Affirming Thacher Values in a Time of Political Turmoil

    The following is a talk recently delivered by Head of School Michael K. Mulligan at one of our regular All-School Assemblies. 

    Like many others around our nation, I have not been able to watch the national news lately without wincing. The most contentious and divisive presidential election of our lives has delivered, not surprisingly, a contentious and divisive President, and it does not look like things are going to calm down soon. I have been tempted to turn the news off and run more miles of trails and spend more time with my horses. Horses and trails are always good things, but I feel compelled as a school leader to examine and affirm our Thacher values in the midst of all of this rancor.

    Ordinarily, the discussion of what it is to be conservative or liberal involves a rigorous examination of such questions as these:

    • What role should the free market play in helping us improve our station in life?
    • What is the duty of the government in assisting those who cannot otherwise succeed on their own?
    • To what degree should federal rights supersede state rights?
    • And critically, of course: Is the Constitution a living and breathing document that evolves with our society or one that, conversely, must always reflect the perceived intent of its authors?

    These are honorable and important questions that we should engage in as a society. And, of course, it is perfectly reasonable for good people to hold different opinions on all of these considerations.

    But the Trump Administration, so far, is not easily categorized as conservative or liberal. We may be entering a new political era or, at least, a dramatically different form of political leadership. This election, in all of its controversy and vitriol, has revealed deep divisions between the affluent establishment and blue collar America and the wide gulf between the urban and rural. These divisions go well beyond the basic contours of political debate, exposing profound gaps in our collective understanding of who we are as a nation. Who, for example, should be able to come to our country, and under what conditions? What is the tradeoff between our concern for safety and our compassion for those who are suffering and in need? How should healthcare be available to those who cannot otherwise afford it? What is the role of the press in a free society? How does one discern what the truth is with so many conflicting narratives? These are just some of the important issues that deserve our thoughtful examination nationally and here at Thacher.

    That Mr. Trump has engaged in ad hominem (that is personal, belittling, dismissive) attacks on others has clouded our perspectives and dragged honest debate into the mire. That his critics often respond in kind should not surprise us. As the old expression goes, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” Or as the Bhagavad Gita says, in so many words, “What you do to others you automatically do to yourself.” My friends, it is reasonable for all of us to want our President to be both lawful and respectful of others: This concern transcends political point of view.

    The faculty and I are in agreement, in any case, that it is not our job to tell you what position to hold as we confront these national debates, but rather to ask you—and help you ask—the most discerning and helpful questions that shed light on the controversies surrounding us.

    But what is the foundation upon which we ask our questions?

    It is this:

    We are a School with constituents from across the country and the world: Red and Blue (as in red and blue states)—and the color spectrum in between—are represented here.

    It is good and right that we should be able to share our diverse perspective and points of view and have others listen carefully and respond thoughtfully.

    We want open, thoughtful discourse on important topics. We should, in the words of my alma mater’s new President, Laurie Patton, “encourage conversation about disagreement,” that we should work towards a “robust public sphere” and develop what she calls “rhetorical resilience”—that ability to debate openly, thoughtfully, and respectfully.

    Translated to Thacher terms, this means that we treat each other honorably, fairly, kindly, and truthfully as we seek to understand, be understood, and grow.

    It is also critical that we understand that Thacher must be a safe, good, kind home for all of us regardless of our political perspective, left, right or center; regardless of our sexual orientation or gender identity; regardless of our race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, religious, or spiritual perspective—and regardless of where our parents are from or how they got here.

    Each of us has a right to be here, to celebrate our differences, and to gain strength from our common humanity and aspirations.

    Our School, which actively welcomes students from all countries and religious backgrounds, must affirm our support and love for those who, because of their family’s origin, legal status, or religious beliefs, feel especially threatened and vulnerable in this political climate.

    So what is our Thacher aspiration? What is the stamp of the School?

    I believe it is that work which enhances the humanity of the other, improves our understanding of the world, and promotes peace, kindness, and well being.

    This is why you are here. This is why we are here.

    So let us undertake this work in an atmosphere of respect and celebration and in the knowledge that we care for and love each other both despite of, and because of, our differences.

    Michael Mulligan

    Michael Mulligan has served as Thacher's head of school since 1993.

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