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Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: A lifetime of learning

At Harpeth Hall, our teachers are subject matter experts. They have deep knowledge about the discipline they teach, along with an understanding of the social and emotional needs of a particular age of students. Yet, the best of these experts will never hesitate to leave room for uncertainty. It’s true: teachers don’t always know all the answers.

That is important to show our girls. The reality of not knowing can be what fosters curiosity and creates a reverence for the vastness of our world. Acknowledging the impossibility of being all-knowing in a landscape changing at warp speed is essential as we begin this new school year.

So many times in the last year, I have wanted to close my laptop when reading the news and figuratively ball up and ignore the facts. Reading again about unsettling data around the pandemic or the entrenched polarization in our country is disquieting for so many of us. But I am inspired to keep learning and reading because of the questions that our students inevitably ask. “How does that work?” “Tell me more about that.” “But why?” As educators, we don’t have all the answers, but we can continue to model and foster the search for knowledge that inspires our students to want to pose more questions and to discover more answers.

I was struck recently by an article in the publication Inside Higher Ed that spelled out the difference between a training and an education. The often-used distinction of how to think instead of what to think could distinguish an education and a training. Trainings are useful for learning to drive a car or mastering first aid and CPR. An education requires critical thinking. An education inspires us to ask more questions, to reveal the complexity of the world, and to reward curiosity more than rote performance.

We can’t leave our graduates with only pieces of trainings in their backpacks. The best thing we can do is offer a true education. Reading these words by Carlo Rovelli, an Italian quantum physicist and writer, illustrates this idea more clearly. 

I believe that one of the greatest mistakes made by human beings is to want certainties when trying to understand something. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical absence of certainty. Thanks to the acute awareness of our ignorance, we are open to doubt and can continue to learn and to learn better.

Surrounding ourselves with young learners reminds us of the fallacy of certainty. The experiences of the past two years underscore that notion. During the pandemic, we have seen our best scientists change their minds when new studies are complete. That doesn’t mean we can’t trust them, it means they are doing their jobs — the best professionals always continue to educate themselves as their fields evolve and change, and medical experts provide some of our best examples of practicing a lifetime of learning and study. We all wish we knew in March of 2020 what we know now. 

Now, as we embark on the fall of 2021, I have one aspiration for this new school year. I hope we continue to champion the academic curiosity of our girls and faculty while normalizing the acknowledgment of our ignorance in so many areas. Claiming an absence of certainty appears to be the best way forward. We are heading into a year of possibility, opportunity, questions, disappointments, and joy. Let’s cultivate the desire to know more about each other, our experiences, and the vast world around us. Let’s continue to “learn and learn better."

Jess Hill

Other Features

Schools have been working to provide meaning for students for a long time. Meaning gives our students a structure in which we make sense of the world. Now, our goal as educators must be to combine that meaning with purpose and help students aspire to better the world and claim their ability to make a difference.

The questions from our children are inevitable: "How does that work?" "Tell me more about that." "By why?" As educators, we don't have all the answers, but we can continue to model and foster the search for knowledge that inspires our students to want to pose more questions and discover more answers.