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The Importance of Civic Involvement

In light of the recent presidential election, Dr. Carter shared the following remarks with students during assembly.

Last week, the long presidential campaign, unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime, concluded with an unexpected result. Every major event provides an opportunity for us to reflect on our values. Values are critical to our own well being and to the entire community. Today, I hope to help you think about the life you want to lead, and to exhort you to get involved politically and civically.

Countries go through normal cycles of economic boom and bust, of social and economic change, but the rate of change during this recent period has been exceptional. This election comes at the end of a multi-decade period during which a seismic shift has occurred due to the twin forces of automation and globalization, changing the nature of business in a dramatic way. Technology has altered production, communication, and transportation.

These forces have had a major effect on the availability of certain kinds of jobs—not only in the factories and coal mines, but also in traditionally reliable office jobs like accounting and law, making jobs scarce for many people. As a result, some people have been working hard and have found themselves unable to make ends meet. Work gives us dignity in the form of identity, control over our lives and choices, and the ability to care for our families. When there are insufficient jobs available, people can become fearful and eventually angry.

In their easing of communication, transportation, and the flow of money, technological advances have had the unintended consequence of making international terrorism easier, too. In addition, the country has had demographic shifts that have altered the face of our citizenry. The country is more diverse religiously, ethnically, and racially than ever before. At Derryfield, we see diversity as a strength that makes us better—more cosmopolitan, more knowledgeable about the world.

Absorbing rapid change, though, challenges a society. Recent decades have seen a black president, gay marriage, women rising to new heights of leadership, and also two wars, a Great Recession, and the rise of ISIS. It can take years to adapt to change—and our historical moment is right in the middle of that adaptation.

These shifts have been happening for 20 years, but the shock of the change has only now made it into the political arena. This is why there were people deciding whether to vote for Trump or Sanders, two politicians of seemingly opposing political views but who spoke about economics and political change in similar ways—as a narrative of loss for many people and the nation. This change is no less significant than when the U.S. evolved from a farm economy to an industrial economy at the end of the nineteenth century—and at that time, there was also political upheaval in the form of the Populist Movement.

This presidential election, though, was different from any I have encountered in my whole life. At its best, America is a place, as Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, where “the marketplace of good ideas” results in the best ideas rising to the surface. A place where people listen and discuss different opinions and perspectives. Judging by the historically high levels of voter dissatisfaction, neither candidate appeared capable of convincing voters that he or she had the ability to make the kind of change the country needs now. Many voters viewed both candidates unfavorably.

This election was also different, in that it was the harshest I have seen. From people on both sides, the level of vitriol was astonishing: insults, bigoted and sexist statements, and inaccuracies or outright falsehoods, and was unprecedented in my lifetime. While some people had enthusiastic, full confidence in one or the other candidate, others felt both candidates had character problems. Never have I heard so much talk about a person’s vote being against one candidate rather than for the other.

Let me be clear here; the negative behaviors, the language, and the tone we have seen in our national discourse during the campaign are not ones that will be repeated here at The Derryfield School. One of our School’s fundamental values is that of respect and care for everyone in the community; this is evident in the level of comfort that all kinds of kids have here at school. Derryfield is a safe place where we care for our environment and we care for each other. All are welcome here; all belong.

Many students have commented that they know how to civilly debate and discuss controversial issues with each other while remaining friendly. We must engage in conversations and not go to respective intellectual corners to avoid disagreement. We bring different perspectives, and we listen to one another. That civility is the mark of the enlightened person and a key practice at this school.

I remember presidential elections that were respectful and dignified. I don’t want you to reflect upon this election and take away a sense of cynicism about democracy. I hope, instead, that you will understand how critical it is for the finest people we have to run for office and that we will support them in that difficult effort. I want you to consider a political life: run for office, volunteer for campaigns, work in the community. Done well, serving as a politician can be among the greatest forms of service one can give one’s community; it is also an expression of patriotism and sacrifice equal with military service. Indeed, with a civilian-led military, the quality of elected officials is critical to the safety and success of the military.

Be politically active, remembering that your integrity is everything. At Derryfield our core value of character is described as: “respect, integrity, compassion, and perseverance.” Character is essential to leadership.

How are character and integrity developed? By the thousands of little decisions you make, in public and in private. Your character is the sum total of both your actions and the spirit behind them. And character is cultivated… you don’t just wake up one day as a person of integrity. You have to watch what is put into your consciousness and your mind and make sure it is of high quality. Good character is developed through reading, watching, listening, and associating with resources and people of high ethical caliber. And integrity is the habit of watching oneself and checking one’s own motives and truthfulness on a daily basis: self-discipline guided by conscience and honesty.

The United States needs fine women and men to run for office. We need leaders who are knowledgeable; critical thinkers with a deep commitment to human rights. Derryfield students graduate with a foundation that allows them to possess both compassion and the ability to think incisively about worthy aims and important problems. For this reason, I encourage you to consider a life of public service and to prepare for it by developing yourself into the most ethical person you can be.

Mary Halpin Carter, Ph.D.
Head of School
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  • Michael Ekman
    One of the best reactions to the elections I've read. It left me feeling empowered and I'm sure it did the same for all of the Derryfield community. Reading this on Thanksgiving Day has really made today filled with gratitude.

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