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Respectful Discourse

STA's Vision & Expectations for Respectful School Discourse

The Main Points We Hope to Convey in This Statement
  • As a classical liberal arts institution, St. Albans cares deeply about freedom of thought and inquiry. We value these freedoms because it is by entering into conversation that we learn — about ourselves, the basis for our beliefs, and what other people of thoughtfulness and goodwill who think differently have to say in response to us.
  • At St. Albans, students discover that respectful, meaningful discourse — the kind that makes our intellectual culture so vibrant and valuable — requires entering a conversation larger than ourselves. All serious thinking begins with an act of listening. As our students engage in discussion, we ask them to do so with a commitment to viewing others as equal partners and collaborators in learning, whose ideas, perspectives, and humanity matter to them, as they do to us.
  • We welcome speech that respectfully advances learning and conversation about complex social and cultural issues where people of goodwill often disagree. Our students learn how to engage thoughtfully with multiple viewpoints; to understand the perspectives of others who think differently; and to construct and critique their own beliefs. Students also learn that disagreements about ideas and issues can make us uncomfortable without being expressions of hate.
  • Hateful, demeaning speech is fundamentally at odds with the type of school community we aspire to be. It makes others question their sense of belonging in our community of learning, makes it more difficult for them to engage meaningfully in community and conversation, and makes it impossible for us to sustain a culture of open, respectful discourse.
  • We want students to be thoughtful, not fearful, when they speak. We help them learn how to engage in respectful discourse by asking them to reflect on two questions: Does this type of speech contribute to learning or interfere with learning? Is this type of speech consistent with our Episcopal values or does it run counter to those values?
  • As we navigate difference and disagreement, conflicts and misunderstandings will occur. Grace and healing are important in these moments, but the work of restoring relationships cannot fall primarily on those who have been hurt. Grace is not a moment of simple absolution, but a process of earning a deeper form of togetherness, one that makes us worthy of our highest ideals.
Our goal in writing this statement is to articulate a set of values, commitments, and expectations governing respectful discourse that are fundamental to our mission at St. Albans. As an academic community grounded in the liberal arts tradition, we believe that the free and vigorous exchange of ideas promotes the intellectual growth of our students and prepares them for life in a complex, diverse society where citizens often disagree on matters of fundamental importance. As a moral community grounded in the spiritual principle, deeply rooted in our Episcopal identity, that all humans are entitled to equal dignity and respect, we believe that discussion and disagreement must always take place within a context that affirms the humanity of every person. When we hold ourselves accountable to a covenant based on both of these ideals, we get to live and learn in the type of community we all want to inhabit: one defined by robust intellectual engagement and deep personal belonging, vigorous inquiry and respect for the dignity of others.

In the broader culture, rancorous debates about “free speech” and “hate speech” often lead to distortion and caricature, which impede a meaningful, nuanced engagement with these issues as they arise in the life of our community. Our goal in this document is to share with our students how we approach these questions and what our responsibilities are when it comes to both freedom of expression and forms of expression that run counter to our Episcopal values and the type of learning community we aspire to be.

The Principles that Define Respectful Discourse at St. Albans
We are an aspirational community that recognizes our work in nurturing civil discourse is never finished. For this reason, we believe there is value in regularly renewing and holding ourselves accountable to the principles we espouse. In the case of speech at our school, we seek to ensure that every member of our community understands what we believe, the moral basis for our convictions, and the standards by which we expect our students to live.

Covered in this document are:
  • Free Expression at St. Albans
  • Our Position on Hateful, Demeaning Speech
  • St. Albans’ Educational Responsibilities
  • The Role of Grace and Forgiveness
  • Principles and Practices of Respectful Discourse
Everything at St. Albans begins with our mission and values. Our school, however, exists in a broader landscape of social and cultural challenges that inevitably affect our work. Like many institutions of learning, we are trying to discern a thoughtful path forward during an age of immense complexity and alarming polarization about issues of fundamental importance. A particular challenge afflicting educational institutions involves the acrimonious debate about how schools manage controversies among their students, faculties, and families about freedom of speech and efforts to promote more inclusive school environments. These conflicts frequently divide communities about free speech and hate speech, safe spaces and cancel culture, diversity and campus orthodoxy.

Drawing on our mission and values, we seek to approach these questions in a way that is always true to who we are as a school. Here, we see our guiding principles of intellectual freedom and respect for others as part of a larger unity, bound together by the conviction that love of knowledge and love for others are sacred obligations that rest on the same moral, spiritual, and covenantal foundation. At St. Albans, we aspire to live in the grace of these two forms of love, to create a community that is, in the words of our strategic plan, a “sacred space for all.”

Any serious discussion about how we honor our commitment to these ideals must acknowledge both the luminous nature of our mission and the ways in which we have at times failed to live up to our school’s highest aspirations. As proud as we are of our history, we recognize that it is one of both inclusion and exclusion, of extraordinary moral leadership and moral imperfection. While incivility and disrespectful speech are not pervasive problems at St. Albans, they are not absent from our history, including our recent history. If we as a community thoughtfully engage with our history and our current school culture, and commit to working with humility and generosity of spirit, we can earn a deeper form of togetherness, one based on care, conscience, and civility, one that makes us worthy of our highest ideals.

Free Expression in the Life of St. Albans
A fundamental precept of a St. Albans education is that we do not tell students what to think but encourage them to think, inviting them into a life of continual questioning. The type of student we seek to cultivate — one who thinks deeply, questions courageously, and delights in academic engagement — naturally develops a love of intellectual independence and a belief, to quote former University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, that “education should not be a sanctuary for comfort but rather a crucible for confronting complex ideas.”

As students begin to think more deeply about their own thinking — and about the freedom of thought and expression which makes it possible — they naturally become curious about the idea of free speech itself, the role it plays in their education and in society at large, and how individual freedom coexists in complex ways with obligations to others and to the moral communities we inhabit.

Students at St. Albans learn that “free speech,” as a strictly legal matter under the U.S. Constitution, does not create an absolute, unfettered right to say whatever one wants without consequence, but does protect a wide range of expression from state regulation. Students also come to understand that liberal arts institutions such as ours have historically endeavored to create an environment that encourages freedom of thought, expression, and inquiry, as reflections of their educational missions and their role as institutions of learning in preparing citizens for lives of thoughtfulness and discernment in a free society.

As students mature and grow, they come to realize that the intellectual freedom schools like St. Albans afford them does not exist for the sake of itself or without regard for how students use this freedom, but instead rests on deeper moral and intellectual foundations. Our students know that we value freedom of thought and expression because it is by entering into conversation that we learn — about ourselves, the basis for our beliefs, and what other people of thoughtfulness and goodwill who think differently have to say in response to us.

Creating and sustaining this type of intellectual community — where conversation leads to deep engagement, nuanced discussion, and the ability to understand perspectives different from our own — requires effort and has become a counter-cultural undertaking for educational institutions. Outside of school, students often encounter impoverished notions of freedom in popular and political culture, where the idea of “free speech” presents itself in adversarial, one-dimensional forms. This tendency is often exacerbated by algorithmically driven online debates designed to magnify vitriol and resentment, trapping us in information silos rather than offering us models of healthy, mature discourse based on nuance and complexity.

At St. Albans, students learn that respectful, meaningful discourse — the kind that makes our intellectual culture at St. Albans so vibrant and valuable — requires entering a conversation larger than ourselves. All serious thinking begins with an act of listening. As our students engage in discussion, we ask them to do so with a commitment to viewing others as equal partners and collaborators in learning, whose ideas, perspectives, and humanity matter to them, as they do to us. Civil discourse is an ongoing endeavor that requires working together in community to create relationships of trust, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit that make others willing to share their ideas freely and courageously with us.

Our Position on Hateful, Demeaning Speech
Speech that demeans and diminishes others has no place at St. Albans. The school’s unequivocal stance arises from two beliefs fundamental to our identity.

First, as an Episcopal school dedicated to the spiritual principle that all human beings have inherent worth and dignity, hateful speech is the antithesis of the values that make us who we are as a community. Demeaning and disparaging others is simply not what we do here. Membership in our community is anchored in respect for the principle that we will always treat others with the respect and dignity to which they are entitled. 

Second, as an academically rigorous institution committed to fostering robust, respectful intellectual discourse, we recognize that hateful, demeaning speech impairs learning. To fulfill our academic mission, everyone in our community must feel that their voice and opinions matter, that we are all equal collaborators in the process of learning and inquiry, that there is a foundation of trust and goodwill at the heart of all that we do. Demeaning others makes them question their place and their value in our community of learning, makes it more difficult for them to engage meaningfully in community and conversation, and makes it impossible for us to sustain a culture of open, respectful discourse.

St. Albans' Educational Responsibilities
We are responsible for helping our students fulfill our expectations and understand more deeply the reasons why they are important to us.

First, through our curriculum in classrooms, assemblies, chapels, and advisories, we seek to educate our students about both the great achievements of our human history and the ways in which our values and aspirations have been compromised by discriminatory attitudes, practices, and systems. We encourage our students to see what is good and noble in the past, while also engaging deeply with tragic episodes in history and the ways in which the problems of the past continue to affect our school and society today.

Through such encounters with the history of racism and discrimination, students acquire a context for understanding why speech that traffics in prejudicial stereotypes and assumptions about historically marginalized groups can cause so much hurt for members of our community today. Words are freighted with histories. And when we use such language, even without intent to harm, we place those on the receiving end of these words in a historical narrative defined by degradation and exclusion, rather than by dignity and belonging. Saying “I was just joking” or “I didn’t mean any harm” does not neutralize the history behind such words and thus does not take away the pain and impact caused by their utterance. At St. Albans, we do not teach this lesson as an ideological or politicized construct. We work hard to help our students understand the deep historical and educational reasons for our beliefs, so that our commitment to eliminating hate speech from our community resonates with them on an authentic human and relational level.

Second, when we educate students about appropriate and inappropriate uses of language in our community, we emphasize that we want them to be thoughtful when they speak, not fearful. We want them to understand where the lines are and why they have been drawn in this specific way in our school community. To do so, we encourage them to ask the following questions:
  • Does this type of speech contribute to learning or does it interfere with learning?
  • Is this type of speech consistent with our Episcopal values and identity? Or does it diminish our Episcopal values and identity?
Some cases will be clearly on one side of the line or the other. Subjecting a community member to abusive, degrading speech based on their race, religion, or personal identity neither contributes to learning nor honors our values. Respectfully expressing a heterodox, unpopular viewpoint on a societal, academic, or policy issue about which people can and do disagree contributes to learning and is consistent with our values.

In a large, pluralistic school community of almost 600 boys living and learning together across a broad developmental spectrum from 4th to 12th grade, there will of course be complex, context-dependent cases that cannot be decided in advance by reference to any simple formula. Judgement, nuance, and care will be required in these cases, rather than a categorical approach.

This can be particularly challenging because different people react to language in different ways in different contexts. And often when there is a conflict or breakdown in relationships arising from a contested use of language, the students involved may be tempted to seek recourse in one-sided arguments about “free speech” or “hate speech.”

A student invoking the notion of “free speech” needs to understand that neither the First Amendment, nor the mission of St. Albans, confers upon students an unfettered right to say whatever one wants without consequence or accountability. There is no such absolute right in any school community or in any society. Likewise, a student invoking the notion of “hate speech” needs to understand that, while some speech is indeed abusive and will be dealt with seriously by the school, not all expressions of disagreement or uses of language that make us uncomfortable are expressions of hate.

Rather than seeking to resolve complex cases by defaulting to one-dimensional constructs, and the political controversies that accompany them, we will work through these cases with care, nuance, sensitivity to context, and empathy. We want students who feel hurt by something another student said to feel empowered to speak up and seek support in cases where they feel unable to navigate the issue on their own. We also want them to learn how to give others a chance to clarify their comments and to create space for further conversation that may resolve misunderstandings. But when misunderstandings and conflicts arise, it is important that the responsibility not fall primarily on those who were hurt by a comment or utterance. If a student is told that something they said was hurtful or confusing, we expect that student to make a good faith effort to understand why, to listen empathetically, and to work with thoughtfulness and humility towards a resolution of the misunderstanding. We also expect families to embrace and amplify these lessons at home.

The Role of Grace and Forgiveness
As an institution rooted in a spiritual understanding of the human condition, we recognize that all of us are fallible, imperfect beings who make mistakes and fall short of the ideals to which we aspire. We also believe that an essential feature of the human condition is the need for grace and forgiveness. The fact that all of us fall short, however, does not mean we are not accountable or have no moral obligations when we make mistakes.

All of us at St. Albans are accountable to a covenantal understanding of the type of community we aspire to live and learn in together. When that covenant is broken, we have responsibilities to ourselves, to those whom we have hurt, and to the school community. Grace and forgiveness are part of this process, but not in the sense of a simple absolution that wipes everything away and returns us to business as usual. Grace needs to mean something more, needs to become the context in which we earn a deeper form of healing, humanity, and togetherness, where forgiveness is the space where we have a moral reckoning with ourselves and the consequences of our actions, where we renew and deepen our obligations to one another.

The 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that we may be able to compel others “to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but upon a pull.”

And so it has always been at St. Albans, where the moral and intellectual life we want our students to embody finds its truest and most meaningful expression less through codes of rules than when students are drawn or “pulled” to that life by the example that we as adults set for them, by the way we make living a life of character, conscience, and integrity attractive to them.

Creating and enforcing rules for student behavior is an essential function of every school community. And at times, every school must “push” students to comply with rules — and to hold moral insights for them they are not yet ready to hold for themselves.

But as Dan Heischman, president of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, observes: “Our standards, our rules, our expectations of students make no sense apart from the examples we set for them . . . the heart of the process is the way in which teachers—through their visible, accessible example of being compassionate and honorable people—offer something to students that makes the moral path alluring,” prompting students to say, “I want to be part of that moral life.”

This statement of our beliefs, like everything else we do at St. Albans, rests ultimately on that inspiring vision of education, created by our encounter with examples of moral and intellectual excellence that inspire and transform us, that earn our admiration and we then seek to make our own. We hope through this document to offer something of meaning to our community in this spirit, something that makes our ideals not just intelligible to students, but inspiring and attractive to them through the examples that we set and the vision of community we call ourselves to uphold.

Principles and Practices of Respectful Discourse
We seek to develop in our students the following habits and dispositions:
  • Listen before speaking. Reserve judgment and grow comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. Learn that listening thoughtfully to others and trying to understand why they hold their beliefs does not necessarily mean “endorsing” their viewpoint.
  • Practice intellectual humility and avoid moral certitude. Recognize that the most complex issues we confront — the ones that make for rich and rewarding intellectual conversation — do not have settled or self-evident answers.
  • Understand that viewpoints that challenge our beliefs and interests, even our most personal and deeply held ideals, are not necessarily expressions of animus towards us as individuals. Speech that makes us uncomfortable because it challenges an idea, position, or policy we believe in does not necessarily make us unsafe.
  • Learn to characterize the views of others in an honest, good-faith manner before stating your own opinion.
  • Express criticism to advance conversation, rather than to disrupt it. Share criticisms that deepen understanding, enlarge our perspective, and make others eager to respond to us, rather than to tear down or diminish the views of others.
  • State your views with an awareness that learning is an ongoing, never-ending endeavor — that our own views, however deeply held, exist in dialogue with many other views, that the world is complex, and that we are always part of an intellectual and moral conversation much larger than ourselves.
  • Learn how thoughtful discourse and disagreement occur in mature, sophisticated communities of learning, within norms and intellectual boundaries established by experts in a field of study. Develop the skills and dispositions needed to differentiate reliable from unreliable accounts of knowledge, to distinguish thoughtful voices (on many sides of complex questions) from voices of confusion, mendacity, and misinformation.
  • Recognize that learning and conversation are both intellectual and relational exercises. Pay attention not just to “arguments” others make but to the relationships among the people engaged in conversation. Consider how, through our tone and approach to discussion, we can make others feel that their opinions and experiences matter to us, that we see them as equal collaborators in the search for truth, wisdom, and understanding.

Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.