1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
Good morning. And a warm welcome to the 2019-2020 academic year at St. Albans School. My name is Jason Robinson, and it is my privilege to serve as the eighth Headmaster of St. Albans School. By tradition, we begin each school year by gathering as a community in this sacred space, the Washington National Cathedral, a symbol of our school’s and our nation’s shared spiritual, moral, and civic life. Even though it is only my second year at St. Albans, I am reminded each day of the rare and special privilege it is to educate these extraordinary young men in the shadow of this magnificent structure—and to begin each school year by gathering here, as generations of St. Albans students and families have done before, to reaffirm the moral and spiritual commitments that bind us together as a community. What a blessing it is to be part of this history—to feel the presence of the past and the promise of the future in our midst. And how can one not feel inspired when observing the tender and poignant ritual that just unfolded before us—watching our oldest students, our seniors, take the hands of our youngest students, our C Formers, and walk them into the National Cathedral. I spoke often last year of my vision for a “moral” rather than a tribal understanding of brotherhood—a brotherhood abounding in love, a brotherhood of care, conscience and civility. As you have seen this morning—and as you will see throughout your years at St. Albans—we call our young men here to walk a higher path, to embrace our common humanity, to view empathy not as a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. We see the best in these young men and insist that they see the best in themselves, encouraging them, as it says in our Reading today from Phillipians, to live in humility, compassion, and sympathy; to lift up others into our embrace; to build a community of love and grace committed to ideals larger than oneself.
So on this first day of school, with a full heart and a deep sense of optimism about the year ahead of us, I extend a heartfelt welcome to all of you. I want to say a special welcome to our new Board members, our new faculty and staff, and especially to our new students. Whether you are a new C Former or are coming to St. Albans for the first time in a different Form, know how excited we are to have you with us, how deeply we believe in you, and how much your gifts and contributions will enrich our community.
I was new to St. Albans last year as well. So I remember the complex mixture of emotions you are feeling, as new students and as new families—excitement, gratitude, anticipation, but perhaps a measure of anxiety as well.
I’ve found over many years of being an education that the question most on the minds of students at the beginning of a new year is: Will I fit in? Will I find success and a sense of belonging?
For families, the most pressing question is often: Will my son be safe in this school where I have placed my faith and trust?
I want to talk this morning—not just to new students and families but to our entire community—about how we attempt to answer both of these questions, and how we at St. Albans think about the purpose of education.
To students wondering “Will I fit in?; “Will I find success?”; and “What does St. Albans expect of me”; let me say that we are a school of excellence—a place of very high standards and expectations where much will be asked of you. But we are also a deeply supportive, caring community. We will be with you every step of the way, encouraging you, supporting you, and helping you discover parts of yourself you can only now begin to understand. You will achieve great things here academically, athletically, and artistically. But our ultimate concern is who you are becoming as a person and the qualities of character you develop during your time here. It is this—the transformation of your vision, values, and character—and the cultivation of your full humanity that is the promise of a St. Albans education.
One of the great joys of spending each day with young men as talented as those who attend St. Albans is being in the presence of their curiosity, diversity of interests, and wide-ranging intellectual ambitions. But we all know that our boys are growing up in an age of increasing specialization, where they feel pressure from a very young age to focus on one subject, one sport, one instrument, one career trajectory. While not unmindful of the changes being wrought by specialization, St. Albans has always prided itself on being a counter-cultural institution. We believe boys reach their fullest potential—academically, athletically, ethically, and humanly—by being in an environment that exposes them to many different ideas, perspectives and experiences. We resist one-dimensional ways of thinking about education, our boys, and the world they will inhabit. And we believe the breadth of perspective we give them—and the freedom to cultivate the fullest range of their humanity—is the best investment in their future well-being and the best preparation for the world they will inhabit. These commitments have always been at the heart of our mission; and they seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance with the publication of a widely-read book last spring entitled “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” (made famous by the opening chapter’s discussion of the contrasting approaches to excellence embodied by Tiger Woods and Roger Federer). Like all books worth reading, it has engendered debate and disagreement. But I found within it an affirmation of what St. Albans has always sought to accomplish on behalf of our boys—and a reminder that our philosophy of education, far from being anachronistic, has enduring relevance to the lives our boys will lead.
So I say to all of our students assembled today, give yourself time. Work hard, but do not be in a rush to have it all figured out. A member of last year’s graduating class gave a Homily I will never forget. In it he quoted these lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may become. God be at your table.”
Not knowing who you will become during your time here is a gift to be embraced, as it will allow you to experience the transforming grace at the heart of a St. Albans education. In our sacred spaces and rituals of chapel, the refectory, and the classroom, we will help you find yourself and your calling, drawing you into a communion with the fundamental questions at the heart of our humanity: “Who am I? What do I believe? Who will I become? What gives life meaning and significance? And how can I use the privilege of my education to serve causes larger than myself?”
We do not claim to have all the answers. But as an Episcopal school, we try to surround our boys with a sense that something of deep and profound importance is at stake in their lives and their education. The author, Jon Meacham, who recently wrote a book called “Songs of America” with the country music singer, Tim McGraw, describes this as the “ambient reality” he recalls from his own days as a student in an Episcopal School. To this day, each time he hears “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”—a staple in Episcopal school services—he is transported back to his days as a student and the sense that something of transcendent importance was happening through his education. As our boys struggle with the great questions of life, the ambient reality we create in Episcopal schools—through the sounds, symbols, customs and rituals in our sacred spaces—gives boys the sense of being part of something larger than themselves, as they are open their hearts to finding their purpose and calling in life. Through the changes and challenges they face, we try each day to give them a sustaining faith that, as Paul says in Romans 8, “all things work together for those who are called according to God’s purposes—and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
To parents wondering “Will my son be safe in this new school where I have placed my trust?”, the safety, well-being, and flourishing of our students is our most sacred obligation: a principle that was the foundation of the investigation we conducted last year and that informs all of our work at St. Albans. And yet, the notion of schools as “safe spaces”—and the additional claims that are often gathered under this heading—have become controversial within education and our broader society, with adherents claiming that schools need to exile not just physical threats to student safety but also ideas and opinions that create emotional discomfort and critics arguing that this entangles schools in a program of thought regulation antithetical to the mission of an educational institution based on freedom of speech, exposure to a plurality of opposing viewpoints, and the cultivation of resilient students prepared for life as citizens in a complex world where they will routinely encounter ideas different from their own.
As in so many other areas, our Episcopal identity gives us a way to reframe this debate and see it from a broader perspective. Dan Heischman, former Upper School Head at St. Albans and now the President of the National Association of Episcopal Schools, observes that “the very need for such a safe space tells us something about what we lack in our larger culture—a degree of commitment to one another, a higher regard for the other that goes beyond mere tolerance. Perhaps we need something more than a safe space in our schools. To be sure, safe spaces assure that people can feel free from harm. But is that enough for Episcopal schools?”
Heischman quotes John Sexton, the former President of New York University, who believes there is an important difference between a “safe space” and a “sacred space.” All schools care deeply about the safety of their students. But schools that embrace the idea of being a “sacred space” ask more of their students. In a sacred space, according to Sexton, “the citizens of the community make a commitment to one another” that goes beyond the freedom from harm. In sacred spaces, each member of the community embraces the inherent dignity of every other member of the community as a being of infinite worth—as a child of God, as a fellow seeker of truth or, as we often say at St. Albans, as a “brother.” We not only protect and care for one another. We challenge each other, and ourselves, and know that this struggle, this journey, unfolds within a sacred commitment to truth, integrity, civility, and our common humanity.
The idea of schools as “sacred spaces” comes naturally to Epsicopal Schools and has always been central to our work at St. Albans. As Dan Heischman observes, “we have the good fortune [in Episcopal Schools] of being able to talk about the sacred without feeling clumsy or coming across as dogmatic . . .At its foundations, sacred space is where things are different, where the divine and the human intersect, and where we can experience our humanity in a redemptive context. When, as a school community, we enter the sacred space of making a commitment to each other, we enter into that different level, viewing each other as being of infinite worth. In that way, we have gone far beyond being a safe space: we have incorporated that notion of safety into a much wider and more powerful framework.”
This past June, at the end of my first year as Headmaster of St. Albans, I had the privilege of attending a farewell celebration for an extraordinary man who was retiring after 43 years of service to the Cathedral Close community. He said the following about what this community and its sacred spaces have meant to him and his family:
My family is non-native to this area. But for more than half of our lives here we have been warmly welcomed and then connected, in one way or another, to the wonderfully diverse activities located on this Holy close…
For 43 years we have been blessed by the deeply inspiring proclamations of faith issuing forth broadly from the schools, the Cathedral and St. Alban’s parish. And for 43 years we have been privileged to know and learn from this beloved community of God’s people as they have struggled to create a climate of humility, diligence, justice, generosity and love … and to create a safe and spirit filled home for people of every faith and every belief. Two of our grandchildren have been nurtured and transformed at NCS and STA where these values are held up to the highest level of expectation. So my family’s spiritual and intellectual withdrawals from these holy precincts have been beyond all understanding.
This place is an essential source of light and hope in a broken world … a world that the institutions here more properly and steadfastly insist is full of God’s promise. My time as a trustee is over but thankfully my family’s life on the close is not. From the bottom of my heart thank you.
Finally I offer this prayer about the work of this Foundation:
“Thanks be to God for ALL that you have been, and for ALL that you are now, and for ALL that you will be in the future—faithful to the service of God’s Kingdom.” It’s been an honor for me to have been with you for this pilgrimage.
As I begin my second year at St. Albans, I too am filled with a deep love for this place and for all of you—for the privilege of travelling this journey together—for the honor of belonging to a community that is an essential source of light and hope in a broken world – but a world that we steadfastly insist is full of God’s promise.
I see this promise each day in the remarkable young men we are blessed to educate, as we live in the grace that God has bestowed upon this community. These boys are the reason for our work and the source of our greatest pride and joy. Never forget, gentlemen, how much you and your choices matter, and how much we love you and believe in you. The future of this blessed school is now in your hands. This is your time and your moment. May God be at our table.