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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Reader's Notes: Community, Culture, Discernment

I've had one of those reading weeks full of connections. If you'll indulge me, I'll take you on a brief tour (all articles linked).

Two pieces by consulting colleagues really grabbed me. In their Independent School magazine piece, "How Schools Talk About and Notice School Culture," Carla Silver and Greg Bamford describe how schools can mischaracterize their cultures, often deluding even themselves, turning convenient or anachronistic narratives into living fictions. Their potential to paint over the exclusivity on which our schools are founded, Bamford and Silver contend, is one important reason why schools fall into these false narratives.

Consultant Jill Goodman writes frequently about the elements of school life that affect retention. "Failure to live up to brand promise," she notes, that is, when new families discover that the school's self-described "warm and caring" school culture is, in fact, cold and exclusionary, is one of the most dangerous kinds of broken promises. In her February blog post, "Community is Not Easy," Goodman compares independent schools to American utopian communities. In the origin of every school's history, she writes, "The vision is created by a small group of parents or educators to find a new or different way to educate children." Like the adherents of utopian communities, families gravitate to our various missions and self-select into our schools. But to what extent, Goodman asks, can a school maintain its mission, adapting it for the times without eroding the original relevancy, and how can we avoid the succession disasters, ideological conflicts and prejudice that characterized the doomed utopian communities that litter American history.

By coincidence, I had also recently finished Miles Harvey's The King of Confidence, an account of James Jesse Strang, a fascinating figure in the mid-19th century flourishing of American utopian communities. Strang was a rival to Brigham Young claiming that Joseph Smith had anointed him as his successor just before Smith was murdered in Nauvoo, IL. While Young led the bulk of the Mormon faithful to Utah, Strang brought his followers first to Wisconsin and then to an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. Despite preposterous-sounding founding narratives and an isolated and frigid location, Strang recruited many converts, gained an office in state government and became threatening enough to the national political and social status quo to prompt the President to dispatch a navy vessel to arrest Strang and scatter his adherents. In the end, Strang was murdered by fearful, jealous followers.

How then are we to understand our school cultures, look at them honestly, adapt them and make them something we can truly count as a strength? And, how can we ward against the potential for our convictions to be the seeds of our undoing? These feel like particularly important questions for independent schools right now in light of the disruption occasioned by the pandemic, and by our political times which, Harvey frequently points out in interviews, bear important parallels to Strang's, both eras when truth and fact have been thrown open to question, making confidence the prime currency and confidence men prime movers, an age, in short, ripe for charlatans.

In that light, our duty in schools to create discerning citizens is more important than ever, as Jonathan Haidt points out in his recent essay in the Atlantic, "Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid." With the dissolution of the American press and the rise of social media, public discourse--from neighborhood goings-on to world politics--has become characterized by the consequences of algorithm-generated virality--vigilantism, tribalism, a reflexive posture of outrage and fragility--generators of misinformation on their own, exacerbated by the door it opens to engineered misinformation. This environment puts schools at the ramparts, or so it feels, where we try to arm kids with the kind of discernment that can penetrate layers of overt and subtle misinformation to arrive at central truths. As much as schools might feel like utopian colonies now, we're preparing students not only to navigate the wider world but to influence it positively, an increasingly radical act.

As proxies for how we're doing at schools in that task, the news on student mental health at colleges and universities is discouraging. The pandemic has only accelerated a firm, decade-long trend in American higher education as measured by unmet demand for student mental health, by budget line items for the exponentially expanding services schools must offer, and, tragically, by headlines like this one--Numerous Deaths Rattle WashU and SLU Campuses--from a free weekly investigative news resource that has hung in there even as the St. Louis local daily, the Post-Dispatch, has been slowly gutted. It's no exaggeration to say that our work in schools can have life and death consequences and that that work lies in the essential little "c" conservative nature of schools. As much as school must prepare children for the future, we are also backward looking institutions by nature, preserving critical human truths and values, stripping those same ideas of the misty nostalgia we've used in the past to obscure the violence and prejudice in our nation's past and present, and, it's important to say, the convenient fictions we've used to disguise problematic elements of our own institutional cultures.

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