Members of the Board of Trustees, colleagues, parents, family, and friends, it is my honor and privilege to welcome you to these Commencement exercises.
I would like to begin by recognizing all those who made the year such a great success. First, I wish to thank all of our students, who accepted the many changes to daily life required by the pandemic, from different schedules, study halls, face coverings, weekly testing, cancelled programs, gobs of Purell, as well as a dramatically different lunch experience. Your patience and cooperation were remarkable. Second, I wish to express my appreciation to all of our parents. Never has it been so abundantly clear, that not only do our students want to be in-school, but also our parents want them to be here, on campus, physically engaged in the learning process face to face (in masks of course) each and every day. Your understanding and support for all that was required was essential. Third, I cannot say enough about the sacrifices made by teachers, administrators and staff members here at Gill St. Bernard’s. You set aside your own fears and concerns to serve our students and did everything you could to make this year the best it could be. Finally, I want to thank our trustees, for all your support throughout this year and giving so generously of your time, talent and resources.
It is self-evident that the 2020-21 academic year was difficult for everyone. I will spare you the details, but must note that I no longer care for the word “pivot.” I would also like to be done with saying that the past 12 months have been “a year unlike any other.” After all, every year in some way, is unlike any other. There are a lot of things related to the pandemic that we all may be over at this point, and I am pretty sure you all have your own list. (BTW, haircuts were already on mine). However, I do hope that as we all begin to remember what people’s faces look like and feel the excitement of going to a big concert or other event, everyone will “make good choices.”
Each year, when preparing my comments, I do what most other Heads of School do, check out the “Top 20 Commencement Speeches” online. To be sure, there are some great ones. The Steve Jobs speech at Stanford in 2005 is still pretty amazing. I actually continue to use one of his observations: “it is always easier to connect the dots looking backwards.” So very true.
This year, I also thought of all the graduations I’ve attended over the years, as well as my own and those of my children—the speakers who were memorable, and those not so much. What was interesting is that many of the most memorable speeches focused on the importance of failure in our lives.
Recently, a friend asked me about the content of my remarks today. He was actually the only one who inquired, but I digress. He then suggested I take my cue from the New York Times ad line, “Facts are critical. Share them with those you care about.” But what is fact? How and who determines a fact?
My research on this led me to an article in The Atlantic magazine, entitled “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” by Julie Beck. Its subtitle was “The facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs.” In this piece, she suggests that there are often things that we want to believe so badly, that they become facts to us. As a result, we can become so entrenched in our positions on an issue, that we refuse to consider any new information contrary to what we believe. Through this process, our beliefs become “facts,” at least, to us. Another term for this is “confirmation bias.” As a Dean of Students at a boarding school more than 35 years ago, I witnessed this in action on more than one occasion, when a student got into trouble. Unfortunately, there were some instances when they could convince themselves of almost anything. (Fortunately for me, their parents were more objective.) Sadly, in her article, Beck goes on to suggest that there may be little we can do to change another person’s mind when a belief becomes a “fact.” It would seem at that point, we face the choice of do we engage and how, or not at all?
The writer, Kathryn Schultz, explores another aspect of this in greater depth in her book, On Being Wrong. You can watch the short version in her wonderful Ted Talk of the same title. Schultz asks the question why we sometimes misunderstand things, looks at how we behave when that happens and subsequently how it prevents us from understanding and engaging with others.
Part of the problem is connected to our innate need to be right all the time. Another is that we don’t always realize when we are actually wrong. This is especially challenging when we encounter those who disagree with us. After all, no one likes to make a mistake, or be wrong. Further, human beings are social creatures, hard wired to be agreeable. Disagreement often makes us uncomfortable. However, it may also be a good thing.
This summer, the faculty will be reading Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again. Grant suggests that by recognizing we all make mistakes, and by being open to them, as well as acting more like a “scientist” in our response, the data shows we actually learn more.
In just a few months all of you seniors will be heading off to college. You are not perfect, and it is a fact that you will make mistakes. Those that you recognize, you learn from, grow, and become better.
In his commencement address at Syracuse University, Aaron Sorkin noted, “You’re going to fall down, but the world doesn’t care how many times you fall down as long as it’s one fewer that the number of times you get back up.” A few years later at the University of Richmond, Terry McCauliffe, put it this way, “You take chances, guess what? You’re gonna fail sometimes. It’s part of life.” Even Gibbs now has a rule for it, Number 91.
Facts are critical. Perhaps though, the way we share them with others is even more critical.
Today is a wonderful day, an amazing day, a day almost unimaginable a year ago. Now it’s here and I hope you all may enjoy it. The Class of 2021 is an accomplished and resilient group of young men and woman; the time has come for us as a community to celebrate their achievements and wish them the very best, as they get ready to head off to college.
Thank you and GO KNIGHTS!