Good morning. And a warm welcome back to the 2023-24 school year at St. Albans School.
I hope your summers were restful and restorative, filled with the blessings of great books and good friends, wonderful adventures and quiet moments of reflection, time with family and time for oneself. These summer months are gifts to us all, one of the great blessings of life in a school community.
But the greatest blessing is the wonderful sense of renewal—of ourselves, of the boys, and of new horizons of possibility—that always greet us at the beginning of a new school year. My wife and I had the privilege of attending the International Boys’ School Coalition Conference over the summer, hosted by a wonderful boys school in Auckland, New Zealand. The theme of the conference was Dream Without Limits. And that captures some of what I hope all of us feel as we greet the beginning of the new school year, the sense of hope and possibility, the way we will help our boys grow beyond their limits to newly transformed selves. I am so looking forward to the new school year, especially in a blessed community such as this where we have the privilege of educating such extraordinary young men together in a community with such a luminous and inspiring mission.
And what a privilege it is to begin the new school year in this sacred space, the Washington National Cathedral, a symbol of our shared spiritual life, where each year we have our oldest boys, our Sixth Formers, walk into the Cathedral holding hands with our youngest boys, our C Formers.
Each September I have the honor of beginning the new school year with an opening homily. And I begin this morning’s homily and this school year with a confession: I have a conflicted relationship with modern technology. I’ve never had a social media account. And while I admire Dr. Schaffer’s selfies, I’m not sure I’d know how to post one myself. As a result, I sometimes feel disconnected from the mediums and platforms in which so much of our modern life is transacted, sounding more and more like the older person I am becoming, still living in an analog world.
I grumble about ads popping up on my screen when I’m trying to read the news online. I still ask what channel a sporting event or tv show is on. My experience with streaming services is a bit wobbly, though I have enjoyed Ted Lasso, Andor, and The Crown, except when the streaming service keeps asking me if I’d like to upgrade to another level of service or to purchase something I have no interest in or to join a loyalty bonus points program.
And I’m still coming to terms with what exactly a TikTok influencer is.
Sometimes I’ll be watching a baseball game—or the US Open tennis tournament over the past week— and if the commentators start talking about what an athlete posted on Twitter or how they are building their social media brand, I start grumbling that I just want to watch the ball game or tennis match. I wouldn’t want to go back to the 1970s, but I do sometimes look back with nostalgia to the late 1990s when, as one writer put it, there was “just enough internet,” just enough technology (Ross Douthat, The New York Times, April 6, 2019). Everything about the internet and our digitally connected world seemed new in a good way back then, before the sense of the new began to wear off and technology began to seem, at least to me, like something controlling and distorting our lives, rather than enriching it.
One of my children who is now out of college and works in the technology sector said to me, very lovingly, during one of my unsolicited commentaries about modern technology this past summer: “Dad, everyone is just trying to stay relevant. There’s so much competing for everyone’s attention. Everyone has to work to break through, to connect, to remain relevant. I don’t always like it either, but there is something about the shape of life today and the digital ecosystem in which we live that has led us to this.”
And the truth is, as an educator and school leader, I, too, think about this issue of relevance, wanting to deliver an education that connects with our boys’ lived experience in meaningful ways and prepares them for their futures. We are all invested in our boys leading “relevant” lives (if one doubts that, imagine an education dedicated to the goal of producing boys who will lead irrelevant lives, a proposition surely none of us would endorse).
But of course, everything turns on what we mean by relevant ... A truth that came back to me this summer through two stories, both about teachers and their relationships with students.
The first story is one I read. It was about a college professor who would welcome students back to class each fall, talk a bit about the new school year (as I know your teachers will do this morning), and the professor would then share with his students what he wanted them to achieve in the coming year, how he wanted them to learn and grow. He would conclude by quoting this wonderful line from the philosopher Simone Weil: “To be always relevant, we must speak eternal things.”
This is our challenge and our opportunity for the new school year: How to stay connected to this sense of relevance—to the enduring, the eternal, the immutable—in a world where relevance is too often attached to the new, the fleeting—the hot take rather than the “slow wisdom of eternal things,” as the great Anglican writer Tish Harrison Warren beautifully describes it (New York Times, March 12, 2023).
Which brings me to my second story, this one about one of my own former teachers, a college professor of mine who had a profound impact on the shape of my life. He was a professor of government and political philosophy; and he was also a great scholar of American literature and film, often using novels and movies as ways to teach us about the ideas and principles that have shaped the American identity. The classic American film Casablanca was one of the central “texts” in the course. After receiving a note from my former professor, I decided to watch Casablanca again. It was one of those experiences where you read a book or watch a movie you first saw years ago and are suddenly transported back to that moment in your life when you first encountered it. The film still spoke to me after all of these years, its depth and importance only increasing with the passage of time. The signature song from the move, “As Time Goes By,” captures this eternal truth that has always been at the heart of our vision of education at St. Albans: “The fundamental things apply as time goes by.”
My faculty colleagues and I spent a good deal of the summer and our time together in opening meetings last week talking about this theme in the context of one of the most significant developments we will face as educators in the coming year, perhaps in our entire careers. I am of course speaking of ChatGPT and generative artificial intelligence—how these disruptive technologies will change all of our lives and the lives of our boys—and how we as a school should be thinking about how to respond, whether to accommodate these changes, resist them, or something in between—and most of all, how to help our boys remain grounded in the eternal verities, the fundamental things that are at the core of our school’s mission during a time of disruptive change. We will have a good deal more to say about this in the coming year, knowing how important the topic is to our boys and families.
In thinking about how to begin the new school year against this backdrop of profound technological change, I kept wrestling with two thoughts over the summer that I’d like to share with you today.
First, while I was initially agnostic and skeptical about some of the more far-reaching claims made about generative AI when it was being rolled out this past winter, I have—after much reading and reflection this summer—come to believe we are at a fundamental inflection point with AI as a society. It is already a part of our boys’ lives and will increase in its pervasiveness as they enter college and their professional careers; we therefore need to engage thoughtfully with AI and to wrestle with its implications for our boys, knowing that their futures will be shaped in profound ways by these new technologies, in some ways that are positive, in some ways that are not, and in other ways we cannot now foresee. What we do know is that our boys’ success and flourishing will require them to cultivate and exercise “agency” in a world whose contours will be defined in great measure by generative artificial intelligence.
Second, while “agency” is indeed what we are seeking to cultivate in our boys, it is not agency for its own sake but agency in the service of a very particular goal, a moral vision. In the words of our school’s Philosophy Statement, we want boys “to understand and value their agency in a world that will benefit from their knowledge, compassion, and character.”
At a moment when artificial intelligence will become more and more a part of our lives, we must—as many scholars have noted—help our students distinguish between ethical and unethical uses of AI, to teach them how to use this technology in responsible and thoughtful ways. But I believe our most urgent task for our boys is even more fundamental: to help them cultivate the qualities that artificial intelligence cannot teach them: moral intelligence, emotional intelligence, knowledge, compassion, character, and wisdom—“the slow wisdom of eternal things” (Warren)— the fundamental things that apply as time goes by. AI must always serve our mission and our values, rather than us becoming servants of its logic, its agenda.
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus speaks of two different types of treasures. He warns us about the dangers of storing up “treasures on earth,” of having our identities tied too closely to things that are fleeting and mutable, things that consume us only to be consumed by rust and moths and thieves.
But then there are the “treasures in heaven”—the eternal treasures that cannot be taken away or diminished—the things that will always be there for us, as sources of hope and redemption.
So how do we keep our lives attached to these eternal treasures, resisting the false idols that distract us and consume us?
The writer Tish Harrison Warren tells a story about a friend of hers, an older Anglican priest, who liked to say that “the time between an event and our response to it is where wisdom grows.”
Wisdom, in other words, requires time. As Warren observes, it requires “slowness, stillness, focus, patience, and withdrawal from some of the heated demands and controversies of the moment.” It requires getting our heads and hearts into a place that is fundamentally different from the logic of the internet and the way digital technology works. Online influence and social media are about responding to the perceived crisis or trend of the moment. ChatGPT is about the promise of instantly deliverable answers, without the thinking and effort required to truly absorb a book, an idea, a complex intellectual argument. It offers a cognitive shortcut to something that seems like knowledge, without a sense of the history of where our ideas and beliefs and intellectual achievements have come from, the great debates and conversations that deep education invites us to enter. We often say at St. Albans that we believe in a classical liberal arts education—education that liberates you, that makes you more free, by helping you think critically and independently, rather than having your thoughts dictated to you by an algorithm.
And what is sitting behind much of our technologically mediated lives, as Warren argues, is a “drive for relevance”—but the wrong kind of relevance that keeps us “hooked on spectacle and immediacy.” We need instead, she argues, to seek “depth—depth of faith, depth of questioning, depth of understanding ... What our society and our souls [and our boys] most need is not the roaring noise of trending topics or fleeting debates. We need the slow wisdom of eternal things that, though always relevant, are often overlooked, and that quietly seed the world with redemption.”
So with those thoughts, I wish all of you a blessed year—a year that will no doubt be full of energy and busyness, new discoveries and new horizons of possibility, but also a year in which, I hope, your lives and hearts grow full with the “slow wisdom of eternal things,” the fundamental things that apply as time goes by.
God bless you all, and God bless our school.