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A Pathway to Activism

Graduation 2019

At the Fifth Grade graduation this past June,  I asked two seemingly simple questions:

  • What is your education used for?
  • What does “status quo” mean?

Many of the students – and even some of the families gathered together that day –  may not have realized that I was talking about education as a form of activism. About creating pathways toward progress.

Here is what I mean, if I had to distill it down to the most elemental parts. An education is used to activate change in a society. Of course, I wasn’t the first to believe this. Compulsory education in the U.S. started around 1840, by Horace Mann and others who believed the country had grown large enough as a democracy, in its population and in its geography to mandate a “shared body of knowledge.”  In other words, how do we systematically inform the populace with a common body of knowledge needed to sustain our democracy?

Around the turn of the 20th century, John Dewey went further. He thought that an education should also be used to reflectively question the status quo. This meant that instead of students asking themselves how to keep things the same, they might ask, “how do we make things better?”  In other words, how do we construct an educational experience that leads to social progress and a democracy that progresses.

More than anything else at the graduation of 2019, I wanted our students to understand that their education enables them to question the status quo and make progress in society.

I also spoke at graduation about what I believe are the three essential components of an education that fosters progress in society. These components are:

  • Having the knowledge. All people have a responsibility to understand as much as they can. Too often, we may risk drawing conclusions about aspects of society without actually knowing what the facts. I encouraged our students to continue to educate themselves. To think Trinity as a partner in their education. And, above all else, be informed
  • Doing the work. At times in independent schools, we feel as if we have the knowledge, we’re informed, and we’re positioned to make a difference in society. The author Jonathon Kozol argues there is a danger of independent schools of being highly informed, being able to adeptly debate the finer points of social progress, but rarely getting “beyond the dinner party.” The mere act of being educated and informed is not enough. That’s why at Trinity “knowing” this is only the first step onto the trailhead – we devote significant time to Service Learning.  From learning and supporting such initiatives, near and far, as The Trevor Project, World Vision, PAWS or our partnership with Achungo Childrens’ Center in Kenya, we prompt students to act with their knowledge. For us, a culture of service and community progress is built through education

  • Organizing others. This is the most important attribute of an education based on marking progress in society. Sure, we can be educated and question the status quo.  And we can act individually to make progress in our community and society. Still, the most important part of our activist education is to be able to organize others. The power in a movement that changes society may start with knowledge, may be led by an inspiring individual, but the work is done by many.

In this form, an education at Trinity is a pathway to activism. This activism isn’t reactionary or rebellious, but rather reflective and informed. By actively questioning the status quo through a sound education, subsequent action and learning how to organize others, our hope of creating progress – large and small – can be realized.

Matt Allio, Head of School
See Yourself at Trinity
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