November 7, 2016

There are certain times in the year where it is customary for me to address students and colleagues in an extended fashion. These occasions may be formal ones, such as Convocation and Commencement, but they may also happen at other moments in our life as a community, when major events occur that impact us all.

Tomorrow is Election Day in our country. By many accounts, this year’s presidential race has been one of the most contentious in American history and by now, it is safe to say that we are all ready for it to be over. I say “one of the most contentious,” because there have actually been several others that were much worse. The Election of 1800, for example, ended up being decided by the House of Representatives after Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were awarded the same number of electors in the Electoral College. Thankfully, Jefferson emerged the winner after receiving the support of Alexander Hamilton. In 1824, the election again was decided by the House, where John Quincy Adams received the necessary votes via a “Corrupt Bargain” according to the loser of the election, Andrew Jackson.

Sadly, outrageous (and false) statements, name-calling, dirty tricks and claims of election tampering have been a part of the process since political parties were first established when George Washington decided not to run for a third term. The term “October Surprise” first came into use after the 1972 election, in which Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s Secretary of State, announced at a press conference in late October that: “…peace is at hand” in reference to the Vietnam War. Ever since, candidates have worried about a major story surfacing close to the election that might impact the outcome. Today, social media and the 24 hour news cycle ensure that the simplest slip or scandal will be immediately and highly publicized.

The Democrat Party traces its origins back to Thomas Jefferson, although it assumed its modern identity and form during the Jackson years. The Republican Party was formed in the 1850’s and John C. Fremont was its first presidential candidate in 1856. The use of an elephant and a donkey to symbolize each party was first popularized by the famous 19th century cartoonist, Thomas Nast.

Third party candidates have never won an election, although they have had a major impact several times. Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 after the Electoral College vote was split four ways. Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate in 1912, throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson. Third party candidates also had a significant impact on the election in 1948, 1968, and in 2000. The contest in 2000 was the closest in recent memory, with the outcome based on a recount in Florida and a decision by the Supreme Court. On four occasions, the winner was not the candidate with the highest popular vote total.

My point in sharing these tidbits of history is to offer some perspective. Recently, many pundits have referred to this year’s election as an “inflection point” in American history. For the proper definition of “inflection point,” I suggest you ask a math teacher. However, as it has been used here, it means “a turning point after which a dramatic change is expected to result.” But when you consider the examples I previously noted, the only one that resulted in a really dramatic change was the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the odds are that not much will change when you wake up on Wednesday morning.

No one would confuse either of the current candidates with Lincoln yet nonetheless, it “feels” like something ominous is going to happen, and I understand the anxiety this has generated. However, history reassures us that while there may be some difficult days still to come, our democracy will survive. This is not the first “disputed” election and there are sure to be others in your lifetime. Whether or not it is an inflection point will not be fully determined for years to come.

This anxiety though, and the general tenor of the campaign in the last few months have affected our school community in a variety of ways. Take for example the VOTES program and its results; consider what it says about our school community. The Republican candidate received 102 votes, the Democrat 96. Third party candidates received 120 votes. 21 students did not cast a ballot. Clearly, in terms of politics, our student body is divided, much like our country.

Those divisions are also reflected when it comes to other highly polarizing issues, such as race, sexual orientation, and the fundamental nature of life itself. At Convocation in early September, I spoke about the idea of becoming a “community of learners”. Critical to achieving this goal is the importance of civil discourse and remembering our core values: courage, integrity, respect, compassion and excellence in our various interactions. For the most part, the many conversations that have taken place this academic year have been helpful and I do not wish for anyone to lose sight of our progress. Yes, there also have been moments where forms of expression have generated conflict. This is unfortunate and can be upsetting. However, as I have said on more than one occasion, schools are messy places where both students and adults make mistakes. While I suppose it is true that you can only learn from the mistakes that you survive, happily nothing has happened that would not make me see all of it as a chance for our community to learn and grow individually and collectively.

In her book, Not for Profit; Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum suggests “when we meet in society, if we have not learned to see both self and the other in that way (as individuals meriting our concern), imagining in one another inner faculties of thought and emotion, democracy is bound to fail, because democracy is built upon respect and concern, and these in turn are built upon the ability to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.” Nussbaum was writing about our society and a divided electorate, but I fear that sometimes we too objectify others outside of our community and do not see them first as human beings. This blindness prevents us from hearing their stories; stories that are rich, interesting and in some cases, life altering.

Sometimes the blindness is caused by our desire to always be right. Chip and Dan Heath explore this issue in their book, Decisive. Reading this helped me better understand the concept of “confirmation bias” and how we naturally accept and believe information that supports our positions and reject that which does not, even when the facts prove us wrong. Another problem is the construct that: If you do not agree with me, you are not on my side. If you are not on my side, you are against me. Therefore, I am against you. Do you ever fail to “see” someone you disagree with? Are you able to “see” yourself as others see you?

My children disagree with just about every decision I make…or so it seems. My closest friends regularly challenge my beliefs on a variety of issues, which helps me to better understand my own opinions and at times, to change them when I realize I am wrong. Yes, I too, make plenty of mistakes. None of us are perfect and we should never race to judge others, as we in turn, will face judgment ourselves at some point.

Of course, it is easier to understand this on minor items, than on those that are controversial and stir strong emotions. When these topics come up, it might help to first take a deep breath and remember the words of Thomas à Kempis who observed, “When anger enters the mind, wisdom departs.” When we get too emotional, it is hard to have a respectful and productive exchange. There are also times when it is okay to not have to engage in conversation about controversial subjects. Indeed, there is a reason why many will steer clear of discussions about religion and politics, as they usually generate the greatest number of disagreements. Imposing your beliefs on someone else by shouting or “getting in their face”is the quickest way to end a conversation.

At Gill, it is important for everyone to be able to appropriately express their opinions and in turn, hear the thoughts of others in a respectful and considerate manner. However, any expressions that polarize the community or demean individuals and groups are harmful and have no place here.

How then, do we move forward? The most effective way to accomplish this is through a commitment to maintaining a constructive and ongoing dialogue. We have a number of regular forums and special programs to facilitate this, but the most effective way to meaningful change is through one-on-one conversations in the student café, the hallways and the dining room as well as other places. Make sure to treat others with respect in these various interactions and try to really “see” them as human beings with their own thoughts and opinions. When it comes to politics and political issues, also keep in mind that we have a number of international students. Have they been included in the conversation? What do they think? Try to “see” someone you do not know, anyone – student, teacher, and administrator – and make a commitment to get to know him or her and hear their story. It is a great opportunity for all to learn.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” This should be our goal at Gill as well.

Consider all that has been accomplished here this year. There is so much to celebrate and lift up. Our seniors, with the help of the college guidance staff and faculty were able to process an incredible number of early applications this year. The fall production, The Game’s Afoot, was an amazing show. Both the boys' and girls' soccer teams have advanced in state tournament play – I hope you will support each one. The girls' tennis team shared the Prep B State Championship. The cross country runners showed significant improvement and will compete in the Group Championships this weekend. There have been a number of successful community service events thus far and next Friday we will celebrate the annual Take-A-Turkey-To-School Day. Remember again, the importance of perspective.

Yes, I am proud of our school community and confident about our future. And, although I have concerns because the coming days, weeks and months will not be easy ones, I am confident that our country will also move forward.

I often look to the past to find hope for our future. In 1865, with the end of the Civil War in sight, Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address. Much shorter than the first, an excerpt of it is on the back wall of the Lincoln Memorial. This war remains the bloodiest conflict in the history of our country. More Americans died in it than in all other wars combined. Ultimately, it was fought to end slavery, an evil which divided our nation. In spite of all the suffering, loss and acrimony of four years of bitter conflict, Lincoln still found a way to rise above and see a way forward. In a brief four paragraph speech, he ended with these words:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for the widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”

Though the path ahead after the election will be difficult, the challenges we face are nothing like the ones that Lincoln faced. I pray that whoever wins this election, he or she will find a way to channel Lincoln’s thoughts for the sake of everyone in our nation. Peace, a lasting peace is what we all desire, and deserve.

Our school community too, will move forward as well. Our various differences may serve us as a great strength as we continue to learn and grow through an ongoing, and positive dialogue. It is just one more reason why Gill St. Bernard’s is such a unique school.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.