October Bench Talk: Becoming Our Best Selves

In his Bench Talk to students at the virtual All-School Meeting on Friday, October 16th, MBS Head of School Peter Caldwell spoke about becoming our best selves and the power of diversity. The following is a transcript of his speech:

All of us are engaged in the process of becoming our best selves. I have been working on it for my entire life.  I know you have not been working on being your best selves as long as I have, but I would like to tell you a little bit about my journey this past summer, with the hope that it will inspire you as learners as we move towards our 6th week of school.   

I have always hoped that my bench talks and reflections spark conversations among students and families, and this year is no different.  I want to acknowledge up front that I am fully aware that there will be a range of responses to any single one of my reflections. I will never deliver a talk where all of you are interested or happy with all of my words, and that is not only OK, it is beneficial to our community because it will prompt you to have conversations about what you believe.  

Social justice is hard, unrelenting work, and I know we are all up for engaging in conversations about our wide-ranging identities.

Race is not biological. Even though race is a social construct, it profoundly affects how we see ourselves and each other.

Today I want us to think about the scientific evidence that diversity helps everyone.

In her Truth and Perspective class, Mrs. Caldwell teaches a concept called “cognitive friction.” Cognitive friction is a good thing, and it is created by a group of people who have diverse views.  Diversity and diverse perspective creates cognitive friction, making everyone think at a higher level and make better decisions. Two professors at Columbia University have evidence of this. 

Professor Levine and Professor Stark experimented with groups of people calculating prices for stocks, investments in companies.  So the experiment had to do with how well each group would predict prices and make successful investments.

Each participant in this experiment was assigned to a group that was either racially homogenous or racially heterogenous.   They created the groups carefully, making sure they were measuring for effects of race—which we all know is a social construct-- not for culture or history.

It is important to note the various races who participated in this research did not bring some special knowledge.  The special factor that they brought to the discussion of stocks was the color of their skin.  These Columbia researchers found that when we are surrounded by people who look “like ourselves” we are easily influenced and more likely to fall for wrong ideas.  

Diversity prompts better critical thinking for everyone.

Some of the worst mistakes made by United States presidents have happened because the president surrounded himself with a team of people who all have the same narrow, biased view.  Reagan’s launching of the Space Challenger, John F Kennedy’s decision to invade Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, Lyndon Johnson’s decision to enter the Viet Nam War, and Nixon’s Watergate scandal all occurred because of the problem of groupthink.

Groupthink is a dynamic where members of a team see the world through the same narrow lens. Groupthink makes the group reach premature conclusions and make bad decisions. 

Last June when it seemed as though our community was ripped apart, I wrestled with what to say to our community and how to say it.  I sent the community my first letter, and some of our community members were not at all satisfied. Three days later, I sent a second letter. Another segment of our community was not satisfied.  Undoubtedly a number of people were unhappy with both letters.

A few days later, Mrs. Caldwell and I thought maybe we could reach out to the community with a video recording.  This idea was abandoned when colleagues explained this would not be well-received.  So I dropped the video idea, and I sat down and wrote a letter addressed solely to the student body because this was a group that I felt I could reach.  For me as a school head, I have always believed my most important work is with the student body.  I sent a draft of this letter to a speech writer friend in Ohio, and in his reply he said: “We think you nailed it.”

My other advisors said, “You are tone deaf.  Some students are not ready to hear this.”

While this was hard for me to hear, since I feel as though I have a very good relationship with most of you, I listened to the second advice, and I did not send the letter.

I tell you this narrative because trying to be our best selves is difficult. Sometimes no matter what any of us say, some people will be unhappy or dissatisfied or angry, and that is OK. Engage in conversations, try to understand those around you who might not look like you, or think like you and be willing to self-assess. Most importantly, listen.

We will certainly need to be at our very best as we approach a contentious election. I can’t remember a time when the country was so divided and, as I said at the outset, I have been around for a while and voted in my first election in 1976 by absentee ballot – I was in college at the time. 

Civil and reasoned discourse, respect, humility and empathy are critical in understanding our different perspectives. Sometimes, simply sitting down and listening can help us understand each other. We will talk more about this and how to process the upcoming election in upcoming meetings.

To end, I would like to link back to the idea of working to be our best selves. 

As I prepare to leave this community, recently I looked back at the 2011 speech I gave at my installation as head of school. Because we had just moved here, I posited the question:  Where does a sense of place come from? 

In this speech, I quoted writer-environmentalist Wallace Stegner who said: “placeness is created by time and storytelling,” and I recounted the stories we were told during our first summer here.  For example, at her first NJ dentist appointment, Mrs. Caldwell learned about General Knox’s transporting cannon across New Jersey.  From neighbors, we learned that poets Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams spent a lot of time in Camden and Rutherford, respectively.  One day at Jockey Hollow a stranger told us about George Washington’s “we-cannot-spare-you” speech where he convinced his soldiers not to abandon the cause. 

With George Floyd’s death and the protests and discussions since then, I look back on that speech with different eyes.  

What was missing from my historical references were Black, Indigenous, People of Color narratives.  Thus, I would like to conclude this talk by acknowledging that the land we are on belonged to people who are still here. And, in fact, there have always been indigenous peoples in the spaces we call home.  

In Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, land acknowledgement is common practice during major events or gatherings. In some countries, land acknowledgement is government policy.  While this has not been a practice we have engaged in at MBS, today I would like for us to acknowledge that this state of New Jersey is the ancestral and unceded territory of the Lenni-Lenape people.

I am aware that a land acknowledgement is complicated and perhaps mine is imperfect, but it is a good place to start. Offering a bit of context about where we are and a more accurate story of our origin gives us a greater sense for our potential connectivity with each other as a community.

Thank you.

 

SUPERB:

https://www.teenvogue.com/story/indigenous-land-acknowledgement-explained

New York Times article on traveling to Australia and land acknowledgements…

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/31/opinion/sunday/what-does-it-mean-to-acknowledge-the-past.html

http://www.native-languages.org/jersey.htm


 

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