"A Call for Farmers: It’s Spring, Time to Plant the Seeds" by Head of the Upper School Michael Denning
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
—Alexander Pope (1733)
Late this month, we will welcome to campus students from this year’s competitive applicant pool to whom we were able to offer admission. This “yield period” is short but intense, a brief window during which we will work to enroll talented individuals possessing more than one great educational opportunity. I love this challenging time, when we have the privilege of getting to know those who will create Nobles’ future while affirming and rearticulating the promise of a Nobles education. Indeed, the yield period ushers in the springtime of our school’s annual calendar, evoking wonderfully hopeful thoughts of renewal, potential, and dreams for the future.
A primary goal during this period is to offer prospective community members a clearer view of the joyful, hopeful, ethical and supportive community that Nobles is. Our students, families, graduates, faculty and staff are tremendous ambassadors, and we are confident that if admitted families were impressed enough to apply, many will be all the more excited about Nobles when they see the renovated Baker Building and the new Academic Center and Putnam Library, and learn more about who we are and all we have to offer. But when the questions about programs and facilities have been answered, many prospective students and families will turn their attention to our community’s values. I am perhaps most thankful for these moments because they allow me to talk about those elements of a Nobles education that make the greatest differences in the lives of our young people and in the communities they will serve.
I must admit that I approach this year’s yield period with a greater sense of urgency, not because I am especially worried about enrollment, but because the values that serve as the bedrock of our community have perhaps never been more important or more under attack. I am sorry to say it, but my generation, the one currently charged with nurturing and improving our communities, our republic, our international institutions, and our environment, has not done a great job with the tremendous opportunities the previous generations afforded many of us or the inviolable responsibilities with which we were entrusted. On our watch, rational and healthy skepticism has too often been superseded by anti-intellectual cynicism and ideology. Perhaps more importantly, the profound sense of hope that is so necessary to inspiring peace, cooperation, justice and “more perfect” and prosperous unions has often been overwhelmed by hateful ideas and speech, intransigence, bias, bigotry, fear and discrimination.
A short time ago, I found myself discussing the challenges of developing responsible, ethical and engaged citizens—and the roles schools can and should play in these endeavors— with a longtime friend of Nobles. Wise, thoughtful, generous, and invariably understated, my friend leaned in at one point and, in a tone that conveyed both his resolve and his dismay, stated, “In a world with too many miners, we needed to figure out how to develop more farmers.”
Of course, Nobles is neither an agronomic school nor an institute for geological sciences, but my friend’s metaphor elegantly captures the powerful ethic of hope so lacking in today’s public discourse but so deeply embedded in our school’s values: “When I say we need more farmers and fewer miners, I am not intending to be critical of hard working folks who mine to live, who engage in that work out of necessity, and who endeavor to provide sources of energy for others...The ethics and efficacy of fossil fuels are different conversations. I am talking metaphorically about those, in all walks of life, whose primary purpose is to gather for themselves as much of the world’s resources as they can. In my view, these folks are “miners.” While farmers nurture the soil while they take resources from it, endeavoring to leave the land for future generations as good or better than they found it, miners take from the earth without replenishing it, leaving less for the generations to follow. Our schools need to develop farmers instead of miners.”
The anti-democratic philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that life in free societies is best understood as a state of war in which our inherently selfish and aggressive nature yields existences that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Alas, Hobbes’ ideas and vision have enjoyed a renaissance in recent times. But before we completely relinquish the floor to Hobbes and his pessimistic and cynical disciples, I would suggest that we consider, again, the millions of American citizens and residents—business people, teachers, doctors, scientists, firefighters, and countless others, hailing from all walks of life, including farming and mining—who have worked together and risked their lives to prove him wrong, time and again, for more than two centuries. In these folks, and in the ones now coming of age and coming to Nobles, hope springs eternal.