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Our Role in a Complex World- Commentary from Jon McGee

Our Role in a Complex World

“Before any action we take, we must remember to move forward with love.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

All of us likely would acknowledge that we live in remarkably complicated times. But our students – all born since the turn of the century – have known only remarkably complicated times, too often defined by the fragility, frailty, and sometimes outright failure of economic, political, social, and moral systems and leadership. Young people could hardly be blamed for wondering silently or out loud whether the world has been cut free from anchors and moorings that threaten their well-being or sense of optimism and security. Adults often can reflect on events and moments through the lens of experience. Children have no such similar opportunity. They instead must either look to adults for cues and guidance or make their own way riding uncertain and shifting tides.

What role must a school – in our case, a Catholic Benedictine college preparatory school – play in preparing our students for a world desperately in need of hope, leadership, truth, empathy and perhaps most of all, love? What is our responsibility? More importantly, what is our calling?

While we clearly have learning goals and standards to achieve, and academic preparation is and should be central to any strong school experience, it also is true that we live, teach, and learn in context. To ignore key challenges or important moments in history (which are always complicated) – to pretend that what we teach is somehow independent of what happens around is – is to miss the point of learning altogether. The terrible events at the U.S. Capitol in early January, for example, provided us an opportunity to discuss with our students issues of truth, morality, equity, freedom, and justice, to name only a few.

Our learning experience at Prep cannot ignore the impact or prevalence of the persistent challenges of our time. Though our peaceful wooded location may intimate otherwise, we and our students are not apart from but rather a part of the world and events around us.

As I reflect on the place of Saint John’s Prep in the context of our messy, challenging world and these particularly complex times, a number of thoughts come to mind:

  • The best education, the kind we provide at Saint John’s Prep, recognizes that instrumental empowerment and transformational development are two necessary and inseparable parts of a learning whole. Neither can exist without the other. We prepare our students not only to answer the question, what can I do, but as importantly, what should I do. We are called to ensure that our learning experiences at Prep provide our students with the skills and value foundations that will endure not just through the course of their time here, but throughout the course of their lives.
  • We are in the hopeful business of the future, entrusted with the development of young lives and young minds. We steward our pedagogy and our guidance to prepare our students for lives of purpose, meaning and value. Through experiences, practice, wisdom and even love, we engage, challenge, and guide our students to develop to their fullest potential. It is both an extraordinary calling and an enormous responsibility.
  • The tools of intellectual and moral discernment matter. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discussing the fragility of democracy, Brian Rosenberg, president emeritus of Macalester College, noted that the “fundamental job of [a school] is to teach students to distinguish the true from the untrue, fact from opinion, evidence from insistence.” Our role as educators at Prep demands not that we tell our students what to think but rather that we teach them to learn how to thoughtfully weigh and wrestle with complex questions as they develop their own sense of purpose, values, and direction.

To reduce it to an algorithm of sorts, a Saint John’s Prep education must serve and enable (perhaps even ennoble) four discrete but related educational purposes expressed as KQ + TQ + EQ + MQ. Each part of the equation must prepare our students to answer a particular question:

  • Knowledge Quotient: What have I learned?
  • Technical Quotient: What can I do? What skills have I developed?
  • Emotional Quotient: How have I learned to engage others effectively and empathically, individually and in community?
  • Moral Quotient: What values and principles have I explored and developed to guide my choices and aspirations?

Education is a continuously transformational process: we never become but spend our lifetime becoming. As such, we must teach and learn with a forward cast, continuously reimagining ourselves and our pedagogy in relation to new knowledge, new needs and expectations, and ever-changing context. We never have the luxury of staying in one place. We instead must integrate the demands of the present with the call of the future to energize and animate our pedagogy and our purpose in support of our students and a future we cannot yet imagine, all the while listening carefully to their needs and welcoming and developing the unique talents and promise each of them brings. Even during a pandemic.

Leadership, courage, empathy, love. Those are the hallmarks that do and must distinguish an education at Saint John’s Prep.

Jon McGee
Head of School