Unapologetically Revisiting CIVILITY

I have been struggling to write a message for the upcoming newsletter for St. George’s Independent School. Sometimes this sort of writing comes to me very quickly. More often, however, the final piece is the result of a painful process of starting and stopping, of inventing and disregarding, of editing and finally letting go. This week’s effort has followed this arduous path.

Compounding my struggle has been the SAIS (Southern Association of Independent Schools) Conference in Charleston, which ended on Tuesday. As always, I learned a lot, and I found some of my current thinking reinforced and found some challenged. One issue that echoed throughout the conference was the ongoing threat to civil discourse, that is, dialogue intended to enhance understanding, in our country and world. Schools are struggling to remain hubs for civil discourse as such dialogues are corroding at every level of society. Role models seem harder and harder to find. The onus for solving this problem rests on all of us–on those of us in leadership roles and/or in positions to care for and educate young people  more heavily, and we are falling far short daily. Our kids are watching.

We tend to blame technology or the absence of civil discourse, and we tend to blame whomever we perceive as the opposition, the media, politicians, humanists, scientists, and anyone not from where we might be from. Valuing civility, however, necessitates looking honestly at ourselves.  In an attempt to resort my thinking on this topic, I am reposting past blog entries that bear on civility and civil discourse. What I include here is not exhaustive–I could stretch to include more, as I have been thinking and writing about this topic over a number of years now.

Close readers will notice that I drew each of the reposts here from the late summer and fall of 2016–another election year. This was not my original intent (I really just did a word search of ROSS ALL OVER THE MAP), but it is appropriate. Hearing the bitterness of the 2016 election season, I wanted to make sure the school where I work and have a child was naming the values most important to us. I find myself in a similar position this election season.

An Ask for Civility: Opening of New School Year Letter

August 5, 2016J Ross Peters

Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 12.26.38 PM

[We sent the following letter out to the St. George’s Independent School Community this morning.  While it is relevant specifically to SGIS, I believe it also has some relevance to all schools on this eve of the 2016-2017 school year.]

Dear Families:

We are gearing up for a great year at SGIS. As I write, the new lacrosse wall is going up; teams are sweating it out on the courts, fields, and in the weight room; rewiring is complete to allow for more pottery wheels in the art room at Collierville; and teachers are making preparations for their courses. I am sitting in my Collierville campus office, having recently returned from vacation in the North Carolina mountains, and I am feeling the familiar anticipation of the first day of school. Now with a year at St. George’s under my belt, I believe more powerfully than ever that this is a special place doing important work for all the children who join us.

While this summer for the Peters family has been replete with chances to reconnect with friends and family, and we have enjoyed opportunities to spend some time on familiar ground in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, my enjoyment of the summer has been tempered not only by tragic news in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Nice, but also by our national struggle to remember that we share more in common than that which separates us.

As I think about the troubling momentum of our recent headlines, Psalm 133 seems relevant. Its first verse —“Behold how good and pleasant it is/for God’s people to dwell together in unity”— is particularly evocative for me as its first three words, Ecce Quam Bonum, provide the Latin motto of my undergraduate school, and it has become a habit of many of my Sewanee friends to sign cards and emails to other graduates with the letters EQB. The rest of the Psalm points out that “dwelling together in unity” places us closer to God and is indeed a gift from God.

Placed in relief by the frightening events of this summer, Psalm 133 reveals that we have a rare opportunity in this school, and rather than warn you against the dangers of squandering it, I would like for us to think about how we might strengthen the ties that bind us. I believe we can use that strength to serve and to lead students so that they might become servant leaders in communities that will always have poignant need for them.  I do not know the future, but I do know that, whatever way it tilts and spins in the days, months, and years ahead, the world will need such people as St. George’s strives to graduate (SGIS Portrait of a Graduate).  It will need them not only to meet the world’s gaze but also to engage it with strength, empathy, determination, and integrity. It will need them, not only to recognize the issues that may divide us, but also to know how to engage people who see the way forward differently than we do.

After this long preface I have an ask for all of us – teachers, parents, friends and students: make a commitment to civility and to civil discourse within our school community. Please make this commitment even as we witness its opposite day in and day out in media, in political campaigns, on athletic field sidelines, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat threads. We cannot ask young people to be civil, much less to value civility and civil dialogue if we are not able to meet the standard ourselves.

The most highly charged issues of our time are alive in the conversations our students are having with and without us every day. We know that they are watching us carefully. Interestingly, even when as parents we believe our kids are not listening to us or valuing our opinions, there is no source of insight they trust more than us. They are listening to what we say and how we say it. They are using us to formulate their opinions and to calibrate their character. They are testing boundaries in order to find the lines within which they will operate as adults. In our national dialog we are struggling to post appropriate boundary markers for young people regarding civility, so in our community, the SGIS community, we have an obligation to be counter-cultural.

Preparing students, our children, for the “real world” does not mean emulating its worst characteristics. The best preparation for young people includes setting a far higher bar so that they grow into the very people who are ready to help raise standards above the lowest common denominator. At SGIS, the call to be counter-cultural in this area is not new; however, the immediacy of its relevance has never been more clear. St. George’s has always sought to bring people together, and our three-campus model drawing from over fifty zip codes is a testament to both our faith that we can navigate the spaces that separate us and our determination that we must. I request that all members of our school community deepen our commitment to civility even as the world around us may seem determined to undermine the effort. Civility involves acts of will and thus reflects our character both as individuals and as a group.

So as we begin a new school year, one with such promise for all of us, I will strive to keep Psalm 133’s call in the front of my mind: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for God’s people to dwell together in unity.”

EQB,

Ross Peters, Head of School

Standards of Conduct (according to The National Institute for Civil Discourse):

  1. Be respectful of others in speech and behavior
  2. Take responsibility for personal behavior, attitude, and actions
  3. Promote civility through everyday interactions
  4. Listen fully and attentively to the speaker, seeking to understand them
  5. Practice non-violence, using words to inspire change

Our Mission: St. George’s Independent School is an Episcopal school dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values. 

Opening Convocation Reflection: Good Neighbors in the SGIS Ecosystem

August 15, 2016J Ross Peters

With the 2016-2017 Prefects as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan)
With the 2016-2017 Prefects, as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan)

[I gave the following reflection during the St. George’s Independent School Opening Convocation today]

Good Morning! Good FIRST morning of the 2016-2017 school year.

Before sharing a couple of thoughts with you, I want to give a shout-out to the Class of 2017. I couldn’t more excited about the creativity and leadership of this group of seniors. I would also like to offer a round of applause to our prefects who have been hard at work preparing for the year ahead.

On Saturday evening, most of the Class of 2017 joined Mr. Gibson, Mr. Morris, Mr. Gorham, Ms. Hardy, and I at the St. George’s Bunkhouse in order to socialize, to eat Central BBQ, and to see our new space—it is awesome(!). Our time together was a chance to reconnect, or better for our purposes this morning, to remind them that they are interconnected as they prepare for the challenge and excitement of their final year at St. George’s as students.

I have long admired the 20th century thinker and novelist Aldous Huxley. For years I taught his novel Brave New World. In the novel Huxley imagines a society that has had human connectedness and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. As a result of prioritizing comfort and stability over everything else, the world we encounter in the novel is devoid of altruism and philanthropy. The notion of family is as alien to the characters in the novel as the absence of the notion of family would be to us. Additionally, many of the challenges we see in our world are absent, but to the reader’s increasing horror so are love, relationships, and caring. In the final work of his career, entitled Island, Huxley offered advice that to my ear seems perfectly timed for us. In the novel he implores: “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and in the country around it. Rub it in.”

Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George's Independent School August 15, 2016
Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George’s Independent School August 15, 2016

With Huxley’s thought in mind, I spoke for a couple of minutes to the Seniors on Saturday evening. I talked to them about their role as leaders of the school, and I spoke about the idea that we are each part of the St. George’s ecosystem. As you likely learned or will soon learn in biology class an ecosystem is a complex set of relationships among the living resources and residents of a place or area. St. George’s human ecosystem includes three campuses; it includes faculty, staff; it includes infants who are less than a year old and members of the Class of 2017; it also includes alumni, trustees, and families.  Here is the key idea of my remarks this morning: our job, OUR job, is to make the St. George’s ecosystem as healthy as we possibly can. Indeed, a substantial part of the lives that I wish for each of you after your time at St. George’s is that you make all the ecosystems of which you are a member healthier and more sustainable. I am thinking of your colleges and universities and later, your cities and neighborhoods, for they are ecosystems as well.

I also took some time in my comments to our Seniors to expand our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. In fact, if someone says that someone else is their neighbor, we naturally assume that they live very close to each other. However, I would like us to think of our neighbors far more broadly to include not only our school, but our city, our county, our state, our nation, and our world. I would like for us to include people with whom we disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor, and I would like for us to be among the people who strive to be good neighbors. At St. George’s we are going to name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor SG901, for as much as any school, if not more than any school, we are deeply connected—we are neighbors—to all of our area code.

In the letter I emailed you recently I made an ask for civility within the St. George’s community. For me playing a healthy part in our ecosystem, being a good neighbor, and committing to civility and to civil discourse are all intertwined—in fact, to my way of thinking they are essentially the same thing. Striving to make the parts of the world we touch healthier, kinder, more humane is the same thing as striving to be a good neighbor, and the same thing as striving for civility in our interactions with others.

This is not just my ask, however.  In the Gospel today—a reading from Matthew we call the Beatitudes—Christ identifies “Peacekeepers” as the Children of God. By telling us that the peacekeeper is blessed he is calling us to be Peacekeepers. That should be us; that must be us. Peacekeepers embody the characteristics of a good neighbor, and they make human ecosystems stronger.

Every part of an ecosystem impacts the way the system as a whole functions. What part will you play in St. George’s ecosystem this year?

It is an honor to have you all here. Let’s make it a great year! Amen.

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Bombasticball–Let’s Take Our Ball and Go Home

August 28, 2016J Ross Peters

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, member of the St. George's Independent School Class of 2017
Copyright Elle Vaughn, member of the St. George’s Independent School Class of 2017 (used with permission)

It seems everybody is playing it. They are playing it in politics, in media, around water-coolers, after church on Sunday, in school hallways, on social media post comment threads, in post-game interviews, in the stands at High School (or Middle School or Elementary School) athletic events. Bombasticball.

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017
Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (used with permission)

Bom-bas’tic-balln. a game played with sharpened tongues where combatants duel by hurling high-sounding, turgid prose (the “ball”) back and forth to try to gain points. Players prepare for matches by rehearsing in front of others they perceive as like-minded in an exercise called “preaching to the choir.” Such competitions are given to hyperbole, red-herrings, non-sequiturs, hasty generalizations and other logical fallacies. The dominant player, often winning as a result of volume and/or deployment of a strategy called “Filibluster” *, receives a brief feeling of righteousness, which can lead to the creation of dependency on the game. In short, one might begin by playing it and end up being played by it.

The risks of too much bombasticball in a competitive regimen include spiritual corrosion, misplaced priorities, isolation from viewpoints that might inform a thoughtful revision of an opinion, and pride (not the good kind).

Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (Used with Permission)
Copyright Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (used with permission)

*Fili-blus-ter, n. ineffective loud, aggressive, or indignant talk such as a prolonged speech that obstructs progress toward real solutions but may indeed be the positive difference-maker in games of bombasticball.

Election Day and Civility Stress

November 4, 2016J Ross Peters

Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017
Cartoon by Elle Vaughn, SGIS, Class of 2017 (Used with permission. This cartoon first appeared earlier this Fall in a post entitled Bombasticball: Let’s Take Our Ball and Go Home” )

At the end of this post I have included an excerpt from my email to faculty and staff today, as well as a “Prayer for Civil Debate”, which I wrote for an assembly in which students debated key issues during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. While relevant then, the prayer almost seems quaint now given the extreme vitriol of this election season. The topic of civility has been on my mind for many months and indeed it was the topic of my letter (“An Ask for Civility”) to the St. George’s Independent School community in advance of this school year.

As Head of an independent school, an Episcopal school, I am not called to or inclined to support one party over another or one candidate over another publicly. However, I do believe I am called and educators everywhere are called to announce that we can and must seek a higher bar for discourse in our country. This Presidential campaign has created appalling moments, many of them. It is not business as usual and it is not OK. If we enter into debates (not simply the debates we see on television and social media, but any place where people debate charged topics) with only intent to speak, we will never hear, and we will find ourselves shouting. At some point in such an environment, the desire to win at any cost comes to dwarf the desire to tell the truth and to find the best answers to the challenges that face us.

We speak often of character education in our schools. We have appropriately high expectations regarding how to engage other people and how to be a part of a community together. I love the character education aspect of our work because fundamentally I believe that civility, humility, and kindness must be present to balance our passions, beliefs, and opinions. Our emphasis on this balance is vital and relevant in part because history teaches over and over again that it is never an easy thing to achieve AND very little can be accomplished without it.

Our nation has a long and mixed history of success in challenging debates. In the end, however, we have survived because our debates, at times after long enmity, have led to a recognition that we can and must be stronger as a result of each other rather than corroded by presence of each other. In the end we have been our best as a nation when we have been as willing to learn as we are to speak, teach or preach. Too many voices, loud shouting voices, have been telling us recently that it is weakness to seek or try to engage in thoughtful dialogue. If it is a weakness, then the great statesmen and women of history, and specifically our national history, were weak. To assert this is as obscene as it is untrue.

AN EXCERPT FROM MY FRIDAY EMAIL TO FACULTY AND STAFF:
I found myself wincing, not for the first time, last night reviewing the headlines. If you are like me, you are feeling election stress. While the existence of this stress is not unprecedented in general, it is unprecedented in degree this year–it has been a deeply bruising campaign season.

Given all this, it is vital to remember our important role with the young people in our charge even when those around us are dropping their guard. All the simple things good teachers do, regardless of the age of the students in the room, make a difference at a time when we know adults are not the only ones feeling stress. Kids feel it in powerful, often unspoken and hidden ways. So..for our students, please remember… Whenever we greet them, laugh with them, connect with them, are kind to them, we are naming them as God’s children, and we are affirming their place in the SGIS community. The value of this part of our work cannot be overestimated.

PRAYER FOR CIVIL DEBATE

Dear Lord, during this season of negative TV ad buys, sniping bumper stickers, relentless media cycles, righteous indignation, overly abundant and overly heated cheap shots, AND during this time of strong feelings, earnest conversations, party platforms, red, white, and blue yard signs, and intelligent debates…

Please help us to remember you and help us to keep an eye on the issues that transcend the political issues of the day. In these moments when we are pushed to delineate what separates us, to name where we disagree, help us to keep an eye on what connects us and what unites us, and let us honor you through the way we honor each other—particularly in those moments when we disagree with each other. Help us to keep an eye on what is bigger than the moment, and give us ears to hear even when we are perhaps looking far more to use our lips to speak.

As we barrel toward the November election, let us, in the words of the psalmist, seek to make the “words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” AMEN

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