Headmaster Jason Robinson delivered this speech to the parent community at the Parent Dinners this spring.
Good evening. And what a joy it is to be back together again for our parent dinner, a beloved St. Albans tradition that, like so much else in the world, has been disrupted by the pandemic over the past two years. If the time since March of 2020 has been a season of discontent, the past month has felt like a glorious restoration—with the return of seated, family-style meals in the refectory, in person chapel in the Little Sanctuary, breakfast, full athletic and artistic programming, and the elimination of the mask mandate in D.C. before spring break. How wonderful it has been to hear our hallways again filled with happy, exuberant boys—and a school rediscovering itself, its joys, its confidence, and its traditions.
So much of what I want to do this evening is honor and celebrate all that we have done to put St. Albans back together after the challenges of the past two years—and to express gratitude for all the ways you families have supported us and kept faith with us. A parent recently stopped me and said, in a beautiful phrase: “Thank you for the togetherness.” I thought it had a wonderful double meaning—“together” in the sense that we are, at long last, holding events in person and enjoying reconnecting with one another; but also “together” in the sense of “wholeness”—the sense that our traditions and rituals are now repaired and restored, “put back together again.” And I want to thank all of you as families for the way you helped me, my team, and the faculty accomplish this after the challenges of the past two years.
What a journey we have traveled since then. We have all experienced and endured so much. It is difficult to get one’s head around the totality of it. As much as we celebrate all we have been able to restore to the boys, we are still very much making sense of all that we have lived through during these past two tumultuous years.
A great deal of the unease and disruption in our boys’ lives is of course related to the covid-19 pandemic, which was profoundly difficult in epidemiological terms, but which also made other challenges feel more acute, more intense, more intractable.
As we reflect on the past two years, it is natural to ask ourselves:
What did we learn?
How did it change us—as parents and educators?
And perhaps most importantly, how have we tried to ensure that the events of the past two years did not change what is most important to us about St. Albans?
I’d like to offer some reflections on these questions by sharing a story.
I was recently in Boston for a gathering of boys school leaders; and the guest speaker at our event was Randy Kennedy ’73, now a prolific author and Harvard Law professor. At the very beginning of his talk, Prof. Kennedy reflected on the institutions and experiences that had been most important to his personal and intellectual development. He went to college at Princeton, was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, then attended Yale Law School, and has spent the past four decades teaching at Harvard Law School. But he said that when he looks back at his life, the one institution that meant the most to him—that shaped and influenced him far more than any other—was St. Albans.
He then talked about the influence of his teachers here and listed several by name, many of whose names appear on these refectory walls. He shared stories of how they inspired him, guided him, challenged him, made him feel part of something truly special. He says that whenever he teaches a class at Harvard Law or begins writing a book, the first individuals he thinks of are his St. Albans teachers—with his history teacher and our sixth headmaster, Jack McCune, as someone he remembers with particular fondness and a sense of intellectual gratitude.
So here was this beautiful and inspiring statement from one of our most accomplished alumni about all that is good and noble about St. Albans, all that it has meant to so many generations of men, all that remains worth fighting for, all that continues to echo today in the experiences of our boys—a statement of confidence in the enduring meaning and vitality of our school.
But as Prof. Kennedy’s talk continued, it turned a bit more melancholy. He spoke as a teacher, as a parent of two boys, and as a citizen about how challenging the recent past has been, especially the past two to three years. He said he could not imagine a more challenging time to be a parent, an educator, or a school leader.
From divisions over covid-19 to cancel culture, from climate change to critical race theory, through instability and incivility, rancor and recriminations, virtue signaling and new covid variants, from domestic crises to international crises, these have not been easy times. There’s even a phrase—doomscrolling—that somehow captures the zeitgeist our boys are facing, as we scroll through our news feeds and struggle to process all that our lives hold.
In Prof. Kennedy’s wonderful recent book, he begins with a chapter called “Optimism and Pessimism” that reflects on optimistic and pessimistic strains in American life and thought.
In this great debate, Prof. Kennedy has always aligned himself with the optimistic camp. Yes, there have been profound challenges, injustices, and periods of adversity; but in the end, the basic premises of our society, while imperfectly realized, remain good and hopeful ones, with the direction of history growing towards a fuller realization of the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the ideal of human dignity. No one expressed this view more powerfully than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
But in the last few years, Prof. Kennedy says, for the first time in his life he has felt an unease, a sense of unsettledness that he struggles with, and that he suspects parents, teachers, and students struggle with as well.
In Professor Kennedy’s words: “I used to be a quite confident optimist. I am not any longer. I’m still in the optimistic camp—I do think that we shall overcome—but I’m uneasy. I’m uneasy in a way that was simply not the case, let’s say, ten years ago.”
What I’d like to do is talk about the juxtaposition of these two perspectives: On one hand, Prof. Kennedy’s confident and inspiring celebration of St. Albans as the most important formative experience in his life. And then on the other hand, the unease he is experiencing about the world that our boys are growing up in today: the sense of remaining optimistic, but having to work at it more than in the past—and holding that optimism more provisionally, with more tentativeness, with less confidence.
I would like to offer some reflections in response to this duality.
I want to celebrate all we have achieved, to claim the well-deserved sense of satisfaction in seeing our boys restored to their school and their former routines, to celebrate all that remains good and noble about St. Albans—and to recognize that even as this process of restoration and renormalization continues to unfold, we are educating and parenting boys at an unsettled and confusing moment in the world—at a moment when the world isn’t what we thought it was, when our confidence has been shaken, when we hold on to optimism but with less confidence than we used to, with more of a fragile, doubt-filled faith.
One writer I encountered recently said that it feels like our society has lost confidence in itself.
You as families want to be sure St. Albans does not lose confidence in itself.
So often in the past two years, you have reached out to me in response to the pandemic, the cultural turbulence and polarization of our times, the increasing prevalence of domestic and international instability. Sometimes you want to know what the school is doing to help our boys engage with these challenging topics in meaningful ways. Sometimes you want to know what the school is going to do to protect and insulate your boys from tendencies in the world that you worry about. At other times, you just want to know if your son is going to be okay. And this is perhaps the question that most captures the spirit of our times: Is everything going to be okay?
At the opening Cathedral service in September, in chapel, at lunch, at alumni receptions, I’ve proposed that our work this year, as a school, is to restore and heal, to reestablish connections, to reclaim our traditions and restore the rhythm and rituals of community.
I’ve spoken of finding stability and stillness in our sacred spaces—and of St. Albans as a “still point in a turning world,” to borrow the wonderful phrase from T.S. Eliot.
Importantly, I’ve also argued that this stillness we find in our sacred spaces is not stagnation or passivity.
I have argued that St. Albans needs to find access points to engage with the great questions of our time. This idea has been central to my last two parent addresses and to so much of what I’ve written and spoken about and tried to advance during my tenure. The motto of St. Albans—For Church and For Country—reminds us that we are called to be an outward-facing institution devoted to ideals larger than ourselves. As a school located beside the Washington National Cathedral and overlooking the nation’s capital, we all sense we are part of something larger—something that places moral, civic, and spiritual obligations upon us.
I am proud of the way we live these ideals. And I am so excited about the commitments in our strategic plan to do more with civics education, community service, and the enhancement of our community life—to imagine new programs and new opportunities for our boys.
But I have gradually come to see that there is something deeper and more profound at work at St. Albans that distinguishes us, that is ultimately at the heart of what makes this place so special, and that makes me feel so confident, so optimistic about our future.
It was true in Prof. Kennedy’s day, and it remains so today. It is why St. Albans continues to resonate in the lives of our alums and our boys as the most formative and powerful experience in their lives.
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 and formal programs 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 new programs and policies—and insisting that our boys take seriously certain fundamental questions and concerns—is an essential function of every school community. And at times, every school must “push” students to confront challenging issues, to think about difficult topics, to take up new questions and challenges, and to hold moral insights for them they are not yet ready to hold for themselves.
But when we are at our best, when we find what is truly most authentic about St. Albans, we are not telling students what to think or over-rotating in response to the latest crisis of the moment. Instead, we are modeling for them, in community—in togetherness—and through our traditions—lives of continual thinking and questioning, lives of conscience and purpose, lives of thoughtful engagement.
As Dan Heischman, director 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.”
All that we want for our boys—integrity, curiosity, engagement, compassion, leadership—flourishes when it arises out of that attraction.
Everything 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 that we then seek to make our own. We make our ideals not just intelligible to students, but inspiring, attractive—even beautiful—to them through the examples that we set, the traditions we cultivate, and the vision of community we call ourselves to uphold.
This, I have come to believe, is the magic of what happens in our sacred spaces, in our “togetherness”: the turning of the souls of our boys in the direction of the good, the true, and the beautiful: not through indoctrination or compulsion, not through enforced orthodoxy, but by providing a space and a set of rituals that enable our boys to enter into lives of moral, spiritual, and intellectual depth in authentically human ways. By surrounding them with rituals of meaning and togetherness—and gifted teachers who inspire in students the desire to lead lives of purpose, conscience, character, and curiosity.
Our boys are watching us, looking to us as examples, watching how we respond to the great disruptions of our time: the grace and equanimity we are able to summon—the largeness of heart and generosity of spirit with which we live—the way we model for them how to live with conscience and courage during uncertain times. It is by living in this way, more than anything we say, that we give our boys the reassurance that everything will indeed be okay: that there are enduring values and enduring truths worth fighting for, models of human excellence worth striving for that are always there, even in our darkest moments, if we have the courage to look for them and care for them.
And most of all, to protect the traditions and rituals of togetherness through which these ideals find their deepest meaning in the lives of our boys.
Thank you for the privilege of working with your sons. And may God continue to bless our school.