Dr. Curtis’ Remarks at the First Faculty Meeting of the Year

Jessica Day – August 31, 2017

First, I’d like to speak to the more serious issues facing us as we begin another academic year in a highly polarized, emotionally-charged political environment.

Specifically, I want to stop for a moment and address Charlottesville, and to be absolutely clear on one point: Hate has no place at Deerfield. As you know, we are a private institution, so we can and do limit certain types of speech—and we impose a code of conduct and stricter community standards than may be tolerated by others. Respect and concern for others will continue to guide our words and our actions.

Racism, discrimination, and xenophobia are repugnant views—they are a special type of learned ignorance, borne from the conceit that emotions can eclipse facts. Now, more than ever, we play a critical role as educators. If we wish to teach our students about the dangers of hateful, divisive ideologies, we must model for them an unrelenting appeal to reason and evidence. We must not teach blind acceptance of ideology, but instead encourage analysis, assessment, and consideration.

At the same time, however, the first step in preparing our students for leadership and service is to ensure that we are a school where ideas flourish through exchange—where arguments are both honed and enriched by a free flow of divergent perspectives. Our classrooms need to be safe places for individuals to respectfully and constructively disagree. Students need to be able to speak their minds without fear of repercussion or ridicule—and they should be encouraged to defend even discordant ideas thoughtfully and thoroughly, using facts and evidence.

Most importantly, we cannot teach—or learn—if we foreclose the discussion with our own overpowering beliefs and biases. As teachers, it’s our duty to help students learn how to think, not what to think.

But we must also think beyond Charlottesville. Here I refer to the terrorism, political unrest, and human rights abuses that have shaped recent global news. Hurricane Harvey has put a catastrophic face on climate change. Millions around the world go hungry, ingest pollutants, or seek refuge from violence or oppression. Our role in education is a human responsibility: Pressing problems face people everywhere. Our graduates’ skills, talents, and disposition to serve will be in high demand.

Here is what gives me hope: We know what we must do. Let’s embrace complexity. Let’s cast about for ideas unlike our own. Let’s resist the temptation of easy answers—and the tendency to judge events and ideas in isolation. If, all of us together, remain curious and humble, we can avoid the trap of self-righteousness that plagues today’s culture of finger-pointing and blind opposition.

As the year progresses, our inclusion plan will continue to lead us in developing greater cultural competency. These enhanced skills supplement the talent and commitment you all bring to the teaching life. The lessons of Charlottesville speak to the utter necessity of our work—of our shared mission—and to the great importance of our example in shaping the character and the agency of our students.