In 1787, four years after Potemkin had convinced his boss, Catherine the Great of Russia, to annex the Crimean Khanate and invest heavily in its modernization, the empress traveled there with an entourage of nobles to review his progress. According to legend, Potemkin ordered the construction of a portable “village” – pasteboards of buildings with nothing behind them, like a Hollywood movie set – to greet Catherine as she and her retinue floated down the Dnieper River. After the royal barges would pass, Potemkin’s men would dismantle the façade and rebuild it downstream for Catherine to admire anew, day after day, as though she were discovering an entirely different sovremennoye selo (“modern village”) each time.
Most historians believe that Potemkin did not actually engage in this charade – that the “Potemkin village” was a fiction propagated by his enemies at court – but Potemkin himself nevertheless acknowledged going to great lengths to improve the appearance of Crimean towns in advance of Catherine’s visit. That he would do so is, of course, hardly unusual. In today’s North Korea, Kijong-dong, a brightly-painted “community” designed to beckon South Koreans just across the border, is in fact a set of uninhabited concrete shells, a modern-day Potemkin village. In Ireland, in advance of the 2013 G8 Summit, the town of Enniskillen pasted wall-sized photographs of busy retail scenes across shuttered storefronts to mask a struggling local economy. Closer to home, cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and New York in recent years have boarded up abandoned residences with plywood painted to resemble doors, windows, plants, and Venetian blinds. And any number of us, I suppose, have been similarly guilty of closing doors on unkempt rooms or shoving messes under beds and into closets before company comes.
Appearance is the enemy of authenticity. To focus on appearance is by definition to acknowledge phenomena external to the self and, usually, to validate and defer to them as well. Appearances adhere to scripts, and schools – under constant scrutiny by a variety of constituencies external to the student-teacher relationships at their hearts – are particularly vulnerable to playing to expectations rather than setting them. In a recent article about the staged choreography of college campus tours, one student guide rationalized, “We’re not tricking our visitors. We’re kind of protecting them from some of the potential drawbacks. You have to get even with the other schools that are also bending the truth.”
By contrast, Randolph’s new admissions viewbook has no interest in “protecting” applicants from “potential drawbacks” at the School, nor in “bending the truth.” It has not been benchmarked or focus-grouped or even (as you will see in the contributions of our youngest students) spell-checked. It does not try to guess at the reader’s idea of The Perfect School and then, magically, satisfy every expectation. Simply put, this viewbook is not about appearances. It is not a Potemkin village.
To be authentic is, literally, to do for oneself. At Randolph, we do not tell our students who they are supposed to be. Rather, we want each child to learn and to live authentically, sui generis. We believe that education is an expedition to be led, not a path to be followed. And though it would be easier for us – or for any school – to conform to or be constrained by appearances and scripts, we believe in the uncomfortable demands of individual freedom and metamorphosis. Our viewbook embodies that belief.
The responses of members of the Randolph School community to the four value propositions set forth in these transparent pages include the following words with greatest frequency: “Randolph, all, one, school, day, more, freedom, learning, teachers, students, people.” Consider this rush of impressions our unscripted script, too ungainly a tagline for a billboard but too authentic for one as well. We'll take it.
The children in our care at Randolph School are known, challenged, and loved. We know what these commitments can mean in the education of a child, in the expedition of a life. We hope that you will, too.