Continuing Complicated Conversations by Head of School Bob Henderson
One of the great strengths of the Nobles program is morning assembly. Last November 12, however, a long assembly, to our great disappointment, went awry. Long assemblies occur roughly bimonthly and afford the community the chance to delve into subjects of local, national or international importance with outside experts and practitioners. Past speakers have included psychologist and professor of education Dr. Howard Gardner, biologist Dr. E.O. Wilson, psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak, the late Mayor Thomas Menino, Partners in Health founder Dr. Paul Farmer, law professors, public intellectuals and human rights advocates Randall Kennedy and Kenji Yoshino, human rights activist Gerda Weissmann Klein and the late Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai. The primary objectives behind our invitations to outside speakers are to promote intellectual engagement and to help our students learn to grapple productively with challenging issues. Indeed, in order to fulfill our mission to inspire leadership for the public good, our students must endeavor to understand complex, contentious problems.
During long assembly on November 12, our students, faculty and trustees heard from Ms. Rula Jebreal, a journalist and political activist, and Dr. Robert Danin, a career State Department diplomat and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. In light of our mission, we had expected that Ms. Jebreal and Dr. Danin would help illuminate the complexity of the region’s challenges, providing our students with a more comprehensive understanding of what pragmatic paths might be possible for a lasting peace settlement. Unfortunately, what transpired did not meet our educational objectives.
In the weeks leading up to the presentations on November 12, students were given general background information by members of the history department, and during assembly the day before, I told students that they would be hearing about a controversial subject, that the speakers’ views would not reflect an institutional position on the matter, and that, as smart people, they should listen with the utmost skepticism. Nevertheless, we regret that we inadequately anticipated all the content of the presentation and the format the speakers ended up adopting. The presentation contained inaccuracies and unaddressed biases, and was deficient in regard to pointed intellectual dispute and inquiry. Indeed, the result was a flawed educational experience. Although we know that we cannot control what guest speakers will say, we were disappointed by our failure to provide a presentation more responsibly replete with sound scholarship and debate.
Since November 12, we have engaged in a comprehensive process to consider how best to address this situation. In addition to reevaluating the protocol that supports our assembly-speaker program to make sure that we will not again find ourselves in such a circumstance, we have worked to develop further programming that will better meet our original expectations and objectives.
If we brought in dozens of scholars, leaders, journalists and diplomats, we still would not be able to offer a complete view of the crises in the Middle East. However, we have a responsibility not only to talk with all our students about our frustration with the November 12 long assembly, but also to provide a means by which our students can be exposed to and wrestle more fully with the complexity of this region’s challenges and how they impact the rest of the world.
On February 6 we will be hosting Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist who is the author of the best-selling book, My Promised Land. While Mr. Shavit’s work and ideas have been celebrated by many, there are others who sharply disagree with his views and proposed solutions. Indeed, we are not bringing in Mr. Shavit in an attempt to offer our students either the right perspectives or all the answers to the region’s problems—no speaker or group of speakers could do this, and we all need to work to make this point abundantly clear to the students. Our invitation to Mr. Shavit is part of our ongoing attempt to responsibly fulfill our educational obligation to introduce our students to difficult, contentious issues.
In the September issue of the Parents' Association Newsletter, I referenced the immensely unsettling world events that occurred over the summer. The concerns I expressed then have been amplified by violence that has transpired over the past several months in many parts of the globe. Inasmuch as recent developments and crises challenge our pedagogy, they even more pointedly underscore our obligation to our students to make our best effort to address them soundly and appropriately, and to prepare our students conscientiously for productive citizenship in this country and in the world.