The Healing Path Forward

Tom Wilschutz


Head of School at Desk

The following is excerpted from a speech given to the Solebury community during assembly on October 28, 2020.

Good afternoon everyone,

You may know that in an earlier chapter of my life I was working to complete a Ph.D. in history. One of the lifelong consequences of such training is something of a curse: historians are always seeking to rise above and emerge out of the weeds, to make sense of the data, to take the long view, always looking for context, perspective, and the big picture. 

So when I reflect on the moment we’re in as a nation and the coming election, I look for historical parallels. I can only think of two other times in our nation’s history when we were this fractured, this polarized, as a nation—the years leading up to, and then after, the Civil War, and the period around 1968. As I think about these two periods of our history, and I think about the present, I find myself thinking that the danger we face now is that the ties that bind us together as a people, as a nation, are increasingly diminishing before the forces that are driving us apart. 

What happens, I wonder, when the forces that are driving us apart become greater than the ties that bind us? A corollary to this, and perhaps a causal factor, is that more and more we are living in two parallel universes, universes that increasingly do not intersect. I read a New York Times opinion piece a month or so ago that posited that increasingly Democrats and Republicans have two very different world views—views that are shaped by wildly different information streams, feeding them wildly different facts. We no longer sample other sources of information and news that are contrary to what we believe; we only listen to, and read, information that supports our own views. We are here, on the precipice of one of the most divisive elections in our history when people on both sides believe fervently that the soul, the very existence of our nation, is at risk. Both sides.

So I wonder, and I ask myself, what does this mean for my school? My community? My students? Regardless of who wins, in the days after November 3rd, a significant percentage will be upset, unhappy, despondent, fearful, and panicked over the outcome of the election. Half of our nation will feel this way in the days after November 3rd when the outcome is settled.

I come to work every day and I know that I work with some adults and students who identify as Democrats and some adults and students who identify as Republicans. How do we go forward as a school community, knowing that some among us will share feelings of deep disappointment, fear, and anger over the outcome of the election? How do we strengthen the ties that bind us and blunt the forces that are driving us farther and farther apart?

I remind myself in moments like these of my first and most important goal: I may not be able to change the world or our country, but I might be able, with the help of others, to change my small corner of it...and that corner is us...the Solebury School community. I cling to the belief that if we can change our corner of this fractured world, then there is hope, because we will send you out into that world, apostles who can spread the Solebury gospel, who can model the values we hold dear, who can replicate what we are trying to do here in this community, and then all of you can change all the small corners of worlds you inhabit. It won’t happen overnight. But it can happen, it will happen, if we succeed in doing our good work here with all of you. 

If you’re sitting there, wondering what is the Solebury gospel, well, you already know it.

It begins with our mission and with one of the values we hold dearest: respect. Respect for everyone, for those who agree and those who disagree with you. It means we assume the best of intentions of everyone in this community. You can respectfully disagree with me because I cast my vote for a Republican or Democrat. I hope you are able to assume that there was reason and rationale behind my vote and that it was a decision thoughtfully arrived at. 

To come to the understanding of why someone voted the way they did, we need to improve our community’s ability to listen to differences, including differing political views, and then we need to model this behavior out in the world. Increasingly in the early years of this century, we see a nation unable to engage in thoughtful conversations on topics about which we disagree. When citizens of democracies are unable to discuss their views, their differences, and find common ground, when conversations are quickly shut down and the exchange of ideas gives way to shouting and labeling...this is how democracies die. 

Travel with me, if you will, over the long sweep of human history, from the moment our species stood upright, began creating small tribes, then communities and then larger entities and then empires and then nation states. NOT ONE of those great empires, or those great nations, has survived over the millennia humans have walked the planet. The United States of America is not predestined to survive as a democracy; as an entity. Our destiny is in our control—yours and mine. We get to choose the path forward. 

So fair or not, I expect more of the Solebury School community than I do from those who are not part of this community. You have an advantage. You are here, able to drink in the thoughtful wisdom of some of the best teachers on the planet. You get to engage in thoughtful discussions with your peers. You get to expand your horizons in the safe space that is Solebury School. You get to think, not just memorize and regurgitate facts. 

You get to think.

I believe we must hold ourselves to a higher bar, a higher standard. I believe we need to model the behavior that we would like to see in all of our fellow citizens. 

In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing, the only television show I’ve followed since M*A*S*H, a victim of Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn’s well-intentioned, but misguided, act reproaches them, saying, “You’re supposed to be the good guys. You should act like it.” To borrow that barb and rephrase it: if this community strives to be the best it can be, now is the time to act like it. I think this community is special, so I challenge all of us, in the days prior to the election, and in the aftermath, regardless of who wins, we need to act like we have indeed set and cleared a higher bar... 

Finally, how do we heal? 

Regardless of who wins, how do we find our way back, as a people, away from the brink of polarization, divisiveness, disintegration, and descent into warring tribes? I believe the healing path forward must be guided by three overlapping beacons.

The first is hope. In the absence of hope, hopelessness can lead to a range of pathologies: at times violence, at other times apathy, or susceptibility to radical ideologies. Recall the hopelessness of the German people in the aftermath of World War I and their subsequent embrace of the Nazi’s ideology as a path out of their darkness. Our work, your work, must be focused on ways to give all Americans hope for their future, whether they are mired in gut-wrenching poverty in our cities or living in a barren rural America where jobs are dwindling. We must work to give all people hope.

The second beacon is investment. My former honors Ethics students will recall our discussions about the consequences for our systems of governance when citizens are no longer invested because they feel a hopelessness for their future. When investment in our governing systems declines, when our systems no longer work for the majority, they are then co-opted by single-issue candidates who thrive on the margins, further eroding hope for the majority. 

And last, trust. We must build a society so the vast majority of our citizens believe they can trust that the many arms of government are truly working on their behalf, and thus they will be invested in these systems because they have hope for their future, and for their children’s future. 

If we cannot breathe life into this equation of hope, investment, and trust, then our era as one of the world’s greatest democracies will surely end. Whether with a whimper or a bang, it will end. 

So, this is our work. This is your work. 

I have hope. I believe we are up to the task as a people. Regardless of who wins, we have real, hard work to do. It begins here, on the corner of Phillips Mill and School Lane...with me, with your teachers, with you, and how we come together in the aftermath of this election. How we treat each other. How we go forward, guided by hope, investment, trust. 

Thank you.