What is Education For?

Joe Harvey, Head of School

The opening of the new school year calls us to reflect: What present and future are we preparing our students for? What challenges and opportunities will they face in their lifetimes? How will they use all they learn here to act--to lead--in facing challenge and opportunity alike? Indeed, how will they turn challenge into opportunity?

Thinking back over the summer, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing captured my family's imagination. It was an unexpected pleasure; a number of interesting commemorative programs coincided with the chance summer offers to take a breath, read more, and widen our perspective.

One of the highlights for me was a Boston public television program on President Kennedy's 1962 speech at Rice University.

Three elements of President Kennedy's approach stood out to me as particularly emblematic of his leadership. First, he acknowledged that the United States was not leading in manned space flight. "To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight," said President Kennedy in his speech. "But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead." To be clear about where the U.S. stood in its efforts and then to set an ambitious--even audacious--goal revealed a faith in acknowledging the truth and calling us to set a goal together. It was not uncontroversial; it was not apolitical--but it was bold, and called the nation to a lofty collective goal.

Second, President Kennedy sought to frame this effort as an international one, and believed that we had the power to shape space exploration as a peaceful effort. He even extended a hand to the Premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, to work together as two nations in achieving the moon landing. A bit more from the Rice University speech: "...the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people...only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war."

Finally, he called the nation to a goal that he knew would challenge us. "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

What an inspiring call to action. We might acknowledge the rhetorical devices that President Kennedy utilized and still be inspired by the call, and the achievement that the Apollo 11 effort represents.

It's impossible to listen to the Rice University speech, to consider the efforts made to achieve the audacious goal of landing humans on the moon, without considering what we are called to face today.

For me, the challenge that comes to mind most readily is closer to home: global climate change. Through our use of natural resources, we have taken over the climate of the world, and the ecosystem and humanitarian impacts are immense and innumerable. The scientific community is remarkably united: Together as a global human population we must rapidly slow and then reverse the stream of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, find a way to use fresh water sustainably, and create resilient systems for protecting people and our ecosystems around the globe.

Here at Mark Day School, we help students build the skills and understanding that they will need to face this challenge. Our interdisciplinary approach to eco-literacy is one way, and I encourage you to look at the goals of that program to understand where we are aiming with our students. I am writing from the school's first LEED Platinum and Net Zero Energy certified building, the Learning Commons and Creativity Lab. Our solar array generates enough electricity to power the entire campus on many days, and even to feed back into the electrical grid. Our students study the soil, learn to be organic gardeners, participate in the no-waste lunch program, and more. Just as important, they learn the math and science skills to understand complex systems. They learn to use their voices, to create compelling messages across many different media in our award-winning Media & Information Literacy program. They learn how the U.S. government functions so that they are prepared to be active and influential citizens. They learn to form strong partnerships across the world, to use their SEL skills to connect with others. During our opening meetings, our faculty heard from a prominent climate scientist from the University of Hawaii, Dr. Charles Fletcher, and will continue to develop our program. Those are just a few of the ways that we as a school are making progress in this area, and more to come.

There is no way to achieve this on one's own--we must unite if we hope to achieve this greater goal. We are called today to choose to address and to solve the challenge of climate change together. To paraphrase President Kennedy, we are called to accept this challenge, to make it one we are unwilling to postpone, and to make it one we intend to win.