Considering Our Mission By Robert Henderson Jr. '76, Head of School
The news story that dominated the summer was the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I am part of the shrinking demographic that daily watches the evening television news. Yet it got to the point in July that even my high tolerance for the persistent negativity of the network reports wore thin – I just found the images of the Gulf as a chemical sewer too hard to take night after night. Regardless of your views about this issue (who is responsible, who should be compensated, and what it means about energy and the environment), the relentless pictures of birds and shorelines caked in sludge were highly depressing. Indeed, there are innumerable disturbing images to which our children are subjected in the media, covering the full range of atrocities on the planet. Moreover, there are more media than ever to consume, all of which contribute to the din of information. The impression of a world that is fractured environmentally, politically and ethically is more overwhelming than ever. There is great irony in the observation that with vastly more data readily available than at any time in human history, there seems to be scant access to wisdom, and confidence in our institutions is at a record low.
I apologize for opening the school year on such a grim note because my point is actually a hopeful one in terms of our mission as a school and our shared responsibility with you as parents. This summer I was privileged to attend a discussion among school heads led together by political pundits, and married couple, James Carville and Mary Matalin. We have all likely seen these two sparring (Carville on the left and Matalin on the right) on the issues over the years, but what struck me more than their differences in this forum was the obvious deep respect and admiration these two hold for each other. While many of their erudite disagreements make for entertaining and provocative theater, I was much more intrigued by the essential points on which they agreed. Years ago they fled the “toxic political culture of Washington” for New Orleans, where they have raised their children. They are independent school parents, a choice they made because, as Matalin said, of the counterweight this education provides against the forces of negativity in the world. They both argued that the recent downturn in the economy provides a critical lesson that great schools will teach with courage; that we must seek to live our personal and professional lives with a strong sense of accountability, honor, respect, integrity and grace. Matalin opined, “We need to send our children off with this armor,” because these are the most important '21st century skills' with which we can equip them," to which Carville added, “If we are going to rebuild the country, it will be with the children in your schools.”
I was recently at a dinner attended by several older graduates of the school and their spouses. There was a question and answer session wherein I was peppered with queries underpinned by doubts about the virtue and potential of today’s young people, living in and consuming a debilitating popular culture. I was forced to disagree sharply. In fact, I find teenagers today to be delightful, and more engaging and determined to do right in the world than at any time in my career. There is immense promise and optimism in our students, along with the will and fortitude to tackle the most intractable problems. Our challenge, as a school in partnership with you as parents, is to help our young men and women to develop the qualities of character and intellect necessary to make a positive difference in whatever fields they choose to pursue; to elevate public discourse though their ability to think, reflect and articulate; to discover and foster the ethical imperative to act for purposes beyond self-interest; and to answer the call to service. Last year we restated the school mission statement in a way that embraces this challenge; the first sentence remains our daily inspiration in this endeavor - “Noble and Greenough School is a rigorous academic community dedicated to inspiring leadership for the public good.”
As we renew the undertaking again this September, please accept my best wishes for a great school year, knowing that our future will be bright in the hands of the remarkable young men and women with whom we live and work every day.