April 3, 2021
Dear Columbus Academy Families,
Welcome to our last two months of school!
Faculty are vaccinated, parents and students over 16 (or possibly even 12) can get shots, and our lives are going to be more communal again. This means that spring is going to mark a change at school, and – though it may not happen as quickly as many of us would like and it may be subtle in many ways – it will reintroduce us to what is it is like to be altogether during the day. Being together is messy especially when we, as social creatures, return after we are apart. And we are going to need to work together as a community to make this spring and beyond represent the kind of school experience our children need to feel whole.
In the last year, attending school in-person has either not been possible or it has been rendered optional. And while affording that choice during a year like this one is essential, it has also changed the way students and families interact with this place. We hear how happy students have been coming back to the social world of school. But for some, we know that being at home has been not been bad… they have even thrived. Staying away from in-person schooling can be a solution for introverts, those who need to keep themselves particularly healthy or even some who may want to disengage from the messy fray of peers and school life on days when they don’t feel up to it.
The fact that attending school every day (a practice only a year ago was as habitual to children as arguing with their parents) could soon become the norm next year asks us to understand the ways we work, both consciously and unconsciously, to build a community and reflect on the behaviors we may have fallen into which are counter to our impending togetherness. Chief among those behaviors may be that we have started to undervalue what social interaction does to our brains.
The Social Animal, written in 2011 by David Brooks at the emergence of an explosion around cognitive research, presents a multitude of intelligences that humans develop simply by being with one another: in reading each other’s body language, in working together towards a goal, and in holding two opposing beliefs in one’s mind at the same time. Looking back through the kind of skills he describes that lead human beings to have successful lives, I realized so many of them are what school is designed for students to acquire: not through the specifics of our curriculum (though it is possible to glean them there) but from the everyday cognitive growth we gain from living our lives with others not exactly like us.
For example, he highlights mindsight as the ability of babies, from moments after birth, to enter into another person’s mind and gain information from their perception of the world. Researchers believe that deep relationships between parents and babies at the earliest ages – and on into school with others – give children the ability to develop lasting social relationships and to learn from others. Equipoise, Brooks states, is the serenity to read the biases and failures in our own minds. It leads to the development of epistemological modesty, one’s ability to be open-minded in the face of ambiguity and to adjust one’s strength of their conclusions to the strength of their evidence, a quality we often admire in others.
There are a myriad of other traits Brooks highlights: metis (street-smarts, the ability to “read” a situation), sympathy (face-to-face groups are smarter and more productive than individuals) and blending (conceiving of two different concepts merged into a new one). Each reinforces the power that real social connection combats the disturbing ideas that we tell ourselves about ourselves and about others in our own minds, untested in isolation. Only through our commitment to be together will we begin to knit our close bonds tightly again.
Regularly this year we have fought having school be reduced to “just the content” and it is so important for us to remember the subtle tethers of knowing, learning and interacting that make a place like Columbus Academy the rewarding social experience it is. Students and teachers need each other – together in real space and real time – to make the magic of growing and learning work. Zoom is a false facsimile to the raucous laughter of a live assembly audience, the suspended quiet during a well-read story, or the emotional lightness of a classroom when every student is enjoying the conversation. And whatever trade-offs (like our preferences to stay home) we will have to pay to recreate this expansive school life will be well worth what we can regain in our sense community.