"What I've Been Trying to Say" by Head of School Bob Henderson
This is it, the final Parents' Newsletter piece I will write as the head of Noble and Greenough School. I didn’t go back and actually count all of them, but some quick figuring led me to the conclusion that I have written well over a hundred short essays on education generally and the Nobles experience specifically over the last 17 years, between newsletter pieces, magazine columns, graduation speeches, opening remarks to the faculty and staff and various other speaking and writing opportunities. I was recently reading through many of them, part of my nostalgia tour as I close out my days here, and I realized that they are fairly consistent in message. So, while that seems like a lot of writing, they are often simply reworking the same themes. It is fair to conclude that I am stunningly lacking in originality! Here is the crux of that message: excellence in secondary education certainly has critical core academic elements, but the real measure of the quality, and indeed the critical value-added, of a school is the extent to which it marries the development of the intellect to the fostering of character.
Over the years I have often commented in public forums that you can’t simply impose character on teenagers. There is no inoculation. It is difficult to teach character in ways that are not transparently manipulative to students, inducing their cynicism. Nevertheless, it is important to try, and so we have all sorts of programs, assemblies and personal development classes that have character as at least a significant part of their agendas. In contrast, however, what really causes young people to reflect deeply and carefully on their choices and behavior is their daily experience of the tone and culture of a place. Students don’t know they are learning about character all the time at Nobles, much as a fish can’t see the water in which it swims, but communal behavioral norms of essential decency, fairness, kindness, achievement, resilience, collaboration, integrity, honesty and respect for self and others become an expectation, a view of what the life well led looks and feels like, that becomes inextricably part of a young person’s identity.
George Maley, Nobles’ chief advancement officer, sometimes relates a story about how I was once asked in a meeting with a potential donor, “What does Nobles do about character education?” Without missing a beat, George claims I responded, “I hire well.” Whether this anecdote is apocryphal or true is actually irrelevant because it is an entirely accurate reflection of my view. Students come from their families and previous schools with important notions about how to be in and interact with the world. When they arrive here they want to measure right away whether the school walks its talk. So they watch the adults. They evaluate their attitudes, opinions, behavior and commitment to their relationships. They notice everything, they rightly point out and criticize failures and shortcomings, and they talk about it all incessantly. They look for examples of what it means to be a successful adult, not in the sense of material accumulation, but rather for what it means to live well in an increasingly complicated, fractious and morally ambiguous world. This is why the goodbyes of the members of Class I to their teachers, coaches and advisors are so deeply emotional at graduation time.
For nearly the last four decades I have taught at least one history class every year. I believe studying history is an essential discipline for becoming an educated person, and I think there are elements of cultural literacy that should simply be mastered. More importantly, however, as a history teacher I believe my students should be struggling with big ideas and stories and examples, positive and negative, of how to navigate the world and what it means to be human. I think all great teachers, whatever the subject they teach, believe they are teaching people and not teaching subjects. They are developing habits of mind, ways of perceiving and communicating, paths to creativity and innovation, and modeling why a strong ethical compass matters. So the daily classroom experience is also intrinsic to character education.
I can’t emphasize enough how important Nobles’ morning assembly is to this process. How we start each day together, applauding every person and presentation, is a model for the decent treatment of all human beings. The variety of ideas, perspectives, vocations, interests and issues exhibited on the stage is a powerful stimulus. How we create a sense of community and common purpose, even as our diversity increases, and even as our broader American society seems ever more fragmented, provides a powerful paradigm for the future directions of our students.
Finally, I have always believed that one of the reasons this is a successful school is because students here feel and believe they are integrally part of something bigger and much more important than them. We assert that the central phrase in the school mission is “to inspire leadership for the public good.” Students know this phrase within a relatively short time after their arrival in this community. They buy into it, largely because they see and experience so many ways the community and its citizens try to live up to the mission. It does not bother me that they struggle with what the mission actually means and, indeed, I hope that the mission remains a challenging aspiration throughout their lives.
And that is what I have been trying to say all these years!