“The popular media reflect a cultural and psychological landscape,” argues Pat Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) in a March online newsletter article. Bassett says that the movies and TV shows that are made and consumed by the American public reveal a national “state of mind.” Citing popular TV shows of the 1950’s (i.e., Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, Bonanza, The Honeymooners), he suggests that these programs were “projections and reflections of a country that was characterized by strong, intact families, effective and positive authority figures, and a promise of prosperity that cut across all classes.” In contrast, he points out that many of the films that have been most popular and successful over the last year are indications of the uncertainty, anxiety, class tension, and disrupted psyche of our times—in contrast, they present “impotent and conflicted authorities on the one hand or stories embracing nostalgia for heroic but doomed leaders on the other” (i.e., Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, Les Miserables and The Twilight Saga). I could certainly offer other mass media examples that support Bassett’s perspective.
Our children consume this media in vast quantities, now with online access that adults find exceedingly difficult to control, especially as students enter their middle and later teenage years. And, indeed, it is my observation that my students today are generally more anxious about the times they are living in and their futures than my students were when my career in education was beginning over three decades ago. While I can point out that every generation has had to confront significant anxieties of the times as it came of age (i.e., the Cold War in the 50’s, Vietnam in the 60’s, etc.), I think it may be true that the current generation is the first since the end of the Second World War in which there is a deep undercurrent of concern that they will not be able to attain the opportunities, success and affluence of the generations that came before them.
The role and significance of Noble and Greenough School is greater than ever before in this context. I should point out, first of all, that never before in my career have I encountered students with deeper and more genuine commitments to service than I have in the last several years. This generation of students, in my experience, and despite its anxieties, is frankly as hopeful as any I have known; remarkable numbers of them are dedicated to individual and collective action to make the world a better place. Perhaps this is a balm to anxiety, but I think at a deeper level it is because they are inspired and motivated by the remarkable parallel possibilities of our time for connection, communication, productivity, empowerment and action. Nobles provides exceptional opportunities, encouragement, support and inspiration for these activities. Moreover, there is a clear and immutable structure of values at Nobles, evident in the daily life and function of the community, that frames the need and purpose for service to others and society. While intellectual growth and achievement are the primary framework for the daily responsibilities of students, it is the concomitant emphasis on inspiring leadership for the public good, regardless of what professional fields our students will eventually choose in life, that offers adolescents the reason and context for their endeavors, today and in their futures.
Despite the anxieties of our times, the students I work with every day give me ample reason for optimism and hope for the future, and more than ever it is our job as a school community to foster and develop that sense of possibility and its moral focus.