Upheaval, unrest, and change have long been traveling companions throughout human history, and these tectonic-shaping forces seem to be fully engaged in 2020.
As I ponder the events of this year, my thoughts travel back to another year of tumult, 1968. Throughout much of 1968, a thoughtful American could have wondered, with much justification, whether the grand experiment of American democracy was on the brink of collapse. Multiple threats were evident: violent anti-war riots were happening on many college campuses; the Tet Offensive underscored an increasing belief that the President and Pentagon had lied to the American people about ‘winning’ the Vietnam war; deep racial divisions fueled violence in multiple cities and was punctuated by the assassination of Martin Luther King; and only a few months later, the political system was rocked by the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.
I cannot recall wondering at any moment since 1968 if American democracy was fundamentally threatened, or if the core DNA that defines who we are as a people, as a nation, was threatened with essential alteration. Until 2020. I vividly remember my thoughts and feelings throughout 1968. I wonder, now, what my students are thinking and feeling as 2020 lurches forward?
Human history is mostly evolutionary in its nature, punctuated by moments of life-altering revolutions. Upheaval and unrest are the engine of radical change—both positive and negative—for humans and the societies they create. Solebury students are now witnesses to such upheaval and unrest. A global pandemic has altered everything about how we work, learn, travel, vacation, eat, gather, recreate, interact, and on and on. Layered over this global threat, centuries of systemic racism that was built into the very fabric of our nation at its birth is being challenged in ways no American has ever seen. The names of professional, college, and school sports teams are being changed. The names of schools and colleges are being replaced. Monuments are being removed. The Black Lives Matters movement has focused the nation on its past, present, and its future. Will this be the time when we finally pivot away from systemic racism?
Every day Solebury students are confronted with a nation more divided than at any time since 1860 or 1968, observing a political system incapable of unifying our nation, or offering its people leadership, in the face of a pandemic and a powerful movement for racial equality. Indeed, at the highest levels one of the foundational pillars of our democracy—the peaceful transfer of power—is being questioned and challenged.
If upheaval and unrest and change permeate the atmosphere that envelops us in 2020, this air is also laced with hope. The young people who populate Solebury School are the most accepting, inclusive, open-minded students I have worked with during my forty-five years in education. They give me hope; they are the future. The BLM movement may just be the thin end of the wedge that finally blows open the door and unleashes a fierce wind that blows through our society and roots out systemic racism from our many institutions, putting us firmly on the path of real change for all Americans. The pandemic has brought into high relief the fundamental divide between haves and have-nots in our society. With this knowledge that we can no longer ignore, or bury, will we now choose to create a society where opportunities abound for all, and not just a few?
I have long held fast to the belief, the hope, that the root of all progress we as a species have made, and will ever make, is education. As I write these words we are 41 days away from the scheduled beginning of classes for the 2020-21 school year. We are four months and a few days hence from March 12th...the date our universe at Solebury was turned upside down by Covid-19. And yet, despite the upheaval, the unrest, and the change in our daily lives, Solebury’s effort to deliver a high-quality education and sustain our community persevered. Whatever the virus holds for us on the opening day of class, September 10, we will continue to offer this robust education and nurturing community.
Upheaval, unrest, and change are undoubtedly never going to be absent from the human experience. Education cannot take a break either.