Back in August, my appeal for civility in the face of an alarmingly toxic political climate
generated a pile of positive replies, some from hundreds of miles away, just as school began. In fairness, the message was not exactly groundbreaking. But maybe in its self-evident quality, it served a timely purpose. Now we're days away from an election that couldn't get here soon enough. Time to dole out some observations and tips of the cap.
The past few months here brought surprisingly little upset and acrimony to our halls. As a place where speaking one's mind has been a cherished part of the culture, a reasonable person could well have predicted otherwise. Somehow, though, the fall felt different. Scarcely a poster, a bumper sticker, or a strident soliloquy to be found. Not even a mischievously planted yard sign was collected on USN grounds. We held no mock debates and not even a mock election, not even to my knowledge a Lower School election.
In a memory bank that reaches back to the 1980s, I cannot recall an instance when less was done in connection with a presidential race. It has been that different. And to deepen the point, no one has really asked or pushed to do anything, on any scale. My sense is that as important as the responsibilities of active citizenship certainly are, we could find no place to start. The examples we might typically or historically emulate from the public sphere offered virtually no educational value, at least not yet. If our students parroted what they hear in the 24-hour news cycle, then they would likely violate our handbook guidelines about respectful conduct, to say nothing of our basic expectations of offering well-crafted arguments when offered the chance to speak.
Too often the issues have been obscured by the politics of personal destruction, and except for continuing to encourage those eligible to register to vote, we've struggled to find a way to make sense of this moment. So we've fallen back on at least not making it worse for the young people in our charge or the community we bring together here each day. And to that community's credit, the ugliness that occasionally found its way to campus during last spring's primaries has been happily absent this fall. And for that, I and surely many of us are duly and truly grateful.
The question now is what to do from here. When will the worry and the discord written about just recently in David Brooks' New York Times column
toggle from current events to the stuff of history? How will we respond to what's sure to be a call to come together after next Tuesday's results are tallied? What will be the role of schools, and of this one in particular, then? Here's hoping that we will shake off this singularly unappealing episode in our nation's experience, that we will choose to "go high" in response to seeing the low road up close.
Maybe then our commitment to respect one another's identities and our understanding that learning from our differences is one of life's great gifts can rise to serve as a compelling and unifying force. Let's resolve to find the way forward with those fundamental beliefs as the country turns a page. From my admittedly limited vantage point, we've risen to this occasion and looked out for one another, ultimately realizing that less was more in this troubling electoral climate, and there's reason for hope, even for optimism, in the many, many acts of goodness in our midst. May these past few months be memorable for the way they reminded us of commitments and values never to be taken for granted. There's new work to do.
Grateful for your company,