Convocation 2022: “What Schools Are For”

Good afternoon and welcome, Deerfield.

Convocation marks the formal beginning of the academic year. It’s a celebration of teaching and learning, an opportunity to reaffirm our collective sense of purpose and rededicate ourselves to defining values.

It’s also an opportunity to hear from a distinguished member of our community, and shortly we will hear from Mrs. Koyama, this year’s holder of the Greer Chair, the highest honor we bestow on a member of the Deerfield faculty.

We often think of spring as a season of renewal, but for me, the fall has always been a time to imagine new opportunities, bringing with it a sense of excitement, promise, and opportunity—as it does at this time of the year for schools throughout the country.

A few days ago, the New York Times published a series of essays in answer to the question: What is school for?

There were lots of great answers. Schools should be engines of social mobility. They should make citizens. They should imbue young people with a sense of hope and possibility. They should promote hard work, excellence, and merit. I want to offer one more. First, a quick story.

As I was entering the Boyden Library this morning to write these remarks, I was faced with a dilemma. The library was closed. Of course, I had my One Card, but the library doesn’t open to students until noon. And behind me were four new students—excited to get a jump on the week ahead. Can we go in, they asked. Is it open?

What to do? Allow them to enter? But wouldn’t that create an ugly precedent—early student access to the library on Sunday mornings? I had a sudden vision of the front page of The Scroll: Head of School Fragrantly Violates Library Hours. Invites Students in on Sunday Morning. Investigation Underway.

So, did I let them in? Of course, I let them in.

That, to answer the question posed by the New York Times, is what school is for. To invite you in. More broadly: The purpose of school is to help you place yourself within the great traditions of learning and inquiry and questioning and scholarship—of which the library is a tangible, standing monument. To initiate you into the thinking life: a life of thought, consideration, conversation, wonder, creativity, scholarship, reading, writing, and research—what the anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston memorably called “disciplined curiosity.”

The literary critic Kenneth Burke, in a passage my students might recognize, likens this process to a never-ending conversation at a party. He writes: “You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about . . . You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you . . . The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

That is a wonderful metaphor for learning. That is what schools are for. That is what Deerfield is for. To help you enter those conversations that shape and define disciplined truth-seeking. Not for nothing is our school symbol a door.

And how exciting, how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to walk through that door and enter the great conversation that is liberal learning.

To bring that point home, it might be useful for us, just for a moment, to imagine what the world would be like without schools. It’s not all that difficult to do. For millennia schools existed only for the privileged. The idea of educational access for all is a recent one. For much of history, learning was unavailable—and in many cases criminalized—for entire classes of people. There is no mention of education in our Bill of Rights, and it was not until 1948 that a “right to education” was enshrined in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since that time and across this country and the world, we have made great strides. The story of Deerfield over the course of the last century is one of enlarged educational opportunity: to immigrants and religious minorities, to women (as it re-embraced coeducation), and to students of all backgrounds and nationalities. It’s the story of greater opportunity in terms of program, facilities, fields of study, and financial access. And it’s a story of a stronger, more inclusive community—a community that the student body, led by our seniors, actively and intentionally creates anew each year. That story, in turn, reflects broader, positive trends in education nationally and globally. According to Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, the last 50 years have seen historically unprecedented increases across the globe in access to schools, in years of schooling, and, perhaps most importantly, in literacy and reading—the skill I would suggest to you, that makes all other learning possible.

That is not a reason for complacency. As we all know, educational access and school quality vary dramatically across this country and the world.

So, my hope for this afternoon, for this year, is this: Let’s meet the extraordinary opportunity of this school with energy, with imagination, and with joy. Embrace this invitation to learn with commitment and purpose, knowing that your time here—your time at Deerfield—may well be, as so many alumni of the Academy have shared with me, the most important and transformative of your lives.

And know as well that you have no more dedicated or passionate mentors in this process than the teachers in this room. They will guide you into the joys—and the challenges—of learning. They are here for you. And they believe in you. And collectively, they bring to this undertaking— as I said to faculty at our opening meetings—centuries of experience, practice, and wisdom.
Which brings me to Mrs. Koyama, our speaker today. Mrs. Koyama embodies the collective goodness of this faculty: a sense of optimism and hope, of generosity and perspective, passion for learning and teaching, and an outward-looking, selfless dedication to students.

Faculty colleagues have described her as humble and kind, unfailingly generous in working collaboratively with adults and students, a supportive colleague, a trusted confidant, and friend, and a treasured, dedicated member of our community who is deeply committed to the education of our students, to continual self-improvement.

Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, and a graduate of St. Olaf College, where she earned a degree in mathematics, Mrs. Koyama came to Deerfield in 1989—coinciding with our return to coeducation—following two years in Kenya as a Peace Corp volunteer.

Mrs. Koyama is currently a math teacher and Director of Academic Support, and she has held the Helen C. Boyden Chair of Science and Mathematics.

She co-founded Deerfield’s Rising Scholars Program, and she established Deerfield’s relationship with Cambiando Vidas, leading trips to the Dominican Republic, where each spring, a team of Deerfield students works to construct and complete—in one week—a home for a local family.

Mrs. Koyama’s values and aspirations as a teacher were reflected in a sabbatical she took several years ago. Her three main goals were exploring academic support models at other schools, improving her skills as a Spanish speaker, and enhancing her skills as a leader of international trips. Her colleagues and students would be the first to say that she succeeded on all fronts.

Mrs. Koyama’s two children, Justin and Angela, like many faculty kids, grew up on campus. Justin’s arrival prompted Deerfield’s first maternity leave, something that is common for faculty now. Less common for faculty—perhaps unheard of—are the circumstances around Angela’s arrival. Angela—a member of the Class of 2015—was born rather unexpectedly—in Rosenwald—delivered by the Academy’s doctor at the time.

Please welcome Mrs. Koyama to the podium.