Starting the Year Right by Asking the Right Questions

Originally posted 9/24/17

This morning I would like to attribute my “spill the coffee” moment to John Allman, Head of the Trinity School in NYC, who wrote a surprisingly edgy letter to his school community at the start of this school year. For those who are unfamiliar with Trinity, it is one of the more venerable Manhattan K-12 private schools. Here’s an excerpt from his letter (also linked via a weekend NYT article):

I hate to be a downer as we prepare for the excitement of the new school year, but it seems to me that we’re living through profound cultural climate change, and we are suffering through storms of civil division that seem to be pulling our nation apart as surely as tectonic plates separating our coasts from the heartland. In this Age of the Selfie, we seem to have lost the necessary balance in the timeless need to balance our separateness and our togetherness, our differences and the common good, our diversity and our community.

While I and (I hope) most of you find Trinity to be a refuge from the radical disconnection in the world beyond our walls, I am afraid that we too suffer from elements of disconnection. We are not exempt from the dynamics of the cultural weather systems of our larger culture: we suffer from divisional disconnection, feeling at times like three schools, not one. At times, we feel the disconnection from consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interests. And, as recent discussion with students and young alumni about their well-being has revealed, a significant cross-section of our students, regardless of class or race or privilege, feel disconnected, isolated, alienated from their peers.

Allman then proceeds to cite the work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, arguing for a vision of school community rooted in covenant rather than social contract. Allman summarizes as follows:

The contractual view of school is that families pay fees in exchange for the educational skills and credentials their children seek; the covenantal view of school is that families enter into a partnership with the school to build a learning community in which their children will develop their potential to serve others.

Not your average “Note from the Office of the Head of School.”

At Gann, we can say with confidence that we take community seriously. There is a lot within our programming and our culture that should make us proud. Yet we should not pretend that we are devoid of “consumerist families,” nor should we turn a blind eye to our students and young alumni who “feel disconnected, isolated, alienated from their peers.” Consider: how can we as students, professionals, and parents strengthen our sense of covenant, both in ourselves and in our fellow community members? How can we embolden our sense of moral commitment, of shared responsibility for each other?