Please watch this message regarding tomorrow's presidential election from Andrew Menke, Head of School.
Read the full transcript here:
On the eve of one of the most historic and contested elections in our lifetime, I reach out from the venerable Heuston Concert Hall to share a few brief reflections.
Alexis de Tocqueville, historian, political scientist, and politician said “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to know how to use than freedom.” Freedom is the centerpiece of an American democracy built by the people for the people, indivisible with unalienable rights, the aspiration of a more perfect union, dependent on all of us and an educated, enlighted, informed, and engaged populous.
This is the essence of our liberal arts mission—to foster active citizenship fortified with the habits of mind and heart to make a positive difference in the world.
Over the past six weeks we have focused on election history, the election process, how the electoral college works, as well as how contested elections are resolved. We have also provided perspective from faculty and alumni about how to think about, and practice, civic responsibility. We believe elections present immense opportunities for learning.
Waterford School, as a matter of policy and practice, strives to remain politically neutral as a school. But to state that Waterford School should remain neutral is not at all to suggest that individuals in the Waterford community should remain neutral. Quite the contrary. As our vision asserts, we strive to inspire lives of meaning and purpose – dynamic lives of action and contribution. We want individuals to feel and think deeply about the issues that matter to them and that they deem important to our nation at this moment… and always. We expect that individuals will—and should—speak out as they see fit in the exercise of their liberties in a democratic society. We also expect individuals will be thoughtful, reasoned, and respectful, especially when passions are running high.
Waterford School, as an institution, must remain neutral, at the same time that we support individuals' right to speak for themselves. The role of a school in the liberal arts tradition is to help students know themselves and know the world. The school needs to train students to think critically, creatively, and independently.
Waterford cultivates broad intellectual growth across the range of academic disciplines, and informed by data, the capacity to reason—logically, carefully, and respectfully. To be sure a breadth of ideas and those that are different from our own enriches our learning environment as it stretches each student's thinking and reinforces critical analysis and cogent written and oral communication skills.
Without ever dictating what students should think, the school must teach them how to think—and, further, how to translate thought into speech, writing, and action. But that speech, writing, and action must come from the students themselves. It must be authentically their own. By remaining institutionally neutral on political questions of the moment, the school is better able to support students through the necessarily complicated process of finding their individual voices, and mastering the skills that will allow them to speak effectively for themselves. Waterford School should inspire, instruct, encourage, and guide students to improve the quality of their analysis and articulation.
This can be a tricky line to walk. Everyday in the classroom, our teachers strive to share their passion for teaching and learning. They love what they do, and they look for ways to bring their subject matter to life for their students. They fully understand the school’s desire to remain politically neutral, and they fully embrace the mission imperative to help students know themselves and know the world. Teachers seek to ignite passion, stimulate intellect, and shape character, but not to indoctrinate, or to discriminate against students whose thinking differs from their own. But there is always potential for mistakes or misunderstanding. Education is a human enterprise, subject to all the complexities of human experience. Moreover, the line between good teaching of politically freighted subject matter and politically motivated teaching is not always clear. It’s important to understand, though, that the aspiration of the school is to maintain institutional objectivity so that the individual thinking and voices of the students can emerge over time. This impartiality gives students the space they need to find out what they think, and to translate those ideas into effective speech and action. Further, it creates the space to thoughtfully question and ideally develop the capacity to appreciate and respectfully debate opposing viewpoints. This is what it means to live in a thriving democracy.
In addition to this core philosophical rationale for Waterford’s commitment to remaining politically neutral, there is another important motive. Waterford wants to be a school that is open to all students and families, regardless of their political leanings. Waterford is—and must always remain—a school that welcomes conservative and progressive voices in its student body, its parent community, its Board of Trustees, and its faculty and administration. The full spectrum of political thought is welcome at Waterford—with the obvious caveat that the school’s core values must be upheld. The school, as an institution, preserves this important principle of inclusiveness by remaining politically neutral.
This past summer, in response to the killing of George Floyd and the many other examples of enduring racial injustice in our country, I stated in a letter to the community that “Waterford School stands together with the Black community and all people of color. We are committed to social justice, to combating racism, and to the goal of improving ourselves, our nation, and our world through the power of liberal arts education. This statement is not political—but rather—connects Waterford's core values to the hope that we as a nation might become a better, more perfect union. All the truly political questions that are elicited about how we as a nation should proceed to social justice and combat racism are not yet answered. What our students and the Waterford community should hear in this statement, and in the election, is an invitation to work toward finding those answers. Again, Waterford’s role is to inspire and encourage, but not to dictate.
We know that there are a range of strong emotions that accompany this election. Words like “polarized” and “existential” have been used to describe the present political landscape. We believe neutrality takes courage and discipline, and we are a better school for it.
As we look to and beyond Tuesday’s results, we are optimistic that whatever outcome the election yields, the nation—and Waterford—will move forward positively. We will continue to teach your children in the spirit of the liberal arts, confident in the belief that they are developing the passion, intellect, and character to use their voices for good both at Waterford… and beyond.
We invite you to speak with your children about our nation's democracy, our present election and the relevant policy issues associated with each campaign. And why it is vital to continue to practice respect, empathy, care, and compassion… no matter the outcome.
We remain one community…one nation… with the imperative to support one another and practice the kind of respectful, civil discourse that characterizes the elevated aspiration of our learning community.
Mahatma Gandhi said , "What is really needed to make democracy function is not the knowledge of facts, but education."
In this time of great uncertainty our mission, vision, and core values center us with thoughtful civility and shared purpose, thereby providing a source of optimism about the future—something our mission requires of all of us, and our world needs now, and always.
Thank you for your continued support, and for sharing your children with us.
September 27, 2019
February 22, 2022
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