"Between the Past and the Future" by Head of School Bob Henderson '76

Earlier this year a graduate of Nobles, George Lee ’84, who works in the field of technological development and investment out in California’s Silicon Valley, spoke to our students in a riveting long assembly. In his talk, he described some of the innovations that are poised to disrupt and transform civilization in the years ahead. He argued that we should try to study the future as avidly as we dissect the past. I won’t try to reproduce his ideas for you here because I can’t do them justice and, as an historian, I confess I do prefer to look to the past for inspiration. Plus, it is hard to study the future, because, well, quite obviously, it hasn’t happened yet.

Yet the study of history is also flawed. In looking back, we perhaps choose to mine events and developments for the lessons we prefer rather than the lessons we need. The acid quip from the eminent British historian A.J.P. Taylor comes to mind: “Most of those who study history learn from the mistakes of the past nothing more than how to make new ones.”

It also strikes me how the biases of our own past experiences shape our view of history. For instance, I was raised in the Episcopal Church and its powerful liturgy is imprinted in my brain. Just as powerfully, I entered college in the first year of the release of the original Star Wars movie and saw it at least eight times. The result is that when I hear the phrase, “May the force be with you,” I want to say, “And also with you.”

So what is one to do in order to discern meaning from the past and direction for the future? I think this is a particularly germane question for those who are about to exit high school. What did this experience mean, and what could it possibly provide in regard to your eventual trajectory in the world?

While the members of the First Class gathered before you today have learned a great deal over their last several years at Nobles, the truth is that most of the specific discrete bits and packets of knowledge they have garnered will someday be lost from their brains. In fact, much of it probably already has been lost. And they will not miss it, especially in the age of the Internet and instantaneous access to infinite data.

Instead, I hope they take away from Nobles two critical capacities that I believe are the timeless gifts of a Nobles education. I believe these things will serve them unerringly well as they traverse into their future lives and a world that is as yet indistinct and unknowable. These are, first, the ability to think clearly and ethically; and the second is the capacity to empathize with the experiences and perspectives of others. I believe these skills are essential to find the path to the life well and happily led.

Before I say a bit more about these two things, let me lend some perspective on where you sit in the history of this country and this school. Nobles was founded 150 years ago and this is the 150th Nobles class. I want to share some information about this country 150 years ago that I drew indirectly from Robert Gordon’s study of innovation through the ages entitled “The Rise and Fall of American Growth” via an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago.

In 1866 people still lit their homes with candles and whale oil. There was no electricity. Most of their heat was provided by wood or coal-burning stoves, with their attendant stench and smoke. Only a quarter of the American population lived in cities. There were 5.3 people per average household, more than twice as many as today. Nearly 60% of the population was under 25 years old (today it is a little more than 30%). Adjusted for inflation, the average citizen spent roughly $2800 per year, less than the per capita average in some of the poorest nations in the world today.

People ate a tremendous amount of pork – 131 pounds of it per person, per year. This is because in 1866, a time with no refrigeration, pork could be easily salted, smoked and preserved, and pigs could be kept on small plots of land and fattened on almost any available feed and scraps. Fresh vegetables were scarce and available only in season, and farmers emphasized crops stored for long periods with minimal spoilage, like turnips, potatoes, beans and pumpkins. As a result of this diet, rickets and scurvy were not at all uncommon.

Instead of toilets, people used chamber pots and outhouses. Big cities still had many open sewers for rainwater and human waste that flowed untreated and unfiltered into rivers. Cities had neither subways nor automobiles, meaning people travelled most places by foot or using horses and wagons. Boston had 700 horses per square mile. The average horse produces roughly 45 pounds of manure and a gallon of urine per day, which was ground into the mud and dust of mostly unpaved city streets.

There were no movies, radios, telephones, or tvs, and no recorded music. Men could go to saloons to drink; women generally could not. Childbirth took place at home, women died in childbirth at tragic rates, and childhood mortality was staggeringly common. Yellow fever, cholera and other deadly maladies occasionally ran rampant.

Okay, that is a rather grim picture. But people back then did not necessarily perceive that. And there were pockets of them dreaming incessantly of a better future. They looked to the past for guidance and examples, but gazed relentlessly forward for their sense of purpose and destination. In an incredibly short period, as measured against both geologic and anthropologic scales, the basic standards of American life, have been utterly transformed.

I venture that the people who most positively shaped the direction humanity has taken over the last 150 years had in common two essential characteristics: they could think and reason clearly and ethically, and they had the ability to empathize with and understand the people around them. Just consider for a moment the most immensely significant American figure of the 1860’s in the light of those qualities, Abraham Lincoln, and I think my point becomes manifest.

Students go through Nobles and they are literally subjected to Math, English, language, science, history, and the arts. A wide array of ideas, theories, concepts and arguments are foisted upon them, along with masses of data and imposed rubrics. But the oldest question that high school students can hurl at their teachers, “when will I ever use this stuff,” is more poignant today than ever before due to the fact that almost all of human knowledge is instanteously available on the phone in their pockets.

Yet, because of that I argue what we do here has never been more critical. What students need more than ever are the habits of thoughtful consideration of dilemmas and problems, contexts for structuring ideas, rigorous means and methods for analysis, and frameworks for ordering and utilizing information. This includes the essential requirement for ethical discernment, for placing the power of ideas and science into a context that is at once moral and fundamentally hopeful for humanity.

We also seek to inspire students to comprehend the necessity of effective collaboration. They have to work in teams, listen well, and lead as necessary. They must do this in a world that every day is more complex and interconnected. They will have to work and live with a vast array of people from every conceivable background and with the full panoply of ideologies and perspectives. Genuine empathy is an absolutely critical skill in this regard, and my hope is that a Nobles education and experience fosters this capacity.

In this context I was reminded of a story from Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab Corporation, as told to to Adam Bryant and published in the New York Times earlier this year. He said this:

“A business strategy course in my senior year stands out. The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper…and both sides were blank. And the professor said, ‘I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What is the name of the lady who cleans this building?’ And that had a powerful impact. It was the only test I ever failed…Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her but I had never taken the time to know her name. I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since. It was just a reminder of what really matters in life, and that you should never lose track of the people who do the real work.”

Class of 2016, it is my hope that you will leave here today equipped with the capacity for clear thought and analysis, that you can place your ideas into ethical context and act accordingly, and that you have the desire and ability to care about and for those around you, and to work with them collaboratively. And that, as an outcome, in whatever roles you discover for yourself and in the contexts you will define, you will fulfill the school mission to inspire leadership for the public good, to achieve your highest potential, and to lead lives characterized by service to others. I wish you joy, an intact sense of humor, and Godspeed in that endeavor.

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"Between the Past and the Future" by Head of School Bob Henderson '76