Perspective Counter-Cultural: A Call for Civility Amidst Conflict By J. Ross Peters, Head of School at St. George’s Independent School, Memphis, TN By the time we made it to August 2016, a standard opening of school letter would have seemed hollow and mis-timed. The echo chambers of our socio-political dialogue as demonstrated through the presidential election cycle, had become strident to a degree I had not seen before, and thus it was impossible to reconcile the values I believe live at the core of our school with the reality of vitriol that had infiltrated the campaign speeches and debates scorching the earth across the country. Additionally, that summer had been overfull with terrorist attacks in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Nice. As the novelty of these tragedies faded and became more and more horrifyingly predicable, I was running out of advice to parents struggling to provide support and guidance to their children. I felt as if I needed to name the environment we were in and strive in a nonpartisan way to place the school’s priorities and expectations within it. Sometimes schools are called to be unapologetically counter-cultural.
Here is a long excerpt from that letter I sent to our families: “‘I have an ask for all of us—teachers, parents, friends and students: make a commitment to civility and to civil discourse within our school community. Please make this commitment even as we witness its opposite day in and day out in media, in political campaigns, on athletic field sidelines, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat threads. We cannot ask young people to be civil, much less to value civility and civil dialogue if we are not able to meet the standard ourselves. The most highly-charged issues of our time are alive in the conversations our students are having with and without us every day. We know that they are watching us carefully. Interestingly, even when as parents we believe our kids are not listening to us or valuing our opinions, there is no source of insight they trust more than us. They are listening to what we say and how we say it. They are using us to formulate their opinions and to calibrate their character. They are testing boundaries in order to find the lines within which they will operate as adults. In our national dialogue we are struggling to post appropriate boundary markers for young people regarding civility, so in our community, the SGIS community, we have an obligation to be counter-cultural. Preparing students, our children, for the “real world” does not mean emulating its worst characteristics. The best preparation for young people includes setting a far higher bar so that they grow into the very people who are ready to help raise standards above the lowest common denominator. At SGIS, the call to be counter-cultural in this area is not new; however, the immediacy of its relevance has never been clearer. St. George’s has always sought to bring people together, and our three-campus model drawing from over 50 zip codes is a testament to both our faith that we can navigate the spaces that separate us and our determination that we must. I request that all members of our school community deepen our commitment to civility even as the world around us may seem determined to undermine the effort. Civility involves acts of will and thus reflects our character both as individuals and as a group.”
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