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.