Remarks on Family Weekend 2019: Educating for Character in Life-long Learning

Good morning. I am delighted to have this opportunity to welcome you to campus for our Fall Family Weekend.

I want to start by thanking you for entrusting your children to us and for allowing us to play such a meaningful role in their education and development. Deerfield is enriched every day by the voices, perspectives, and experiences that each of your children brings to this school. Their contributions to our campus community are what make Deerfield so dynamic and diverse.

I also want to thank you for the many ways you make the Deerfield Experience possible. Your time, input, concern, volunteer efforts, and support are evident throughout campus and enable us to carry out our mission.

I have approached these opening weeks as one of Deerfield’s newest students. For me, these have been weeks of learning and conversation: spending time with our students as they study, play, and come together during our school meetings and family style meals; meeting with faculty and staff; discovering the unique strengths of the Deerfield community. There is a strength of culture; a spirit and affection among the students, and a tradition of teaching and mentoring here that is unique in the American educational landscape.

I am happy to report that the school year is off to a wonderful start. We began the year with 655 students from 49 countries, and they have brought incredible energy, purpose, and joy to these first weeks. We have seen the opening of the D.S. Center for Health and Wellness. We have had four extraordinary all-school events: a presentation by Dr. Riche Barnes of Yale University, reflecting on our all-school read, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing; a surprise visit from His Majesty King Abdullah II, who graduated from Deerfield in 1980—His Majesty offered a high-level briefing on the geo-politics of the Middle East, and he took questions from students; a powerful reading from National Book Award-winning novelist Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, from his new book, reflecting on war and fatherhood and memory; and the presentation of the Heritage Award to Roberto Powers, Class of 1971, for his distinguished service and citizenship as a US diplomat and foreign service officer.

There is a lot more on both the near and distant horizon. Students may already be thinking about participating in a trip over the March vacation. These trips, and other experiential learning opportunities, are coordinated through our Center for Service and Global Citizenship. Listening to Mrs. Brown’s presentation on Wednesday about our diverse travel opportunities, I’ll admit that I was a bit envious, thinking what a fantastic thing it is to be a Deerfield student. There are domestic and international trips being planned—everything from an exploration of activism and leadership through the lens of the civil rights movement, which includes a trip to the American South, and international travel to Jordan, Tanzania, Costa Rica, France, and England, among other countries.

Closer to home and coming up soon is the fall production of Antigone, which begins its run on October 29 in Deerfield’s Black Box Theater. And Choate Day is on November 9. Students keep telling me to get ready, because the school spirit will shake the rafters. From what I’ve seen already, I believe them, and I’m excited to celebrate our nearly 100-year-old rivalry with Choate and cheer on our teams. I know some of you plan to trek back to Deerfield that day, which is great. For parents and alumni who won’t be here but would like to stay close to the action, we are livestreaming all five of our varsity contests.

When I started in the fall, my first letter was to the Class of 2020, knowing that we would have one year together. I wanted them to enjoy and savor their final year here and also remind them of their roles and responsibilities as leaders among the student body. They have shown a lot of character already, set fine examples, and have been kind and gracious to those younger students who look up to them.

In addition to time spent with faculty and students, I have greatly enjoyed meeting members of our alumni body—some recent, some as far back as the Class of 1943—and listening to their Deerfield stories. There is one thing I hear over and over, and it can be stated in a single sentence: Deerfield changed my life. And it did so with a force and intensity unequalled by the years of college and graduate school that followed. Deerfield was, for these graduates, transformative.

One graduate told me that he learned more in a single year of Deerfield than he did in four years at one of this nation’s great universities. Another told me that four years of Deerfield was the equivalent of eight years of college. Reflecting on his experience at Deerfield and the challenges he has faced since he ascended to the throne in 1999, His Majesty shared his belief that leadership is best expressed through service, commitment to others, and kindness to all—all of which, he told us, he experienced here.

These stories have confirmed what I believe is an essential, irrefutable truth: namely, the irreducible power of a secondary education—not as a means to an end—but as itself precious, defining, transformative; a place where our students discover capacities that support and enrich them throughout their life—what my friend and predecessor Dr. Curtis called ‘worthy ways of being.’

Our Student Life Office does an incredible job in so many areas, and for the past few years they have established a Student Life Symposium that encourages and instills a community-wide theme throughout campus. Our first theme was ‘Gratitude,’ followed last year by ‘Mindfulness,’ and for 2019-2020 the theme is ‘Habits of Humility.’ I want to quote from Amie Creagh, our Assistant Head of School for Student Life:

‘When we pause and are mindful of ourselves and our surroundings, we can appreciate and be grateful for the good fortune that has brought us together. A focus on the Habits of Humility encourages us to be aware of the important role we all play in the creation of this healthy, happy, school community. It is not created by one person alone; it is more than one act alone. Rather, Deerfield is the accumulation of all of us and the small decisions we make each day.’

All of us here on campus—faculty, staff, students—are encouraged to weave this theme into our classrooms, work, and lives.

One of the challenges—and strengths—of a place like Deerfield, and this certainly applies to our incredible teachers, is that we must be focused and intentional about the day-to-day needs of the students while simultaneously looking ahead. Our faculty members do this very well because they teach, mentor, coach, and, in most cases, live alongside students, which gives them invaluable insight, allowing them to adjust classroom instruction on the fly or find ways to encourage and inspire each student depending on that student’s individual needs. This is among the great advantages of a close-knit residential community like Deerfield, where we encounter one another in many ways throughout a given day.

At its best, a Deerfield education creates the conditions where young people discover their best selves—selves of deep character and strength that stand the test of time and experience—not simply the challenges of college, as our graduates can attest, but the challenges of adulthood as they embark on careers; seek to align their own interests and passions with meaningful work in the world; create their own families; and seek to live a life of purpose and integrity.

This approach to education takes the long view: it sees high school as the defining, formative moment in a young person’s journey towards a fulfilling, interesting, joyful, and meaningful life. That, ultimately, is what Deerfield Headmaster Frank Boyden meant when he said: ‘The test of worth of any school is . . . the record of service of her alumni.’

His words, more relevant today than they were 50 years ago, reflect broader shifts in the educational landscape: from mere ‘achievement’ to the pursuit of enduring forms of excellence; from strategic, transactional learning to deep learning driven by wonder and curiosity; from the short-term goal of meritocratic advancement to a broader inquiry into the contours of a life well-lived.

Deerfield has always placed character, values, and life-long learning first—even as the broader culture has narrowed its vision of what a great school can do.

Not long after my first conversation with the Deerfield’s President of the Board of Trustees, Brian Simmons, in the summer of 2018, he shared with me Deerfield’s six core values. You may be familiar with these, but let me read them to you:

  • Citizenship in a spirit of humility, empathy, and responsibility;
  • Face-to-face interactions characterized by joy and generosity of spirit;
  • Connectedness to our unique setting and the contemporary world;
  • Reflection and balance, promoting intellectual vitality and self-understanding;
  • Pursuit of mastery built on a foundation of breadth and versatility; and,
  • Shared experiences, large and small, as sources of relationships, identity, and community.

This brief list provides a fortifying, aspirational language for learning, teaching, and education for the 21st century that is distinctly Deerfield: mastery, citizenship, joy, empathy, generosity, community, connectedness—and perhaps my favorite—intellectual vitality. These values offer us a powerful framework for conversation, and ways for you to think about the meetings you will have with faculty this weekend—as well as the longer-term hopes and aspirations we all have for our children.

It is not a surprise that three of our core values speak to a powerful and defining human dimension of education—its essential relational character: ‘connectedness,’ the ‘shared experience’ of community, and ‘face-to-face interactions’ in the spirit of generosity and kindness.

Deerfield practices ‘connectedness’ with intentionality throughout our program, and this suggests a number of questions that we—and you, as parents—might ask when meeting with faculty. No need to write these questions down or memorize them, but perhaps let them inform and guide your discussions.

  • Are my children developing open, trusting, positive, and supportive relationships with their teachers, advisors, coaches and dorm parents?
  • Are they comfortable working and collaborating with other students and working in teams?
  • Are their interactions with adults and peers positive, supportive, and kind?
  • Do they recognize and express kindness and gratitude to staff, to teachers, to you—their parents?
  • Are they taking advantage of the tremendous diversity of the Academy and extending themselves outward, beyond their core group, to include others?
  • Are they resisting the allure of exclusionary peer groups?
  • Are they seeking out new opportunities for engagement?
  • Are they taking advantage of the many opportunities the Academy offers, and have they made a positive commitment to making the community stronger and more vibrant?

We know that the kind of learning that matters most unfolds slowly over time, certainly more slowly than we, as parents, would sometimes like, sometimes unpredictably, and rarely in a linear way. Much recent research suggests that it is ‘mindsets’—habits and aptitudes that endure after we have forgotten much of what we learn in school—that matter most. That is why we speak of the values of ‘mastery’ and ‘reflection’ as guiding values. These too suggest important questions:

  • Does my child see learning as a process that happens through practice, revision, and trial and error?
  • Do they embrace discomfort, difficulty, and setback as a source of learning?
  • Can I see evidence of a growth-mindset—the belief that effort, practice, and hard work, rather than innate intelligence, is the key to performance and success?
  • Do our children take joy in learning and pursue it for its own sake?
  • Are they developing what our Academic Dean Ivory Hills has beautifully described as a ‘practitioner’s mindset?’ Are they learning to think in a disciplined, present way—as a scientist, a historian, an artist, and a scholar (a very different thing than when you simply learn subject area content)?
  • Is my child developing a robust sense of self-confidence, habits of self-management, and appropriate levels of independence and self-direction?
  • Are they practicing healthy habits of self-care in the areas of nutrition, sleep, and exercise?
  • How are they balancing fun, friendship, and study?
  • Is my child managing their screen-time—or is it managing them?
  • Are they developing that most Socratic capacity: knowledge of self? Do they express an understanding of their strengths and interests?
  • Can they assess their own performance and set goals for future improvement?
  • Is my child developing the capacity to be moved? By their connections to friends and peers? By reasoned argument? By the poetic power of language? Are they receptive to beauty and open to wonder?

A ninth-grade student recently told me that they had been reading Walt Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learned Astronomer’ in English class—a poem I discovered as a student in high school and often teach. This short poem has a voice worth heeding—with its skepticism of easy measurement and the way the speaker embraces wonder, mystery, and first-hand experience as ultimate sources of learning. Here it is:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

As we think about the educational journey of our children, let us, like Whitman, enlarge our perspective on what it means to be educated, let us have patience, and let us remember that the most enduring qualities of mind and character we hope to impart to them take time. Most of all, let us have faith—absolute and uncompromising faith—in the promise of our children and in Deerfield to help realize and foster that promise.

I wish you a great weekend with your children.

Thank you.