Three weeks ago we celebrated Randolph’s 50th anniversary. During that same week, President Obama addressed the nation’s schoolchildren on, what was for many, their first day of school. The run-up to his speech exposed the raw partisan divisions that characterize contemporary American society and were reflected in comments and questions parents have shared with me since plans for the President’s speech were announced.
Randolph did not take time out of our day to broadcast his speech live to the entire student body in part because I believe it is imperative that we practice what it means to be an independent school. When the discussion about the President’s speech turned political, it was my judgment that showing his remarks was not worth re-structuring an academic day during an already shortened week. While the political chatter before his speech contributed to my decision, it was not the most important factor. In short, his speech that day did not rise to the level of a significant historical event. In the media age, speeches can be played and re-played in the comfort of our homes, and can be appropriately used by teachers in our classrooms to advance the growth and development of our students.
Some parents applauded this decision, and others raised concerns. The most trenchant question came from a woman who worried that Randolph students would miss out on the opportunity to “live their history” and asked what would rise to the level of bringing our students together. As I understand it, the School has never halted its schedule to watch an inauguration, and we did not do so this past January. However, President Obama’s inauguration was of such historical significance and there was such widespread interest that the events were broadcast live at points around campus and in every division. Most interested students saw at least part of the ceremony before heading home.
Clearly there are times in our nation’s history when an event (or the aftermath of an event) occurs during the school day to bring all Americans together as one. Those moments are of such significance that it is appropriate to gather portions of our student and faculty community together to watch history unfold. Thinking back to the recent past, such an occasion might include a live showing for age-appropriate students of the multi-denominational and ecumenical National Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral on the Friday after September 11, 2001.
On reflection, the historical significance of the President’s speech was not what he said, but the public’s partisan division about the stated purpose of his remarks and he what he might actually say to our students. In the end, his message was benign and apolitical: all students should work hard, stay in school, and reach for their dreams. At Randolph, what matters most is not watching a live broadcast of such a non-event, but learning how to live our history by thinking for ourselves, sharing ideas with clarity and civility, and working with others to improve our communities, the nation, and the world.