Early on in the abrupt transition to Virtual Graland, while we all teetered with the sudden impact of the coronavirus, I once again realized how the nature of our purpose as a school was deeply interdependent. All members of our community—parents, guardians, teachers, staff, and administrators—had to come together to support children in their intellectual and social-emotional growth. We had to strive to sustain each other with compassion, understanding, and grace. Though at times our community was strained in the midst of the challenge, overall I was thankful that we had followed our guiding principle, Build Community, and focused so intentionally on fostering “an inclusive culture of collaboration and camaraderie” by enhancing a sense of belonging for all.
As we now confront a school year that will be unlike any in the school’s history, our community will once again be tested by the effect of COVID-19, societal unrest over racial injustice, and political division exacerbated by an election year. We will need to continually remember the interdependence of our community—we must strive to support each other and embrace solidarity over division. Over the past three years we have focused on three themes: innovation, inspiration, and inclusivity. Now, to sustain One Graland, we must deepen our perspective on one of those themes by exploring three attributes that relate directly to inclusivity--inquiry, critical thinking, and compassion.
True inclusivity begins with inquiry, a commitment to understand yourself, others, and the world. It is rooted in the same principles that guide any intellectual pursuit--curiosity and critical thinking--and therefore aligns with the pursuit of intellectual excellence and strong character. Our guiding principle, Honor Individuality, states: “Graland students learn to value individual differences and divergent thinking. As they grow, they seek inclusiveness and justice in a multi-faceted and diverse world.” Seeking to understand ourselves and the diverse opinions of others can bring us together, even as we approach this contentious election. Earlier this year, in a diversity training for both teachers and parents, Oscar Gonzalez, Director of Equity and Inclusivity, talked about the traits of compassionate curiosity--listening, asking questions without judgment, empathizing, and genuinely seeking to understand.
In Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” he describes how most of our convictions come from both the emotional and the rational. He uses the analogy of the elephant and the rider to explain that our emotions are big and unwieldy like an elephant, and often our rational mind serves the elephant like a lawyer works for a client, trying to defend every emotional reaction with a well-thought-out argument, crystalizing our opinions and making us more resistant to ideas which may differ from our own. He proposes that we should train our minds to be more like a scientist using our intellect “to figure out the truth, the real truth of who did what and why, rather than using all that brainpower just to find evidence in support of what [we] wanted to believe.” This pursuit of truth is an important antidote to the highly emotional, political polarization that pervades our nation today.
Through inquiry, we open our minds and strive to understand. After inquiry launches our journey of understanding, critical thinking helps us navigate it with independence and integrity. Our guiding principle, Guide Critical Thinking, describes the important role of the teacher to facilitate a learning environment in which “Graland students experience the joy that begins with curiosity and grows with the pursuit of their own interests and passions.” By establishing a curriculum devoted to inquiry, teachers promote students exploring their own opinions and guide them to support those opinions with substantive evidence. Though this may look different at different grade levels, students experience the autonomy to pursue their own thinking and express it clearly and convincingly. Inquiry leads them to explore ideas and test those ideas under the scrutiny of critical thinking, all helping to expand their autonomous intellectual growth.
In another book by Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind” (co-written with Greg Lukianoff), he again returns to the rider and elephant analogy, this time emphasizing the importance of scholarship: “As scholars challenge one another within a community that shares norms of evidence and argumentation and that holds one another accountable for good reasoning, claims get refined, theories gain nuance, and our understanding of truth advances.” Though Haidt is most focused on higher education, his commitment to scholarship echoes our mission to pursue intellectual excellence, a pursuit that can occur at any age. That mission, in combination with the guiding principles, Honor Individuality and Guide Critical Thinking, ensures that at Graland we follow inquiry not ideology in our teaching methods, relying more on questions than statements and ensuring that we foster intellectual independence in our students.
While developing critical thinking can hone the mind and sharpen the intellect, cultivating compassion helps develop a deeper understanding, a wisdom that lies at the convergence of the intellectual and the social-emotional. The principle, Cultivating Compassion, states, “Graland believes that learning is enhanced when those in its community care for each other. Empathy is the basis of understanding in an interdependent world, and with the guidance and support of the adult community, Graland students grow in insight and gain a global perspective and life-long commitment to service.” Compassion is at the heart of another guiding element of our mission, and this principle helps us fulfill our purpose to prepare engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders.
As I mentioned in a letter to the community last June, unlike empathy, compassion demands action. Empathy is introspective and centers on understanding the experience of others, whereas compassion is empathy in action and inspires individuals to serve those in need. While we navigate this challenging time, we should act to make Graland an even more inclusive community, one that seeks to understand difference through compassionate curiosity. By striving to enhance the sense of belonging for all, we will come to embrace our interdependence. As David Brooks writes in his book “The Road to Character,” “There’s joy in a life filled with interdependence with others, in a life filled with gratitude, reverence, and admiration. […] There’s joy in that feeling of acceptance.” That feeling of joy is now more important than ever, and it will take each of us—the adults and the children in our community—developing the inquiry, critical thinking, and compassion necessary to deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world. Through that understanding, we will acknowledge our shared humanity and act in a manner that respects and includes others, no matter our differences.
Josh Cobb became the Head of School at Graland in 2017 after more than a decade in other roles such as Head of Middle School and English teacher. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Middlebury College and a second master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Mr. Cobb’s goals focus around innovation, inspiration, and inclusivity and he is committed to the success of all students, faculty, and staff at Graland.