How to make sense of all this? And...do I really believe that humanity is progressing?
Let’s begin with my notion that the progress of humanity is an arc sweeping ever upward. I believe this, with a rather large asterisk. The asterisk is this...If you imagine human progress as a line on a graph, with the Y axis some complex definition of exactly how we might measure progress, and the X axis as the unfolding of human history from our very beginning until the present, I do believe that our progress as a species is arching upward, but not without some undulations.
This past weekend was a significant undulation for me. Eleven humans lost their lives in Pittsburgh, a mass killing being investigated as a hate crime. The driving force behind that hate: the religion the victims practiced. In a sacred space, violence intruded — an extreme violence that makes one wince in pain just from thinking about it. Yet, these events aren’t new or different. In fact, it’s the 297th mass shooting of 2018, the number almost equal to the number of days in 2018 according to Business Insider. As a Head of School, I think about safety every day and I shudder every time my phone lights up with an alert of a new act of gun violence against a group of humans — be it in a school, a place of worship or a shopping mall. I feel frustrated… and the line on my theoretical graph declines in these moments.
The next day and some 330 miles to the east of Pittsburgh, a handful of Solebury students gathered for the culmination of a project they have been working on for months: a 5K Run/Walk that shone a bright light on their belief in the need for gun safety. The context for this months-long effort: our students wanted to respond, from their small corner of the world, to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year. They invited gun owners, gun safety advocates and public officials to come together and raise awareness on the topic of gun safety and promote a healthy dialogue around preventing gun violence. Some 100 people engaged in healthy activity and healthy dialogue on an issue that felt especially important that day, and our students raised important funding that will be donated to organizations committed to gun safety efforts. In the grand scheme of things, it’s small. But powerful. The line on the Y axis trends upward.
How do we make sense of these two events within the context of human progress?
For me, the answers are both complicated and nuanced. It begins with an acknowledgement that humans are flawed. We are imperfect creatures and those imperfections will never cease being a part of our species. Hatred and bigotry will continue as long as we exist. But we can see over the long history of our species, that ever so gradually the critical mass of humans who are educated, tolerant, and accepting has increased. The never-ending goal: to continue the work of ushering more and more humans inside this tent of tolerance. The critical tool in this effort: education.
I firmly believe any and all human progress we can point to is the result of education, and most especially, education broadly defined. It is not the content of Calculus or US History that is the particular engine of human progress (apologies to my mathematic and social science colleagues), but rather the delivery of this content in a community that is also focused on character development, community building, honing an ethical or moral compass, instilling and nurturing the values of tolerance and inclusivity. This is the educational environment we must all work to create and sustain. I believe we can gradually realize a world where hatred, bigotry, and intolerance can be blunted and marginalized. Will there be more episodes like the one that unfolded in Pittsburgh. Sadly, yes. Will there be many more events like our 5K to shine a bright light on the issues that trouble us? Absolutely. We need to maximize the latter in order to diminish the former.
Thus, as we look to the future, I remain cautiously optimistic. In this moment, I am reminded of two quotes, each offering a north star to follow as we as think about our role in this world where good and evil continue to battle. These words are attributed to eighteenth century political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”
But, perhaps the most appropriate words in this moment come from the Talmud: "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."
Far from abandoning the work, we must continue on. Work harder. Hate less. Listen with love more. Minimize the undulations and continue the upward trajectory of the progress of humanity. I’m committed. I hope you are as well.