My friend sees it another way, particularly when considering the experiences of BIPOC students and faculty and others whose identities, orientations, or socioeconomic status diverge from traditional independent school bourgeois, white “norms”: “Schools can’t be aspirational when they’re talking about kids and their identities and lives. Schools act like they have control over their students’ words and actions, and they don’t.”
Wait. Schools can’t be aspirational? And then we dug in a little deeper, and I understood: Independent schools should not believe that the loftiest statements and sentiments enshrined on their websites and sometimes on their walls are magical incantations. Waving a wand and shouting, Aequitate! or Iustitia! does not make the concepts real in the lives of students, and implying that the good intentions of an institution and the well-meaning and often trained individuals who work there will smooth the experience of all students, including their interactions with one another, is a delusion and, when ballyhooed as an ironclad truth, a lie.
A school can maintain a reasonable level of control over what happens in its programs: in classrooms, on stages, in studios, and on playing fields. Some independent schools extend this to situations that may seem quaint (at dining tables) or are recognized as permeable in their own right (in dormitories). But there is a vast underlayer of social and cultural interplay that adults may fleetingly glimpse but never fully see. Even the most observant and astute adult caregiver makes inaccurate assumptions and otherwise misses much of what goes on in Kid World.
And Kid World, as we know all too well, is comprised entirely of keen observers of Adult World. “The students are watching,” as Ted and Nancy Sizer reminded us. For a bit of perspective, let’s imagine what students have seen lately and how this has affected them. The current mental health crisis among students is glibly attributed to the pandemic, but what does that mean, exactly?
For starters, a whole lot of people have been sickened by Covid-19, and a million of them in the United States alone have died: parents, siblings, grandparents, children, friends, and strangers. Schools had to move quickly and often inelegantly to online instruction, and some of this was not all that great. All of this is traumatic in itself, but consider the larger backdrop against which the medical tragedy and educational jury-rigging has been playing out: the rise of a righteous movement for racial reckoning and in terrifying contrast the re-surfacing of overt and violent White Supremacist actors who by all appearances include high-profile leaders in the American government.
Everywhere radical conservatives are raging against the very values that schools proclaim, and everywhere there are signs that the social contract that was in force not so long ago is unraveling or being downright abrogated: highway and drug-related deaths, for example, are on the rise, and suicides and gun violence are endemic. Climate change is palpable. Students read that state legislatures in some states are trying to shut down conversations in schools and colleges about equity and diversity entirely, and Roe v. Wade, so emblematic of women’s “liberation” not so long ago, is on the judicial chopping block. Sinclair Lewis’s grim 1936 novel It Can’t Happen Here hasn’t earned a spot on many academic reading lists, but it is beginning to look as though it can happen here, in the United States of America. The economic crisis precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which has added the prospect of nuclear war to the global conversation) is hitting everyone, everywhere.
Who is not having a mental health crisis, large or small, in this early summer of 2022? If one believes in and tries to live the values and missions of institutions, one can only be tearing one’s hair, an unhealthy practice in itself. Schools may talk about mindfulness, empathy, and respect, but how can they really support students to find purpose, joy, and above all feelings of comfort and belonging as participants in communities damaged and even shattered by the ills of our time?
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)