It being Thanksgiving week, I thought it might be appropriate to share “from the archives” these remarks I made at a middle school graduation in 2005.  Happy Thanksgiving.

Graduation Dinner Address, 2005

Tonight I wanted to speak for a few minutes about privilege and anxiety.  I was struck this spring upon recognizing that the two books in my reading experience that best capture the sights and sounds, the environment—the culture—the world of excellent independent schools and universities—that both books contain in their title the same word:  Privilege.

The first, Art Powell’s 1996 academic analysis of the great value independent schools have offered their students for a very long time, is entitled Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition.   The second, brand new this spring and leading me to this epiphany, is a young man’s memoir of his undergraduate education: its title is Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class.

These books portray the culture of schools where teachers are passionate about ideas and intensely committed to their students, where students love learning and are restlessly striving to advance in the American meritocracy.  There is competition and there is community; these schools are places of self examination, critical thinking, independent minds, ambitious yearnings, and amazing growth.

It is striking that that both books contain the word Privilege in their titles— and probably not a coincidence.  It is truly indeed a great privilege to attend such schools, and I think our graduates tonight realize it.

It has been a privilege for them to enjoy classrooms of so few students.  It is a privilege to investigate Washington D.C. with the powerfully sharp-minded Mr. Prestianni, or to hike the volcanoes of Hawaii ’s Kona with the adventurous Mr. LaBonte and Madame Amy, or to learn Algebra from the incomparable mathophile Mrs. Ellis, or to be sensitively counseled from the compassionate Ms. LaDuc, or be coached in basketball by “T”.  Some of them even had the privilege to learn to research their family heritage from Mrs. Schofield.

And it is a privilege indeed for these graduates to have had the support of families who have provided them such an education.

Privilege is complicated—having had such opportunities forces us to wonder and to worry whether we deserve what we have and others don’t, and whether we will achieve all for which we are being prepared.  To be human is to be anxious, and ironically, sometimes the more privileged we are, and the more opportunities we have, the more we worry about what is to come.

Last fall, a British philosopher wrote a book called Status Anxiety:

Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first – the story of our quest for romantic love – is well known and well-charted.

The second – the story of our quest for love from the world – is a more secret and shameful tale. And yet this second love story is no less intense than the first.’  (more…)

2011-12 School Year opening assembly:

Good morning, and welcome to School year 2011-12, St. Gregory’s 32nd year!  It is great to see you all here, and may I say, you look terrific today– such great looking style– and I want to especially welcome our new students, including those from China,  Germany, and Alaska.   They came all this way to come to St. Gregory.   OUr student body is again over 300 students, and it feels great to have you all here.

Screening the following clip:

I loved this film, particularly its treatment of the students working together to create their film.   I realize that for me this movie, Super 8, had particular resonance, as it was about a group of 13 year olds in 1979, and I myself was 13 in 1979.

Super 8 the movie has great lessons and inspiration for us as learners, and I want to share with you my Super 8 takeaways, or Super 8 inspirations for a great school year of learning and growth:

  1. These students identified and followed their passion.  The main character did not want to go away to sports camp for the summer: his passion then was film and he pursued it vigorously!
  2. They used the best available contemporary technology to create and communicate.  They regularly went down to the camera store to see what was new, and they wanted to be informed and to use the best contemporary tools to accomplish their mission. (more…)

It is my great pleasure to share this piece from Fred Roberts, St. Gregory’s long-time Dean of Students.   St. Gregory has a lovely, longstanding tradition of Senior Dinner, an event for faculty members and graduating seniors two nights prior to graduation, and at which a veteran faculty member delivers his or her own “last lecture,” something it has been designated since even long before the legendary Randy Pausch “last lecture.”

I was deeply impressed with this piece, which argues for the importance of self-understanding via struggle, and includes, if you read on, wonderfully engrossing anecdotes about genuine struggles.

The take away quote:

This is about meeting the expectations of the person that matters most, your expectations. It’s about living a fulfilling life, and where does the fire live?

It comes from your struggle.  This is an individual exploration into one’s rock bottom core and finding out what is there.  It is about peeling away the layers of protection, lifting each one to see what is below.  In doing so the lessons are self taught, the experiences profound, and you discover an inner strength that is your core; your ‘it’.  First, however, you must find your struggle.

Finding your struggle.

Today we are doing more with less, going higher with out jumping harder, moving faster with less effort, and finding more success with just enough preparation.  We are told our financial problems are the fault of others, and with a toll free phone call you can be debt free, make thousands from the comfort of your own home, and take a vacation at the end of the week. It is now easier to upgrade, supersize, maximize, multi task, leverage, and over achieve than ever before.  We are fulfilled, our map is before us, and all we have to do is get on board. All of us in this room, as Mr. Creeden often said, won the genetic lottery.  We are in the top 5% of humankind in terms of wealth, health, security, and potential. (more…)

Good afternoon Graduates, Students, Trustees, Parents, and Friends: welcome.We are very happy you are all here to share in this celebration of the accomplishments and unique qualities of the 35 fine members of our graduating class of 2011.Let me begin by quoting one of our graduates sitting in front of me today, from a KGUN Channel 9 interview last September at the Tucson Ethnic Extravaganza
we are here to advocate for all students being able to learn about an ethnicity and its history: this is about a privilege that I enjoy at my school, St. Gregory,  and which I feel every student should share: the freedom of knowledge.
For this purpose and ideal, Aubri Romero and Jacob Valdez, advised by Dr. Berry,  took the initiative to make a difference for our community by organizing a community-wide rally downtown. They had to overcome significant challenges,  but they persevered and did it the way they believed they could make the most difference, and it was a great success.What is especially meaningful to me about this particular action is what they were fighting for:  better education for all.   They sought to empower fellow students, and to improve our society, by influencing what and how their fellow students learn.They know that Education empowers; learning matters.Yes, this always been true, but it has never been more true. (more…)

[ Remarks delivered Wednesday, January 12, 2011, after a moment of silence)

On Saturday, our hometown Tucson was struck hard by an individual acting without conscience, without reason, and possibly without sanity.   This terrible strike hit us at our community’s most sensitive place: not only did it harm and kill many fine, fine people, it hit us in the heart of our body politic.

Since the ancient Athenians conceived of and built the polis, a democratic state composed of citizens governing themselves in the open air by way of free and spirited discourse and debate, this idea of the body politic has been our civilization’s ideal, our shining city on a hill.

Saturday morning, in front of a Tucson Safeway at which many of us shop regularly, an elected official and her staff came to talk in the open air with Tucson citizens, acting out our nation’s and our civilization’s ideals.   In a scene that ancient Athenians would have immediately recognized, a diverse set of Tucsonans came together to discuss their views, argue their opinions, and express their hopes for our nation– in other words, to talk politics.  Senior citizens came to discuss their social security, a federal judge to discuss the future of the judiciary in Arizona, and a young child who had recently been elected to her student council to meet her role model, preparing herself to join the body politic as an adult.

When this terrible attack came, it came at a moment when they were, all of them, together, acting out our nation’s highest political ideals: to discuss and debate ideas about our society respectfully—and this is why the strike, was so especially devastating even also to those of us who were not immediately present and did not necessarily know anyone hurt.

This was not only a group of people attacked– and let’s be clear, it was a very fine group of people attacked, truly wonderful people– it was also our ideal of the polis, the acting out and practice of true democracy—politicians, judges, and citizens, adults and children, gathered together in a public square, in an event called Congress on Your Corner– which was attacked.

Because of that, I think that we all have, as citizens and as people concerned and committed to that ideal, a special responsibility to respond with a renewed commitment to live and fulfill that ideal. (more…)


Remarks to students, 12.8.10, revised and expanded.

Exams are next week: how many of you are looking forward to taking exams?   I hope the answer is many of you, because I believe that when a well-prepared mind engages with a well designed test, fireworks can happen inside our minds.   I had many experiences of feeling more intellectually stimulated, engaged, creative and innovative, when taking a well-designed exam than during almost any other time.    My mind leapt to new insights and perceptions, made more connections and inferences, and discovered and constructed original solutions or approaches to vexing problems.   I love taking exams.

But you do need to be well prepared to be successful.    Some suggestions for you to be better prepared.

1.  When you study, don’t just read: write!   Too often we think we are studying when we let our eyes drift over the words in our notes, our textbooks, and our study guides.   That isn’t enough; we must write to remember and develop better understanding.    My freshman year of college I struggled with my midterms, and was quite disappointed with the results.   Come finals, I chose to do something I had never done before: I simply rewrote, word for word, every note I had taken during lecture– and when I went to take my exams I was flabbergasted with how much more I recalled and how much more confident and authoritative I was addressing the questions.    Recopy notes, or write about your notes and texts:  what are the most interesting, more original, most surprising, most confusing, most important, most controversial ideas or informational nuggets in the texts you are studying?  Write these out, and you will be better prepared.

2. Study in groups. When this works well, it is awesome; when it doesn’t work well, it can be a disaster.   The opportunity is great, but effective execution is essential.    When you do it well, the result will be better understanding and retention of key factual content and key interpretations , better anticipation of what will be on the test, and far more breadth of wisdom in how to answer those questions.

Here is my suggested strategy: (more…)

Welcome, everyone, to Fall Family Gathering Day; we are very thankful you are here.

Gratitude is among the cardinal virtues in all the ancient wisdom texts, including the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Koran.    The Roman philosopher Seneca explained “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

More modern philosophers agree: Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote that In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that our life become rich.”

Psychologist Robert Emmons, in his book Thanks,  a book for which I am very grateful and from which my talk today is very much borrowed, writes that “I am not neutral about gratitude; I believe it to the best approach to life; Gratitude elevates, it energizes, it inspires, and it transforms.”

Emmons is one among many scientists who are joining the religious thinkers and the philosophers in declaring the importance of gratitude.

First, of course, we need to understand better what we mean by gratitude; gratitude is not simply saying thank you (though that isn’t a bad start).   Emmons explains that gratitude can be best understood in two stages, and that both stages are active work.

First, gratitude is acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life: we “affirm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living.”

Second, is the recognition that “the source of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self; it is a recognition and a humility that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contribution of others.”

This second statement is especially meaningful today, for this audience, welcoming grandparents and other family members and friends to our school: you are most certainly some of the most important people in our students’ lives, without whom they could not be where they are today. (more…)