The Latest Divide

Recently I’ve wondered whether we educators now face our latest if not greatest philosophical divide.

Earlier this month, Sweet Briar College officials announced the 114 year old women’s college in rural Virginia would cease operations at year’s end. The college’s financial circumstances had been in freefall since 2009, despite the favorable window-dressing of a 94 million dollar endowment in fiscal year 2014.

In late February, the National Association of Independent Schools – of which Parish is a member – held their annual conference in Boston. Though unable to attend, I followed the conference Twitter feed and read summaries of several of its major presentations. The conference featured a self-explanatory theme, “Design the Revolution: Blending Learning, Leading, and Innovation,” and keynote sessions to provoke thinking, conversation, and action among the representatives from its 1,500 member schools. On the surface, the conference challenged independent school leaders to consider the sustainability of our model and the practices which shape it. We operate today in an environment of dizzying change, ever-escalating tuitions and heightened competition. How might our schools improve the preparation we afford our students and enhance our value proposition by leveraging the new opportunities presented by seismic changes in information technology and capitalizing on the autonomy afforded by our independence?

But here lies the cusp of the divide, at least as I perceive it.  I wonder who among my independent school colleagues left the conference with an altered mindset. Who senses that the next generation for tuition-bearing institutions like ours will be fundamentally different, and perhaps more perilous, than any previous era?  Of my peers, how many would characterize the necessity to change our model as nothing short of urgent?

On the one side of this divide stand those – myself included – who feel tremendous urgency and see incredible opportunity to rethink many of the time-worn paradigms for how we “do school.”  Those on the other side of the chasm view calls for transformational change as alarmist at worst or, more benignly, riddled with so much complexity and uncertainty as to inhibit action.

At the NAIS conference, the Association’s President, John Chubb, noted that “independent schools are facing some tough realities. No matter where your school is in the process of addressing new realities, it is important for you to be prepared for anything —especially the opportunities.”  The conference also featured a panel of higher education leaders, whose institutions feature a business model similar to those of independent schools. The Presidents agreed that “the business model of higher education is broken and will need to be fixed.”  One university leader went so far as to ask whether education might “change in the same way the music industry changed with new technologies” and as a result became “affordable, unbundled, [and] accessible.”

I know several of my colleagues embrace such challenging thinking and have taken steps to shift practices. But I also know others whose mindset mirrors that of an educator from the northeast who emailed me in the wake of the NAIS conference.  He was a candidate for a position at Parish. Around the business of his candidacy, he opined about his experience at the conference. “Some of it,” he noted, “was the usual headliners saying outrageous things about the future of education that no one is seriously going to act on (italics added); others were really thoughtful, practical, and helpful and presented ideas and practices that I suspect a lot of people are discussing this week back at their schools.”

I placed him on the other side of the divide.  Perhaps unfairly, I concluded he would categorize any talk of tenuously sustainable independent schools as “outrageous” and view experimentation with new models for tomorrow’s independent schools with similar diffidence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I concluded further conversation about a position at Parish was not a good idea.

A respected colleague of mine posted a compelling question in light of the Sweet Briar announcement: “Outlier or Omen?”  It encapsulates perfectly the philosophical divide I’ve experienced anecdotally as of late. Today’s educator needs to make room amidst the valid and worthwhile philosophical conversations pervading our campuses – about math programs, literary canons, or foreign language offerings – for an even more fundamental discussion on which side of this divide each of us and our schools stand.

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