(Head of School Bob Vitalo shares his thoughts with the Berkeley Carroll community in "Vital Words" communications from time to time.)
This school year started on a high note with record enrollment, happy teachers and students; even our construction project at Lincoln Place is on schedule and on budget! While all of this leads to a high level of satisfaction, this year has also been impacted by societal events.
We came back to school in September after a long and traumatic summer of incidents of violence that took place across the country. As we worked to understand a number of shootings and threats against different groups in our society we found ourselves smack in the middle of the most contentious and upsetting presidential race any of us can remember.
It has not been your normal race for the presidency. What we have is historic; one major political party with a woman candidate, and the other major party being led by a confirmed non-politician. Not business as usual.
I doubt that many schools will have had mock debates with students taking on the positions of the two candidates. In fact, it has been hard to have much conversation given the examples of strident talk we have all been exposed to and the polar opposite views expressed by the candidates. Instead of discussing the important issues facing our country more time has been spent on deleted emails and “locker room” talk.
How can parents, or teachers, lead a conversation with children that will be enlightening and informative? Emotions run high and passions get stoked. These tensions have been felt at home and in the classroom.
In the larger context of society, free speech is under scrutiny. Over this last year we have observed colleges and universities struggle with challenges to this right. Students and faculty at some of our major higher education institutions have held demonstrations over allowing controversial speakers on campus. Wariness about the effect that witnessing difficult conversation might have on individuals has led some groups to initiate calls for separate “safe spaces” and the need for trigger warnings; a system where alerts are given to readers or viewers when material could be potentially distressing.
What to do? Well here at Berkeley Carroll we strive to make our school a safe place for all students and take great care to make sure that all points of views are valued and that no one needs to leave any part of themselves at the door of the school. At the same time we also feel the need to expose our students to opposing points of view, both to deepen their own understanding of an issue, and to gird them for the serious work that lies ahead of them after they leave us.
How do we do this? First, our teachers engage our students at all grade levels in thinking deeply about important issues and ideas. Second, we make time for reflection. With time, we hope that students can fine-tune their moral perspective and grow in being comfortable with their views and positions. And third, and finally, we find ways to support our students to develop their own voice: a voice that is strong, articulate, and able to present a finely defined, value laden point of view.
Now more than ever our society needs individuals who have wrestled with the important issues of our day and have developed the moral muscles to stand up to the pressures that buffet us in society. None of us know what the future will bring.
My fingers are crossed for our country as we head to election day but as far as Berkeley Carroll goes, it is full speed ahead with our mission.
Robert D. Vitalo