Why it is Critical for Schools to Stand Up for Their Mission and Values in Tumultuous Times


Although the concept of free speech is enshrined in the laws of our land and the self-image we embrace as a nation, practicing and defending civil and open discourse can be a challenge, especially in today’s times. With a contentious and possibly contended election approaching, our desire as a school to be a respectful “marketplace of ideas” could be tested.

In recent years we have watched issues of free speech play out on college campuses, in the media, and online. Social media, which amplifies all voices and opinions, has added an unpredictable dynamic, and economic, educational, and racial inequities are shaping political discourse in new ways.

The Foundational Beliefs of a Progressive School

Liberal arts educational institutions like Catlin Gabel exist in large part to teach young people how to ask good questions, assemble and consider evidence, think critically, form defensible opinions, and communicate those with energy and purpose to effect change or resolution.

This happens within academic disciplines and across them, in and out of school, and in our social interactions as well. Teaching children these fundamental skills requires a courageous commitment to intellectual inquiry and honesty. It also requires self-awareness and recognizing that some ideas and evidence will challenge us and make us uncomfortable. Some may threaten our core beliefs about how we see the world and ourselves.

Fostering an Environment for Civil Discourse

We have discussed how to teach children to both be “antifragile” as suggested in The Coddling of the American Mind (Haidt and Lukianoff), and to speak up about the real trauma and pain caused by hateful or ignorant discourse. From preschool to twelfth grade, we establish classroom norms and behavior expectations and teach civil discourse to foster respectful intellectual inquiry and an inclusive learning environment. And that is not always easy. As much as we talk about the “Catlin bubble,” we teach and learn in the real world, and we all are human.

In support of this ongoing effort, we recently offered a workshop on Civil and Open Discourse in Independent Schools, led by a national education and research organization (EAB). Over fifty colleagues gathered to share ideas and practices for responding to hurtful speech, managing uncivil classroom discourse, and helping students consider the role of policies and character in politics. We also have shared classroom resources on the election, voting rights, media literacy, and how to manage emotions pre- and post-election. The goal is to equip our employees and our students for the weeks ahead and to foster civil discourse in general.

Last week I shared with my colleagues the school’s position on how to navigate these complex times, keeping our educational mission front and center, while recognizing that teachers and students have strong opinions and personal feelings about political and social issues. The urge or need to express those may create conflict and raise questions about what is appropriate to discuss in school. I want to share with you the main points of my message to them.

Living Our Mission and Values through Our Actions

As a school, it is our responsibility to educate students to know and care about current issues and to support the mission and values of the school. It is our job to educate, not indoctrinate, but what does that mean when statements by political leaders or government policies seem to conflict with our school’s mission or values? As I have stated in previous communications, it is not our role, as an educational institution, to endorse or promote candidates or specific policies. But we must stand up for our mission and values and our principles of progressive education:

Our mission is to foster compassionate and curious citizens of the world and to inspire in every student a love of learning and the courage to take responsible action.

Our values are inclusion, integrity, and kindness.

As a progressive school, we teach the whole child, are inquiry-based, believe in experiential learning, and educate for democracy.

Given our mission, values, and educational principles, in our classrooms and school we teach students to:

  • Be curious, ask questions, and develop evidence-based opinions
  • Engage with real-world problems to inspire creative and practical thinking
  • Practice self-awareness, self-management, and curiosity about others
  • Understand democratic systems and their rights and responsibilities as citizens
  • Know and care about current events and take responsible action to improve society
  • Care about all people in society, and support equity of access and opportunity
  • Be inclusive in supporting every individual’s identity and sense of belonging
  • Treat others with kindness and respect, even when we disagree or do not understand
  • Combat racism and all forms of identity-based discrimination
  • Consider how our mission and values are, or are not, evident in civic, economic, and social systems
  • Support those for whom current events have significant personal implications
  • Appreciate the positive contributions and value of cultures and peoples around the world
  • Trust science and data in assessing issues such as climate change and the pandemic
  • Support fair and free elections and efforts to enfranchise people in our country
  • Be cognizant of the power and privilege we hold in relation to each other, whether teachers, staff, students, or parents

We are in tumultuous times, and the election has the potential to add to the emotional burden many already are experiencing due to the pandemic, social injustice, and remote learning and work. We may be challenged to practice inclusion, integrity, and kindness. I have great faith in the professionalism and humanity of my colleagues as they guide our students and model civil and open discourse. Personal circumstances and points of view may differ in our Catlin Gabel community, but we are in this democratic experiment together, and we all have a stake in its successful future.