Nobles Parents' E-Newsletter

September 2014

Nobles Parents' Newsletter September 2014

The Zeitgeist and the Optimism of Youth by Head of School Bob Henderson

What an immensely unsettling summer it has been in news of the world! While every generation seems to have it trials and tribulations in connection to global events (imagine, for instance, being a teenager in the summer of 1940 as developments in Europe and Asia threatened to draw America into world war), I have reflected over the last three months about the impact of recent events on the psyches of the young people with whom we work. Consider just these several items that dominated summer headlines through June, July and August:

  • An outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa that, while still contained there, has the potential to wreak havoc on global health systems;
  • The establishment of an Islamic “caliphate” in Mesopotamia (“ISIS”) that asserts divine inspiration and the right to impose its will violently and absolutely, crushing the interests of the crumbling states and minority religious and ethnic groups around it;
  • A war between Israel and Hamas (among other Palestinian factions) in the Gaza Strip that seems to offer no hope of long-term resolution, and which also threatened to spiral into a broader and more catastrophic eruption of violence in the region;
  • The shooting down of a commercial airliner as a tragic punctuation point in the violent standoff between Russia and the Ukraine, and by extension between the West and Russia, over the future economic, political and strategic relationships of old Cold War rivals;
  • Civil unrest and passionate protest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown, demonstrating yet again that racial justice and harmony remain elusive in this country;
  • The ongoing violent collapse of Syria and Libya, among the ranks of other failing states in Africa, the Middle East and Asia;
  • Relentless jitters in regard to the stability of the global economy;
  • Ongoing discussion of climate change and its dire implications;
  • Political rifts within the United States, with resulting governmental gridlock, that threaten to deepen and that seemingly are immune to rational discussion and compromise.

Even for bright young people who try to stay distant from current events, the zeitgeist is profoundly unsettling. A teenager’s day is too frequently consumed, as it is, by anxieties regarding school, friends, family and simply growing up. To layer on top of that the pressures of a world that seems without clear order, or which does not seem to offer hope, can be a difficult burden. You would think that this would be a generation of adolescents distinguished by cynicism and resignation.

And yet it most certainly is not. I find the students with whom I work today to be among the most inspirational and optimistic I have encountered over my nearly three and a half decades in schools. I see this in my classes, among my advisees, in conversations in the hallways and on the sidelines, in the agendas of various student clubs and organizations, and, perhaps most profoundly, on the morning assembly stage. Students of this generation are moved to service to others easily and intuitively. Despite some of what you may hear in the media about the narcissism and entitlement of this generation, my experience is that they care deeply, connect with each other enthusiastically, dispel preconceived notions in regard to race, gender and sexuality readily, and work hard to achieve success. They generally look at the daunting list of crises faced by our civilization as challenges to address and surmount rather than as profound existential threats (as I looked at the possibility of nuclear war as a teenager in the 1970’s). When we assert that the mission of the school is to inspire leadership for the public good, the vast majority of the kids with whom I interact have the attitude that this is the natural and obvious purpose of a rigorous secondary education.

This summer I wrote the following to the faculty: “Great teachers ... intend to instill in students the confidence and ability to think critically, to analyze rationally, to express themselves with clarity, to probe that which they do not understand, and to challenge institutions and leaders to serve the common good. In pursuit of our school mission, we should encourage dissent, difference, debate, collaboration, empathy and engaged listening in regard to the critical issues and ideas of this era. We must prepare our students to enter a troubled world with the intellectual perspective and strength of character that will make a difference for the better.” I like to think that this approach to teaching, and the culture that pervades this school as a result, has something to do with the optimistic tenor of the remarkable young people with whom we deal every day. And, in turn, there is no question that this generation of young people finds the culture and purpose of this school to be resonant with their own outlook and determination to make the world a better place. Indeed, Nobles students provide me with the hope that I need to confront the disturbing news of the world on a daily basis.

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