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Stories

Two Upper School students study on Jones Lawn in the warm weather.
As the end of the school year approaches, students enjoy the warm weather on Jones Lawn.

It has been a difficult and stressful year for many of us, both in and out of school. I want to thank you all for your trust in us and your partnership in creating the best learning experiences we can for your children. On top of the struggles to deal with the pandemic, this year has also seen a growing examination of who we are as individually and collectively, sparked by events that have shaken the nation.  At Riverdale, we’ve taken time for reflection and discussion about how we model and teach identity and belonging and that work has triggered some attention in the media.  I would like to share my thoughts with you at the end of the year, where we are, and where we are heading.

Mind, Character, Community

As a community, we have essential values and beliefs linked to our keywords of Mind, Character, and Community. They are the foundations of our community, and values and beliefs are often connected emotionally to our identity, our background, who we are. Beliefs and values can make us unique, but they can also bring us together. At Riverdale, our collective beliefs in caring for one another, fighting all forms of racism and bias while respecting others, and treating each other as family are paramount. No single person determines our collective values. No single opinion shapes the experience of our students. Ours is a communal pedagogy of caring. We care deeply about everyone in our community—and we know that people learn and think better when they know that they are cared for and feel a sense of belonging here at Riverdale. 

With hope and future clarity on the horizon, I do have faith that we can continue to foster deep thinking into our lives and work. Good thinking can be clouded by high emotions. I hope, as the pandemic wanes in the United States, we can find calmer footing in these still-volatile times. Deep thinking allows one, as Scott F. Fitzgerald wrote, “to hold two opposing ideas in the mind simultaneously.” And yet we live in a time where some people, often highly charged, aim to inhabit the poles and do not seek the dialogue that must live in the common ground. At Riverdale, however, we do humbly seek to co-exist and engage in critical discourse while firmly maintaining our community values and beliefs. 

Society’s polarization has led many people to lack intellectual humility—a capacity that Riverdale champions in its best moments. We should all ascribe to the phrase that Socrates reportedly said: “I neither know nor think that I know”; however, as did Socrates, we do seek to know something. I think it would be good if we could now resume the practice of thinking more deeply about all the things we care about at the school by declaring less and questioning more, by becoming less certain of our opinions and judgments thereby allowing us to learn more effectively, by engaging with different opinions and ideas, and by becoming more hypothetical, and, in doing so, more intellectually humble. 

Transformative Learning

Over the last decades due to the work of many of our constituents, our community has purposefully become more diverse in so many wonderful ways. This has been a key priority of the leadership of the school. Our work on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) and our Institutional Equity Plan chart a roadmap to foster belonging and critical discourse while striving to address the systemic issues of inequity, bias, and racism to ensure that Riverdale students, faculty/staff, families, and alumni feel seen, heard, and valued. This is work we all must commit while sharing our feedback, concerns, and questions. At Riverdale, we understand that this work must be iterative in order to be transformative. Educating for caring, respect, ad empathy is not a political act; it is a human act, performed in partnership with you all.

Indeed transformative learning is what Riverdale is all about. We want our students to learn well, to develop as human beings and cultivate evergreen humanistic values that we all, no matter our culture, background, or beliefs, can ascribe to, such as respect, caring, empathy, and courage that allow our students and alumni to “change the world for the good.” We want our students to be perennially curious, optimistically purposeful, and actively create a culture of belonging at the school. We try every day to create the conditions for this communal type of development and transformation for your children. We also want them to become their own people with their own unique gifts and personality. That is how Riverdale resolves this paradox between individual and community needs—we want our students to grow both as individuals and community members. 

This is not a simple endeavor in a world that has weaponized words and over-politicized much of what we do in education. Educating for caring, respect, and empathy is not a political act; it is a human act, performed in partnership with you all.  It is not a simple endeavor to craft this type of education without the world beyond our community, or even within our community, finding ways to undermine this imperfect and organic exercise with anecdotes and misrepresentation. We hope that, as we have been doing, we can have conversations within our community, forge fruitful ways forward, and learn well together.

A Dynamic Curriculum

Good learning indeed involves cognitive dissonance and provocation. Good learning requires a dynamism that is responsive to the needs of young people and the imperatives of our futures. It is often uncomfortable, and that discomfort is not something to save one’s children from, but to the contrary, through encouragement and reinforcement at home; it is a “desirable difficulty”. We also need to feel that discomfort when we look at our programs and curricula and realize in certain areas that they may not still be working as effectively as they once did. Our curriculum is always dynamic and shifting. Curricula through time have always evolved and changed. Luckily, the curricula studied in school by our grandchildren will be very different from that of our grandparents. And, in a country like ours, our work is to emancipate through good thinking, not to close down thought; it is to transform and liberate by trying to understand the future needs of our children, not to replicate our own experiences for them. 

Accordingly, it is good that our students consider their identity in reference to their origins and understand how the different elements of their identity form. Childhood and adolescence are when this begins to happen. It starts from the earliest ages as soon as one begins to form words and interact with other humans. To ignore this is to create more misunderstanding, more harm, and more division. This sense of identity is not supported and developed in one way or with one method, but in many different ways, both required and optional. If you look at this work across the divisions, you see this work being done in very gentle and thoughtful ways. It is not acceptable to demonize one race versus another. No one is propagandizing. We seek to raise everyone and raise every voice in our community through work in small groups, affinity spaces, and together as divisions or in grades. 

While we do that work, we also critique people’s thinking. Viewpoints and opinions are respected as long as they are supported with valid facts and evidence. At Riverdale, unlike much of our world, it is not accepted that people can express an opinion or judgment without valid evidence. That is essential to our mission. We appreciate different points of view if they are argued both objectively and rationally as we have proposed in our Statement on Campus Discourse. If we are to develop minds, it is natural that we focus on good argumentation even from the earliest ages. We want our students to become good thinkers who question rather than assert and empathically seek to understand in fair-minded ways different points of view. Our faculty members are experts in helping students learn to think and live well. They are also on their own learning journeys and seek to do their amazing work every day with both competence and humility. 

Finally, when you learn, you better understand the victories and defeats of human endeavor. You may feel exhilarated at times, while you also can experience negative thoughts at other times. That is normal. As a school, we do not seek to shame nor demonize anyone. One can feel pride in America and, at the same time, feel that the country is flawed. That does not undermine one’s patriotism. Our Founding Fathers were at once deeply optimistic and deeply skeptical about human nature. We can be critical of Riverdale and love Riverdale. That paradox is the strength of us, our nation, and at the heart of transformative learning, and as adults in our community, we need to model that paradoxical and fruitful intellectual behavior as much as we can. 

I appreciate you reading and engaging with this moment of reflection in these busy and sometimes fraught times. These ideas are as true today as when Frank Hackett founded the school in 1907. Thank you, too, for your good questions and your support. As always, I am interested in hearing your thoughts back, as we end one school year and plan for the next.