All School Meeting Address: Winter Welcome 2014 and Discussions in the Wake of Ferguson

Good morning, Andover!

Over the Thanksgiving break, I wrote to you all an email, asking that you take some time to understand what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri.  A few members of the community — a student and a parent, in particular — wrote me back, respectfully, with deep concerns about what I had written, along with Dean Murphy [our Dean of Students] and LCG [Dean Linda Carter Griffith, our Dean of Community and Multicultural Development].  I wanted to respond to those concerns and also to explain why I think this attention and this discourse are so important.  [The original email is here.]

I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, not because I want you to think something in particular. In fact, while I do have a point of view on this issue, and I’m happy to share that view with any of you anytime, I very much do not want for 1129 young people to think what I think – what a disaster that would be!  In fact, let’s agree to start from a perspective of valuing intellectual freedom and the importance of being open to hear every voice in our academic community.

I asked you to pay attention for two reasons. One is that, despite the common phrase, we do not live in a “bubble” in Andover. We live in a community that is deeply connected to the world outside our beautiful campus. We live in a world where students are required to go off-campus – whether home or elsewhere – during breaks. We live in a world in which all students have friends and family who live outside of our little world here. And we live in a world that is increasingly complex – more global, more interconnected, more diverse, and moving ever more quickly.

The other reason I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson is because I think it matters a great deal in an historic sense. It matters to every single one of us – Latino/a, Asian, Black, White, regardless of the race, or races, or ethnicity or ethnicities, that you claim. It matters to each person, perhaps in a different way. But it matters to all of us because it stands for a few important things. It stands for the difficulty we continue to have in talking about race and difference in the world. I know, in what I will say to you today, I will offend one or more of you; or perhaps I will stumble badly over my words.  We must each run that risk — of offending one another, of saying the wrong thing, on the way to the truth and to productive dialogue.  This issue also stands for the very real challenge of effective law enforcement and global security — which we must accomplish with real effectiveness — and to do so in a world in which it is not possible to ignore the inequities between people in our society.

I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced the policeman, Darren Wilson that night. I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced Michael Brown that night — and I know, because of the color of my skin and other factors, that I am highly unlikely ever to be. I would not wish on anyone the job of being on that Grand Jury. My heart breaks for every one of their families and friends. Ditto for what happened in Staten Island, in the death of Eric Garner. Ditto for hundreds, if not thousands, of similar cases in recent years. This is hard, and this is heart-breaking. These events happen all too often in this country and in countries around the world.

We need to be better – and it starts here, in this august high school. We need to do better – and we can. We can prove that we can be empathetic toward one another. We can prove that such a diverse community can work, that we can listen and learn from one another, and that we can work toward a more just and sustainable world.

More broadly, these matters speak to more than race. These matters call the question: What does it mean to be a citizen in a republic? What it means to me is that you must have a point of view. There is a cost of freedom; there is a cost to having a say in who governs and how they do it. That cost is that you must engage. You must learn. You must listen. You must come to have a point of view on issues that matter; we cannot govern ourselves if we do not. And you must act upon it. You have no choice.  That might mean that you start a new journal, as some of your colleagues have recently done, on matters of fiscal policy; it might mean that you organize a forum and a candlelight vigil; it might mean that you put yourself into the public arena with a point of view on something else that matters to you.  But to make democracy work, you must find your path toward being a true citizen.

It may be that one of us in this room will be in the position of Darren Wilson one day; maybe one of us will be in Michael Brown’s shoes; in America, we will all be on that Grand Jury; we will all be their friends and family. Not in exactly the same way, and – we pray – not with the same outcome. But when we sign up for life in a republic, we sign up to do the work of being a citizen — to being on that jury, to making those hard decisions, to figuring out how we can have effective law enforcement and global security in a way that is consonant with the Constitution and with international norms of human rights. That work is hard; it matters; and it is all of our work.

I could not be more proud to live in this country; I could not be more proud to be an American.  I could not be more proud to live and work at Andover; I could not be more proud to be your head of school.  Neither America nor Andover is perfect. Neither one is completely exceptional. But on their best days, they are both completely wonderful.  We can and must make both of them better – and with them, the world at large. Andover, it starts here – it starts with each of us and with our community.  We can show that democracy works in the context of free, open, orderly discussion on topics that matter — whether they relate to what is right in front of us or what is occurring in the world at large.

I will end with a quote that I love.  I know that there are valid critiques of this quote, but I love it – for its spirit and for what it calls on each of us to do. It is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States. He almost certainly did not have in mind as inclusive a community as I do today, but he got the call to engaged citizenship just right.  Where I say “man”, you can choose to hear “person.”  Otherwise, please just listen to it for the spirit and the challenge it presents:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

All School Meeting dismissed.

14 thoughts on “All School Meeting Address: Winter Welcome 2014 and Discussions in the Wake of Ferguson

  1. Pingback: All School Meeting Address: Winter Welcome 2014 and Discussions in the Wake of FergusonRich Sexton For Congress | RichSextonForCongress

  2. I like the Roosevelt comment. Unfortunately, I think that the doers are, in fact, subject to relentless second-guessing and criticism from the voices that feel entitled to chime in an opinion from the sidelines through the proliferation of media opportunities available today.

    One other thought, I feel pretty sure that my 6’8” white son would have been in great danger of being shot if he had just shoplifted, ignored a policeman’s request to get out of the middle of the street, assaulted the policemen, struggled with him for his gun, fled and then turned and headed toward the policeman (which all seem to be facts). Who would then have marched in the street on his behalf?

    I agree that these issues should be discussed, but I question the environment for free and open discussion that exists at Andover.

    And I do not think that the Ferguson case deserves the attention. There are far more important issues today that our country faces than a fact-specific incident with a bad outcome for all but not one from which broader lessons are obvious.

    • Stephen-

      There are certainly many, many important things that Andover community should be discussing (and does discuss) at any given time, but the most valuable lessons from my time at the school had to do with learning with genuine interest and empathy about the people around me. This was bolstered by the fact that I felt that I received the same from most of my classmates in return, whether it was on matters of personal concern, community issues, or issues much larger. I think these are exactly the types of issues the Andover community should tackle because that sense of community starts first and foremost with a sense of understanding where one another is coming from.

      WIth regard to the issue at hand – I think it might be useful to look at the issue from a different angle. The exact facts and circumstances of the Ferguson case are uncertain – that much will never change. I strongly disagree, however, with the notion that this is a “fact-specific incident” where broader lessons aren’t obvious. The viewpoint I suggest looking at is “why was there such a strong and viceral reaction from so many in this country to the events involving Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and others?” At the very least I think it’s undeniable that such a strong and immediate reaction did/does exist.

      It is difficult to avoid getting into hypotheticals about whether the police would have taken similar measures in each of these cases if the subject were white, but Robin Crawford taught me to avoid arguing counterfactuals. Clearly our answers to those hypotheticals would differ and neither of us can prove one way or the other. We can, however, observe clearly and on a daily basis that the relationship between law enforcement and our minority communities is, to say the least, tense. The reasons for this tension and their impact on our communities seem to me to be worth exploring.

  3. One good sign of the environment for free and open discussion at Andover, I think, is the fact that a Trustee posts a critical comment on the blog of the head of school he oversees!

    Thanks, Steve. The place where we certainly agree is that we have work to do to ensure that there is open, serious, sustained dialogue on our campus. It’s so important, especially for young people at this age, that they have a chance to become critical thinkers during this formative period.

  4. I second Stephen’s comment. Your speech should have included tje corollary lesson to “Ferguson” do not resist arrest. Settle the difference in court not in the middle of the street.

    • If we are to have a civilized republic, Andover might start by teaching the foundation of civilization “the justice system” not using a street brawl of looting and destroying of private property. Maybe a court room speech similar to Howard Roark would be a great start instead of a speech insinuating a “collective” guilt.

  5. I write to applaud John Palfrey for his insistence that Andover students fully engage with the challenges and messiness of the world outside the gates. A world they will all too soon inherit.
    This is not the forum to challenge Stephen Sherrill’s odd assertion that the killing of Michael Brown was a “fact-specific incident with a bad outcome” devoid of any broader lessons and undeserving of our attention. That’s a different debate.
    But let’s not turn away from the tragedy of Ferguson…or from other teaching moments that involve complex questions of race or inequality.
    And what better place to discuss all of these difficult issues than a free and open environment? Isn’t that the best of what Andover represents?

    • In response to GW Jarden’s post it appears to me that a debate sponsored by the school, attended by the faculty, administration and students should answer the question (Is Andover a free and open environment to discuss “complex questions of race or inequality”?) Each debate team should include an administrative representative, faculty member and students representing the racial make-up of the student body. This would teach a civilized approach to defining, evaluating, arguing, and defending “difficult” issues. This would be the intellectual approach to this “teaching moment” instead of a candle ceremony, a march in the streets yelling and spitting antagonist slurs in the face of law enforcement, looting, destruction of private property, blocking of streets, blocking of public transit systems, disabling those who are fortunate enough to own a car and those depending on public transit to merely get through their daily lives, stealing property, destroying entrepreneurs businesses, burning down businesses and neighborhoods, printing slogans on T Shirts, inventing symbolic gestures that are not based on the facts. A teaching moment indeed. Do the work of teaching not preaching.

  6. Trying to understand the emotions unleashed in Ferguson in no way endorses the lawlessness that occurred. A conversation about what happened at Ferguson is not about choosing sides. It is not a debate. It need not be political. It is an attempt to understand—not excuse, or justify—something outside of one’s own experience.
    As John Palfrey said in his remarks, “Neither America nor Andover is perfect.” But Andover can, in his words, be a place that “Can prove that we can be empathetic toward one another. We can prove that such a diverse community can work, (and) that we can listen and learn from one another.”
    I agree. So, apparently, do Andover students. Take a look at the coverage of the community forum in the December 12 edition of the Phillipian.

    Click to access 20141212.pdf

    Here’s just one reaction from the article written by Emily Sanchez:

    “The best way to create empathy and understanding between those of different ideologies, political views and races is civil and informative discussion.”

    • To me, Stephen Sherrill’s response to John Palfrey’s All School Meeting address offers a disturbing testament to our nation’s inequalities.

      While Stephen Sherill has been a generous benefactor to PA, including his many contributions to the Addison Gallery, I
      find a sad, even bitter irony in his donation to the museum of photographs of onlookers taken from the train that carried Robert Kennedy’s body from NYC to DC after he had been murdered. I write this because Kennedy was a person of privilege who would never have compared his children to those less fortunate than his own. Why in the photographs are there so many people of color waiting for hours to pay their respect to Kennedy as the funeral train passed by? Because they believed Kennedy genuinely understood their plight and was running for president in order to represent them in a way almost unimaginable for a candidate of a major political party.

      Thurston Clarke, one of Kennedy’s biographers wrote this about him:
      “The romance between Kennedy and rural Nebraskans, like the one between him and Native Americans, Chicanos, and urban blacks, was grounded in his moral imagination-his ability to experience their lives as if they were his own.”
      (The Last Campaign-Thurston Clarke p.210)

      The idea of a moral imagination and Andover’s motto are intimately connected. Many current faculty members stress this vital relationship. We strive to create classrooms that through mutual trust become open forums for students to discuss pressing social issues such as the murder of Michael Brown. This dedication to an expansive discourse both affirms and justifies our commitment to Andover. Increasingly, it is our hope that this is the school’s mission, making it a beacon to forge a more just and equitable country.

  7. A failure of Andover to engage in a school discussion of Ferguson et al would be curious, although not fatal. The Head of School must pick and choose when and how to prick the Andover bubble, and I for one am eminently unqualified to second guess his choices.

    Regrettably, I maintain Andover is, and will for years remain, unable to fully explore Ferguson for one very simple reason – Andover cannot condemn the Ferguson tap root, namely the War on Drugs. Not just because one of our illustrious alumni was its commanding general for five years, but because the people who pay our bills – parents – don’t want Andover to be honest with their children about recreational drugs, and so we are not.

    Read ‘The New Jim Crow’ (Michelle Alexander). Then Ferguson will make perfect sense – the predictable fruit of Andover’s support for the War on Drugs, to keep our paying customers happy, in their racist ignorance.

    If I am wrong, Mr. Palfrey, my apologies. And please direct my attention to the record of all your messages to Andover students re: recreational drugs, and the War on Drugs.

  8. This is great to broke the silence about this kind of problems with students and to open discussions while insisting on the fact that a constructive discussion is not trying to convince people to adopt our way of thinking but sharing ideas in a tolerant atmosphere. Longue vie a Andover !

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