Head of School’s Notebook — What to do?


I’m at the annual meeting of the Headmaster’s Association as I write, an organization whose sole requirement of membership is that you show up for the annual meeting. That’s largely because the two-day gatherings are substantive and provocative. This year the program headline reads “International Flux: Instability, Conflict, Security, Alliances.”

It’s certainly a timely topic. Already we have heard from the recently retired EPA National Research Program Director for Air, Climate and Energy Research, whose purpose was to show us some of the potential impacts on security, alliances, and stability given our evolving planet, our energy consumption, our warming climate and our air quality (or lack thereof). There were lots of charts and graphs, of course, with rapidly ascending vertices. It isn’t a pretty picture he paints. The most notable fact he shared concerns carbon dioxide and its lifespan in our atmosphere. Approximately 25% of our CO2 emissions today (which are astronomically higher than they were 25, 50, or 100 years ago) will remain in our atmosphere for the next 25,000 years. For context, nuclear waste (which has its own set of challenges) has a lifespan of only 1,000 years. What we do (or don’t do) now will have legs … long legs.

The second speaker focused on human conflict around the world. The founder of an organization called Transnational Threats Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he shared insight from visits to dozens of conflict zones around the world, interviews with combatants on all sides of ongoing disputes, and a host of statistics relating to insurgencies around the world. He even showed a slide of the disturbing number of identified hate groups within the United States who represent potential domestic insurgencies. His primary points were not about those fighting for one thing or another but rather on the forces that give rise to conflict, revolution, terrorism, and war. Sadly, responsibility for such things is widely shared, but governments in particular are the major players and culprits. And governments, at least on an aggregate basis, are not reliable when it comes to responsible and unselfish service to the populace.

As you can probably imagine, after both presentations, “So, what do we do?” was the first question anyone asked. The second speaker said sometimes he puts up a slide that reads, “silver linings.” He didn’t this time, he said, because there aren’t many. Strangely, the climate guy was more reassuring. He said there’s lots that can be done. But with a few exceptions, most countries (including the United States) aren’t doing much at all. Which brings us right back to the question, the same one many of our students ask when confronted with a dilemma or challenge or impediment, what do we do?

There isn’t a single answer to that question, I suppose. But surely most of the reasonable possibilities have to do with trying, with learning, with listening, with communicating, and with serving in some manner a public good. Like all productive problem solving, resolution on these global issues will rely on our inclination to assess multiple viewpoints, recognize the complexity of the issues, and build momentum collectively. It’s not unlike the very things students in schools do every day or what those of us in the workplace participate in as we advance our professional communities.

Thomas Jefferson stressed that Democracy—the same form of government that Winston Churchill called, “The absolute worst … except for all of the other kinds”—depends upon an educated electorate. It seems like our current challenges—which are about far more than the here and now—are evidence that our answer on a global basis reflects each of our individual answers. Like Dan Cherry ’96, who spoke to our community earlier this week, “me=we.” What each of us does (or does not do) goes beyond each of us. In such a way, individual problem solving may well lead to global problem solving. Remember Margaret Mead’s great observation, “Never doubt the capacity of a single person to change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.”

And so we do our part. We educate ourselves and make our personal commitments. We vote, share our voices, contribute to the national discourse. We listen to viewpoints that may differ from our own and consider them responsibly. We matter. Each of us. Mr. Cate knew that. It’s why he started this school. Surely every other school in the country and the world has that expectation at its foundation as well.

Yes, there is urgency. And the risk is great. But my experience of today is that the things we have always believed in—the inclination of people to make a difference, to mobilize and act when called upon—are the very things we must continue to rely on. Our planet needs us, and it needs our best. And that’s what we’ll give it.