Good morning Deerfield! It’s great for us to be together again. This morning, I wanted to offer some brief thoughts on the past months—and my hopes for the new year. One of the things I love about schools is that they are rich in beginnings: the opening of school in September; this, the new year—2020!—after we return from winter break; spring term, and Commencement, which marks the first chapter of the exciting journey our seniors will soon be taking.
The new year offers each of us—and all of us together—the opportunity to reflect and think anew; to reaffirm values and hopes; to set new goals for growth and to rededicate ourselves to longstanding ones. Not for nothing is the new year celebrated as a moment of resolution and renewal.
Over the past weeks, my media feed—like yours, I suspect—has been abuzz with news—much of it deeply unsettling. We have seen yet more shootings in churches and places of worship; ugly incidents of antisemitism and religiously and ideologically motivated hate crimes here in the US and across the world; rising conflict between Shia and Sunni; in size and intensity, historically unprecedented wildfires in Australia—perhaps more evidence of the declining state of our climate, the most important shared resource we possess.
I don’t like dwelling on bad news, since it risks reinforcing our media’s unfortunate, if highly profitable, bias for catastrophe. Thankfully, the news is not all bad, especially if you read—as I sometimes do—with a bias for optimism. Even as the world is beset by challenge and conflict, there are voices of resolution, reason, hope, and renewal. Here are a few:
Science magazine announced its “breakthroughs” of the year. If 2019 is any indication, the coming year stands to be one of continued discovery and progress; something that we, as students and aspiring scholars and scientists, should recognize and celebrate. Last year scientists saw further into the universe than ever before, capturing the first-ever image of a black hole. I’m not sure how you capture the image of an absence, but that’s what a team of radio astronomers in the Netherlands did. And our students from the Lone Star State will be glad to know that we have a new Texas Hold’em champion: an Artificial Intelligence program from Carnegie Mellon University that taught itself this multi-player version of poker by playing over one trillion hands against itself.
Last year, researchers and doctors developed successful treatments for Ebola, cystic fibrosis, and severe malnourishment. These are extraordinary advances in medical science that will likely save tens of thousands of lives. The human rights columnist for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, argued, (not without comment or disagreement, let it be noted) that the past year was “in the long arc of human history the best year ever.” “The bad things that you fret about are true,” he wrote. “But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate, and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”
In his annual New Year message, Pope Francis spoke against violence directed at women and celebrated the heroism of mothers and parents who risk perilous journeys from poverty and conflict to escape persecution and provide their children a better future. He celebrated the feelings of empathy and care that bind us together; the only antidote—he argued, to what he called the “globalization of indifference”—even as he reflected on his own human failings and imperfection.
New—and older—voices have been heard, from athlete Megan Rapinoe to novelists such as Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood. Each have challenged us to think with greater nuance and complexity about gender and racial identity, history, and human rights. Reflecting on the fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Greta Thunberg—that young woman of remarkable determination—asked the European Parliament “to act as if your house is on fire.” You may well disagree with her proposals to address climate change, but who can’t admire her call for what she has termed “cathedral thinking?” The idea that we should lift our eyes, enlarge our perspective, and think with ambition about the great issues facing the world. Sanna Marin—sworn in as the Prime Minister of Finland at age 35—thus becoming the world’s youngest national leader, was elected on the simplest of platforms: human dignity and opportunity for all.
In his annual report on the United States judiciary, the Chief Justice of the United States spoke of the “humility and integrity” required of judges, and of all public servants who wield great power. He wrote of the importance of civic literacy and education as a foundation for national renewal, and he generously celebrated the service of “teacher-judges” Sonia Sotomayor and Merrick Garland—colleagues with whom the Chief Justice often disagrees on points of constitutional interpretation.
On the occasion of the United Nations upcoming 75th anniversary, and looking to the next decade, Secretary General António Guterres took the opportunity of his New Year’s address to remind the world of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. I hope you will study these and heed the Secretary General’s call: “The world needs young people,” he wrote. “Keep thinking big.”
Yesterday I received an update from our friend, colleague, and teacher, Mr. Flaska, who helped organize and lead our boys’ hockey trip to Czechoslovakia and Slovakia and who is presently on sabbatical. He described to me their extraordinary visit to Auschwitz where, in his words, they “came face to face with an unthinkable human act.” At the end of that update, he quoted one of his own great teachers and mentors. “Now that you know,” this teacher asked after a similar visit, “what will you do with that knowledge?” It is a question for all of us. It speaks to the ultimate purpose of our time together here at Deerfield: connecting what we learn here to the kinds of lives we live as citizens now and in the future. It reminds us that with the gift of an education such as this one—and the future opportunities it affords—we have a responsibility to leverage for goodness. What will you do with what you know?
So, now—beginning today—I hope we can rededicate ourselves to teaching, learning, and exploration; to deep and sustained intellectual engagement; to living well together as a community and to celebrating our differences, united by our common values—especially caring for others. I hope that we can work together to think about what we can do to imbue each day, each class, and each of our interactions with one another with kindness, vibrancy, and joy.
Most of all, I hope that we can build on the spirit, energy, and creativity that have characterized the first half of the school year, and move through the winter term inspired by one another and the accomplishments of the past months. If there are setbacks, so be it. Let’s confront those with resilience, grace, and grit—and with the support of friends and adults.
The future is always uncertain, unknowable. But of one thing I am absolutely certain: It is a great moment to be a student and 2020 will be a great year of learning. Because of you. Thank you for all that you do to actively create the spirit and ethos of this school.