"Rules of Engagement" by Head of School Bob Henderson
Two students were sitting on the bench outside my office the other day having a discussion. At first I thought it was just two friends gossiping, albeit with notable energy and animation. Sometimes students forget I am sitting just across the hall because, although my door is open to the corridor, they can’t see me just around the corner at my desk. Although it is not my intention, I occasionally overhear some remarkable things! This time, however, it soon became clear to me that the topic was politics. More specifically, it was about the merits of Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency. Gradually the volume and emotion of the conversation escalated. Neither student, who had sharply differing views of Mr. Trump, was listening particularly carefully to the other. Both were attempting to talk over the other. They were not amused, and it was bordering on the personal. It started to remind me of one of those cable news shows where the guests think they can “win” by dominating the most airtime. One student was arguing that Trump was a menace and a fascist. The other insisted that, while he found Trump irritating in style, some of the perspectives he was advancing were necessary at this juncture in our history. I listened with a mix of concern for the direction of our national politics, admiration for these smart, intensely engaged and civic-minded young people, and bemusement at their youthful passion.
Then, all of a sudden, one of the students completely interrupted the pattern of the conversation, saying, “You know, this is wrong, this isn’t the way we do things here.” The other responded, “You’re so right; this is why we can’t get things done in this country any more.” The volume then dropped, calm was restored, and I lost track of where their discussion headed thereafter. But I was left to ponder what it really represented.
On the one hand, this is what you want in an academic community; students immersed in the news of the day, thinking intensely and responsibly about issues that affect them and will shape our collective future. On the other hand, much of their dialogue reflected the decay of these debates nationally, at the highest levels of our government, in the media, and in our political vocabulary and conflicting agendas. In the end, however, I was profoundly encouraged by their mutual recognition that this was no way to carry on their discussion. And they were right about that, reflecting an impressive degree of sophistication and rationality that I wish was more often evident as our nation has traversed so many disturbing or downright frightening situations over the last several years.
The way we expect difficult conversations to occur at Nobles is explicitly reflected in the mission statement of the school, and I will use key words from the mission to make my point. This is a rigorous academic community dedicated to inspiring leadership for the public good, and we want and even require students to articulate and explore highly challenging ideas and developments. Yet we believe that a vibrant intellectual community, in order to achieve its goals, must also espouse humility, humor, honesty and respect for others as fundamental foundations. Within that context, we must also understand that Nobles is a secondary school, and not a college; adolescents will make mistakes and misjudgments as they explore the emotional issues of our time. This is very rarely done from a place of malice and our job to help teenagers to grow and build the depth and breadth of their understanding of and empathy for the complexity of the world and the diversity of people’s experiences and perspectives. In that process, we must strive to foster appropriate rules of engagement for a secondary academic community, but not to provide the answers to questions that students need to probe for themselves. Because we are a human institution, we may not always do this perfectly, but we keep the objective of cultivating purposeful citizenship ever in front of us. It is our business to develop character and intellect in deliberate conjunction.
Listening to how those two young people moved through their argument that day, I was reassured that, in a world where civility sometimes seems in precipitous decline, it remains the prevailing ethic in this community.