Good morning and welcome to the 119th school year at Holton-Arms. I want to extend a particularly warm welcome to everyone who is new to this wonderful community: our new parents, new faculty and staff, and most of all our new girls. Let's give a particularly big hand to the new third graders, the Class of 2029. I can promise all of you that you will find this a warm, supportive, learning community where, like the girls who have come before you, you will find many ways to finish the statement, "I love Holton because..."
And, of course, I want to recognize the great Class of 2020!
As most of you know, just like you students, I always have a summer reading list. One of my favorites this year was Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover. Westover grew up in rural Idaho in a large family who practices a strict form of Mormonism that includes the belief that women should stay at home, be mothers and wives, and submit to their husband's will. Her father, a powerful character who is probably bipolar, meaning he suffers from a serious mental illness, ran a construction company and a junkyard behind their house. He is also a survivalist who is deeply suspicious of the government to the point that he refused to allow his family to see a doctor or have his children go to school. Although he loves his children, they serve as his labor force and he repeatedly puts them in dangerous situations and several of them suffer serious, and in one case life-altering, injuries. Tara grows up having little interaction with other children besides her five brothers and sisters. Her mother theoretically home-schools the children; however, in reality, Tara receives virtually no formal education. Despite that, one of her older brothers who has gone to college persuades her to take the ACT and apply to Brigham Young University, a Mormon school.
While it may seem remarkable to us, Brigham Young accepted her on the basis of her ACT score and a letter from a relative saying that she had been home-schooled. She arrived at college not knowing that Europe was a continent not a country; without knowing what the Holocaust was or anything about the Civil Rights Movement; without having studied algebra or ever having written an essay. It's important to note that Westover did not lack knowledge–for example, she knew a great deal about natural remedies, but she suffered from an enormous deficit in the kind of book-knowledge that serves as the foundation of a college education.
Westover worked incredibly hard to overcome her limited preparation and graduated from Brigham Young with a degree in history. She received a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge University in England. She tells her remarkable story not to impress us with the prestigious academic honors she has earned, but to take us on her journey to becoming her own person, not the person her family, particularly her father, expected her to be. Her father's powerful personality and her isolated childhood and adolescence meant that her family culture exerted a particularly strong influence over her. However, in the course of her college education, she was exposed to new ideas that challenged how she was raised. For example, the feminist theorists she read freed her to believe that she had the right to personhood independent of her domineering father; contrary to his beliefs, women have the right to be autonomous human beings, a thought that she had harbored deep in her psyche, but which her family culture had effectively smothered. It was through the process of her education–which was at times wrenching–that she came to discover her true self. To her, this defines an education: the process of creating your own "selfhood."
Reading Westover's story got me thinking about what it means to be "educated." Merriam-Webster defines it as "having an education beyond the average." I would guess that's how most of us define it–an educated person is someone who certainly has a college degree and perhaps more.
Personally, I think it's interesting that the word, while an adjective, is in the past tense, suggesting that the process that makes you an educated person finishes. However, Westover's experience suggests otherwise. As she became more "educated," her desire to learn grew. She kept expanding her horizons, opening up new perspectives. This interpretation means that to be "educated" is not to have completed a process but rather to have acquired knowledge and tools and to have developed a mindset that set us on a path of lifelong learning.
William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, observed, "Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire." We, your teachers here at Holton, where, unlike Westover, you are receiving a world-class education, aim to do much more than just fill your minds with information. Rather, we aspire to spark a fire of curiosity, instill in you a love of learning that carries throughout your life. We encourage you to engage deeply in your learning and both master information and develop into critical thinkers and effective communicators.
Book learning is one way we do this. As we study literature and history, we learn about the human condition, we consider choices people make, why they make them, and the consequences of those choices. We begin to learn about different philosophies and schools of thought. In world language, along with literature and history, we learn about different cultures and different perspectives. In science, we gain an understanding of how the physical/natural world works, and in math we learn structures, patterns, and logic. A powerful film or play or piece of artwork can likewise challenge us to think, as Ms. Archibald so eloquently explained. In all these subjects, we learn to think and every one in its own way opens up the world to our understanding, dispelling mystery, and encouraging further questioning.
It's important to recognize that education can also happen outside and beyond school. While we derive great value from learning with other people guided by a knowledgeable instructor, we can and should continue to seek out opportunities to learn even when not in school. New ideas, new research, new understandings, new perspectives get shared in books constantly. Personally, I continue to learn enormous amounts by reading. Tara Westover's book obviously made me think. This summer I also read a book called White Fragility, a book I know some of you have also read. The author, Robin DiAngelo, helped me think deeply and critically about my role as a white person in American society and in the process shifted my thinking about race in important ways. Beyond books: newspapers, magazines, blogs, and podcasts can all introduce us to new ideas and new information. I especially like a podcast called "The Argument" because it helps me see issues from a range of political perspectives.
While the term "educated" usually implies book-learning, I would argue that we should broaden that definition. We can learn so much from each other, which is the great value in going to school with, working with, and living in diverse communities. Holton gives you that gift–the opportunity to learn from classmates whose families come from different cultures, different religions, and different perspectives. Travel also educates us by similarly exposing us to different cultures and different ways of thinking and doing. These kinds of experiences prompt us to examine our own culture, our own assumptions and values. We may alter our ideas in response to these experiences or these experiences may affirm our beliefs. Either way, we benefit from examining them so that we hold them, reject them, or modify them intentionally, not simply because they are the belief system we grew up with.
You may take your education for granted, but I would encourage you to ask yourself why it's important to be "educated." Westover would say that it is to find our selfhood. I would agree and go farther. I would argue from a selfish perspective that life is much more interesting when we approach it with curiosity. From a broader perspective, as citizens of a democracy, we need to be educated so we can make informed decisions and participate in the democratic process in a knowledgeable way. Moreover, we expect Holton students to become leaders, change-makers, people who make the world a better place. Fulfilling that mandate demands the qualities of an "educated" person–knowledge, flexibility, perspective, appreciation for new ideas, a willingness to test our assumptions, and a desire to keep learning. When we think about education in these ways, it becomes a very personal journey—one that is not about grades, getting into college, or preparing for a job. Rather, it is a journey that leads us to grow in self-understanding and develops us into citizens of the world. It is the education of the mind, the soul, and the spirit.