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).

Master Class with Chris Hughes, Phillips Academy ’02 on Hannah Arendt’s “Responsibility and Judgment”

We have the great privilege today of Chris Hughes‘ visit to Andover.  Chris graduated from Phillips Academy in 2002.  He returns today to teach a master-class with me, to give the All School Meeting address, and to meet with various groups on campus.  The master class takes as its starting point a text: Hannah Arendt’s lecture entitled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” published in the book “Responsibility and Judgment.”  In this lecture, delivered in 1964, Arendt responded to criticism of things she previously wrote about the trial of the Nazi leader Eichmann.  The students in the room today come from two classes, one in our Religion and Philosophy department (taught by Tom Hodgson) and one on bioethics (team-taught by Vincent Avery and Christine Marshall-Walker).

Chris starts the class by asking a student to read aloud a section from near the end of Arendt’s lecture: “The total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something.”  Chris asks the group if norms can be changed as quickly as table manners.

The class also focuses for most of the discussion on the role of non-participants in societies.  Arendt says that “the nonparticipants; called irresponsible by the majority, were the only ones who dared judge by themselves.”  Does opting-out of a society enable you to preserve your values?  What does it mean, in fact, to “opt out” of a society?  The class debates whether it is different to opt out of Nazi Germany; America during the McCarthy era; Apartheid South Africa (was Albie Sachs right that only a few hundred whites took any personal risk in resisting the Apartheid regime?); and today, in the “consumerist” society prevalent in most countries in Western Europe and North America, for instance.

Chris stresses the difficulty of total opting out: it is almost impossible not to be ensconced in a body politic.  It is extremely hard not to pay some taxes to support a system; to be, at a minimum, a bystander to important events in the lives of others; to have a voice in the society, whether in public or in private.

We explored the distinction between non-participation and non-obedience.  The students are not sold on the extent to which Arendt praises the non-participants, seeing non-obedience — more actively opposing a system — as essential to positive change.  The text splices the difference between “supporting” a regime and “obeying” it.  The exposure of this tension, which comes in at the end of the essay, may be the most important point.

One of our core jobs as teachers at Phillips Academy, as stated in our school’s constitution from 1778, is to help develop not just the minds but also the morals of the students in our care.  Conversations, such as the one led by Chris today and others led by our faculty on every day on campus, are essential aspects of this kind of an education.