that computing power doubles every 18 to 24 months) on the labor market.  What kinds of jobs might our kids expect to have during their lifetimes?  How much skill will be required for various tasks in a world where artificial intelligence has continued to increase at an exponential rate each year?  As educators, it is worth our giving these hard questions some thought.

Susan Greenfield: Mind Change: How Digital Technologies Are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains (Random House, 2015).  A renowed UK neuroscientist, Dr. Greenfield explores whether our “minds” (not our “brains”, as she stresses at the start of chapter 12) are changing as a result of our vast social media usage and other digital stimuli. The answer is surely “yes,” but with an important call to all of us to define what we want out of the digital revolution and to aim ourselves toward it.  I like her “balanced and comprehensive overview of the scientific research” (Preface, XV) into this important area.

Carrie James, Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (MIT Press, 2014).  From Carrie James, the Good Play Project, and the excellent Digital Media and Learning series at MIT Press comes this new book on kids and their development with respect to ethics in the digital world.  James draws on her deep research experience as well as new conversations with kids aged 10 to 25 to bring us up to speed on their thinking about privacy, property, and participation online.  She covers important well-known cases (e.g., Tyler Clementi) as well as examples of the “ethics gap” that have been less extensively covered.

Ron Lieber, The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money (Harper Collins, 2015).  I loved this book: it’s filled with super-practical, serious advice for how to raise our kids with respect to their relationship with money.  My own kids have already started the system that Lieber recommends (jars for “Give,” “Save,” and “Spend”) and the advice from him and other parents on his Facebook page is terrific.  Lieber is a journalist with the New York Times who covers personal finance.  He’s agreed to join us in the fall at Andover as a guest speaker.

Please consider buying each of these titles at your local independent bookstore.  I bought the copies for the Head of School bookshelf, (in my office, where faculty can come get them anytime), from the Andover Bookstore in Andover, MA.

P.S.: Pointers to previous Head of School bookshelves: Adolescence, Technology and Sexuality; a set geared toward Secondary School Teachers interested in Learning and Technology; and The Innovation Edition.

End of Tuition Day: The Importance of Gratitude and of Paying It Forward

Today marks a special day in our academic calendar: it is End of Tuition Day.  From this day forward in the school year, everything is free for every student.

What exactly do I mean by “free”?  And what do I mean for “every” student?

DSC_4097-edit As a need-blind school, we are enormously fortunate that we are able to read every admissions application without regard to whether the student’s family can afford the tuition that our school charges.  This hallmark, in one form or another, dates back to the founding of our school in 1778, when Samuel Phillips and his family and friends decided to open an academy for “Youth from Every Quarter.”  We ensure that no family has to take out loans to send a student to high school.  And we are able to admit the most extraordinary, diverse, nice, talented group of 1,100 students we can find.  And once we are all here, we work very hard to honor everyone equally, regardless of whether one’s family happens to pay the full tuition, a part of the tuition, or none of the tuition.  It is our privilege to have every one of you here, absolutely regardless.

At this point in the year — March 25, this year — something magical happens.  From this point out, we rely not at all on anyone’s tuition.  For everyone, the rest of the school year is free.  The full cost, you see, of educating an Andover student is more than $80,000.  (That doesn’t even count some of the amazing benefits that you can take advantage of, like the Addison and the Peabody museums.)  The full tuition price for a day student is $38,000 and for boarding, $50,000.  So from here on out, every meal: free.  Every class: free.  Every sports practice and game: free.  Every community service trip to a neighboring town: free.

DSC_4108-editWhere does it come from?  Two crucial sources.  One is the school’s endowment, which means all the money contributed to the school in perpetuity over hundreds of years.  We have a very large endowment for a high school, and we rely on income from it to make Andover as special today as we possibly can.  The other source is our Annual Fund.  Each year, our alumni, parents, faculty, and staff contribute about $10 million per year to make “End of Tuition Day” possible.  We are enormously proud of and grateful for this Annual Fund.  It makes an enormous number of great things possible in the lives of our students.

So today, I urge you to join me in giving thanks to all those who have been generous to this school, over so many generations — this year, and in years past.  Just as we look to the future at Andover — your future — we ought to honor and thank those who have gotten us here.  We give thanks for all those who have make philanthropy a big part of their lives — and acknowledge how important they have been to making Andover what it is today.

And soon it will be your turn.  I trust that each of you will be as generous as your forebears have, when the time comes.  The reason we can celebrate End of Tuition Day is because others have given back to their school.  In fact, the Class of 2013 had a 98% participation rate for the senior class gift.  This year, the Class of 2015 is already at a 50% level — the highest ever on record as of this date.  I challenge you all to meet or exceed the participation rate of your preceding class — and make “End of Tuition Day” come earlier and earlier with every passing year.  Thank you!cake

All School Meeting Address: Winter Welcome 2014 and Discussions in the Wake of Ferguson

Good morning, Andover!

Over the Thanksgiving break, I wrote to you all an email, asking that you take some time to understand what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri.  A few members of the community — a student and a parent, in particular — wrote me back, respectfully, with deep concerns about what I had written, along with Dean Murphy [our Dean of Students] and LCG [Dean Linda Carter Griffith, our Dean of Community and Multicultural Development].  I wanted to respond to those concerns and also to explain why I think this attention and this discourse are so important.  [The original email is here.]

I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, not because I want you to think something in particular. In fact, while I do have a point of view on this issue, and I’m happy to share that view with any of you anytime, I very much do not want for 1129 young people to think what I think – what a disaster that would be!  In fact, let’s agree to start from a perspective of valuing intellectual freedom and the importance of being open to hear every voice in our academic community.

I asked you to pay attention for two reasons. One is that, despite the common phrase, we do not live in a “bubble” in Andover. We live in a community that is deeply connected to the world outside our beautiful campus. We live in a world where students are required to go off-campus – whether home or elsewhere – during breaks. We live in a world in which all students have friends and family who live outside of our little world here. And we live in a world that is increasingly complex – more global, more interconnected, more diverse, and moving ever more quickly.

The other reason I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson is because I think it matters a great deal in an historic sense. It matters to every single one of us – Latino/a, Asian, Black, White, regardless of the race, or races, or ethnicity or ethnicities, that you claim. It matters to each person, perhaps in a different way. But it matters to all of us because it stands for a few important things. It stands for the difficulty we continue to have in talking about race and difference in the world. I know, in what I will say to you today, I will offend one or more of you; or perhaps I will stumble badly over my words.  We must each run that risk — of offending one another, of saying the wrong thing, on the way to the truth and to productive dialogue.  This issue also stands for the very real challenge of effective law enforcement and global security — which we must accomplish with real effectiveness — and to do so in a world in which it is not possible to ignore the inequities between people in our society.

I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced the policeman, Darren Wilson that night. I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced Michael Brown that night — and I know, because of the color of my skin and other factors, that I am highly unlikely ever to be. I would not wish on anyone the job of being on that Grand Jury. My heart breaks for every one of their families and friends. Ditto for what happened in Staten Island, in the death of Eric Garner. Ditto for hundreds, if not thousands, of similar cases in recent years. This is hard, and this is heart-breaking. These events happen all too often in this country and in countries around the world.

We need to be better – and it starts here, in this august high school. We need to do better – and we can. We can prove that we can be empathetic toward one another. We can prove that such a diverse community can work, that we can listen and learn from one another, and that we can work toward a more just and sustainable world.

More broadly, these matters speak to more than race. These matters call the question: What does it mean to be a citizen in a republic? What it means to me is that you must have a point of view. There is a cost of freedom; there is a cost to having a say in who governs and how they do it. That cost is that you must engage. You must learn. You must listen. You must come to have a point of view on issues that matter; we cannot govern ourselves if we do not. And you must act upon it. You have no choice.  That might mean that you start a new journal, as some of your colleagues have recently done, on matters of fiscal policy; it might mean that you organize a forum and a candlelight vigil; it might mean that you put yourself into the public arena with a point of view on something else that matters to you.  But to make democracy work, you must find your path toward being a true citizen.

It may be that one of us in this room will be in the position of Darren Wilson one day; maybe one of us will be in Michael Brown’s shoes; in America, we will all be on that Grand Jury; we will all be their friends and family. Not in exactly the same way, and – we pray – not with the same outcome. But when we sign up for life in a republic, we sign up to do the work of being a citizen — to being on that jury, to making those hard decisions, to figuring out how we can have effective law enforcement and global security in a way that is consonant with the Constitution and with international norms of human rights. That work is hard; it matters; and it is all of our work.

I could not be more proud to live in this country; I could not be more proud to be an American.  I could not be more proud to live and work at Andover; I could not be more proud to be your head of school.  Neither America nor Andover is perfect. Neither one is completely exceptional. But on their best days, they are both completely wonderful.  We can and must make both of them better – and with them, the world at large. Andover, it starts here – it starts with each of us and with our community.  We can show that democracy works in the context of free, open, orderly discussion on topics that matter — whether they relate to what is right in front of us or what is occurring in the world at large.

I will end with a quote that I love.  I know that there are valid critiques of this quote, but I love it – for its spirit and for what it calls on each of us to do. It is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States. He almost certainly did not have in mind as inclusive a community as I do today, but he got the call to engaged citizenship just right.  Where I say “man”, you can choose to hear “person.”  Otherwise, please just listen to it for the spirit and the challenge it presents:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

All School Meeting dismissed.

Learning in the World: Global, Community-Based, and Experiential Opportunities

As the Phillips Academy trustees are arriving for a spring weekend, we’ve been talking with a few alums and parents about our plans for the Andover Institute.  One of the three areas of focus involves expanding the global learning opportunities we offer to our students, coming together as ideas here:

Learning in the World: Global, Community-Based, and Experiential Opportunities.

The overall Institute plan is shaping up here.  We are targeting a launch likely in November, 2014.  Stay tuned!

Concussion: Returning the Student Athlete Back to Life, with Dr. Gerard Gioia

Tonight at the Phillips Academy faculty meeting, we are talking with Dr. Gerard Gioia of the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. The purpose of this discussion is to ensure that we are adopting best practices to protect our students from traumatic brain injury (TBI), or concussions, and that we have sound policies and practices in place to help ensure that students get treatment and care for injuries they do sustain.  Dr. Gioia is a very clear and effective speaker with access to a great deal of relevant data and practical guidance for schools.

We are talking about the concussions that are most commonly seen in residential academic settings.  Research shows that about half of all concussions in these environments occur in the context of sports (hockey, lacrosse, football, and soccer are among the most common) and about half in everyday life.  After a student has a concussion, we, like many schools, have adopted accommodations for them on a case-by-case basis.

According to Dr. Gioia, the definition of traumatic brain injury, or concussion for short, is an injury to the brain due to a blow to the head or body that jerks the head forward and backward.  The damage is a “software” problem: that the brain’s electrochemical function changes as a result of the trauma.  Put a slightly different way by Dr. Gioia, it’s less of a “hardware” problem than a “software” problem.  Kids experience physical, psychological, cognitive, and socially-related symptoms that can last for hours, days, and much longer.  Concussions happen much more than we realize, among both kids and adults.  Injuries are one-off; there’s no one-size-fits-all in terms of the way to treat it and how quickly to bring kids back into their ordinary pattern of life.

The primary effect of TBI is to damage the working memory.  Students can experience slower reaction times, have trouble paying attention, or struggle with concentration.  Students can also experience greater irritability as a result of the injury.  Recovery time tends to be between 1 day to 140 days.  Our understanding and treatment modalities need to take into account this range and the variation within it.

Dr. Gioia suggests that best practices include ensuring that kids experience no additional forces to the head during recovery, by keeping them out of sports and other activities that might lead to re-injury.  Running, jumping, jogging the head; working too hard on homework; and emotional stress all can harm the brain further during the recovery period.  Students who have experienced a concussion especially need to rest their brain and get good sleep.  We need to help facilitate their physiological recovery.  The cognitive demands of school can slow recovery or exacerbate the negative impact of the injury.  (Studies show that math, it seems, is the hardest thing for students to do, by far, after a concussion.)  Dr. Gioia recommends a moderated approach to bringing kids back into their regular activities after a concussion.  The rest right after the injury is most important, with only a gradual increase in activity thereafter.  Dr. Gioia suggests setting up a team on campus that works with students after concussions, which is the approach that we’re taking at Phillips Academy.

Dr. Gioia ends with a positive message: these kids who get concussions will get better.