Head of School Chris Kolovos shares how BUA is preparing its students — and the broader school community — for the 2020 election.
On Wednesday, we held a virtual All School Meeting. Even though we could only see one other through individual boxes on a Zoom screen, it felt good to be together as a community — something we have not done since our opening day.
Our focus was preparing for the upcoming election, and the highlight was a debate on police funding at the state and local level between two of our seniors; the debate was moderated by alumna Abby Walsh ‘04, who works at the Council on Criminal Justice in Washington, DC. It was one of the most beautiful moments of the school year. Knowing that there are precious few examples of productive civil discourse in the political arena right now, we turned to our students to provide a model. And they delivered. They found and pinpointed areas of agreement (imagine that!) and offered thoughtful arguments on areas where they disagreed — at times sharply, but civilly and sometimes with good humor. They painted a nuanced picture of an issue that has been caricatured in the media as an all-or-nothing choice between militarization and anarchy. They entertained 200 of their classmates and teachers in the process. And it was a reminder to me, and all of us, of what can happen when we unleash these amazing young people on issues that matter. I left the session feeling better about our collective future and invite you to watch part of the exchange.
To frame the meeting, I offered some thoughts repeating themes that I’ve shared with all of you before. As a long-time American history teacher, I know that this is by no means the first time in our nation’s history where partisan division feels extreme; where the political discourse feels less civil and more personal; where racial and other biases are leveraged for political gain; where there are questions about electoral outcomes and processes. That said, I also shared with these students that, at least in my lifetime, this election cycle feels different; debates feel less substantive, division more extreme, compromise more vilified, and bias more out in the open. And while there is good news that we have a more engaged electorate than we have in a century, that silver lining feels less reassuring than it might.
When it comes to taking care of our BUA family, I am focused on three things. First, there is a danger that this generation misses out on models of productive civil discourse and gets a false sense of what political debate looks like. The debate between our seniors went a long way to reassuring me that not only do these students recognize good discourse, but are more than capable of engaging in it — like they do in their classrooms every day. Second, I worry that our community could fall into the trap of becoming an echo chamber of one set of ideas, chilling voices that disagree, particularly in a state with a significant majority and minority political split. BUA stands for many things, and a free exchange of ideas is one of them; we will reenforce that commitment, particularly in the next few weeks when outcomes might be uncertain, even after election day. Third, and superficially in tension with the previous point, we cannot compromise on our other values. There is language in the political discourse now that runs afoul of our mission’s commitment to inclusion and community. Issues that may be purely intellectual for some are deeply personal for others. We are not a partisan organization, but we do stand for certain principles; the hate we see in some dark corners of the political arena has no place at BUA.
The coming days will be exciting, contentious, and historic. I feel privileged to be living this experience with this group of students. My wish for them is that they lean into the exchange of ideas, stand up for what they believe in, and, as always, continue being good to one another.