A Human Agenda

By Jess Hill
March 2021

One of the beautiful things about our Harpeth Hall community is our diversity of thought. We have students, parents, and teachers with many different points of view, and that is as it should be. If we are going to lay claim to teaching our students to “think critically,” then we must surround ourselves with those who think differently. At Harpeth Hall, our call as an educational institution ensures that we teach students how to think, not what to think. Indoctrinating young minds is not our mission. Instead, we encourage our students and faculty to listen closely to each other and discuss points of view that differ from their own in an attempt to expand thinking beyond our individual bubbles. We help our students avoid the pitfalls of confirmation bias.

Our first step in teaching our girls to think critically is to encourage them to listen, to read, and most importantly to ask questions as they develop their own ideas and opinions. And that is where being part of a community of diverse thinkers can challenge us. It is only natural that each of us on this journey believes his or her own ideas are right. We cannot always see the weak spots in our own arguments, and it can be incredibly tempting to search assiduously for articles and books to confirm what we already believe to be true. We find comfort in having conversations with those who agree with us and may feel antagonized by or angry at people who don’t see situations the same way we do. But homogeneous thinking often is not what is best.

Our opinions become stronger and better if they are judged and debated by those with different viewpoints. It is not easy — but it is better — to be in class and in community with people who value each other as individuals and who also may prioritize and order their thinking and belief systems differently. In the 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, the author writes about “institutionalized disconfirmation.” When working correctly, a university should demand that each paper or article is vetted and reviewed from many angles and perspectives. Although not perfect, this method provides a better way to check our biases and arrive at the truth because it triggers more careful and creative information processing than typically occurs in like-minded groups. We should all crave — and not fear — diversity of thought in our classrooms. It makes discussions more difficult at times, but also richer and more authentic.

While in this sphere of thinking critically, we also must consider the higher calling of “living honorably.” And that is where the human agenda enters the ethos. As we are in the arena of challenging discussions with many opinions — respect, kindness, and care must be granted to everyone. And that arena extends beyond the classroom to the halls, the pods, the fields, and even to social media. Our students must learn not to overreact when they encounter people with different ways of seeing the world. Our mantra is to connect with each other on a human level first and foremost. It is tempting to dehumanize those who vehemently oppose what we hold to be sacred. As a school, we work steadily to open minds and not close them. Reducing a person to an ideology, subconsciously gives us permission to ignore our common humanity and the important place each of us holds in this community.   

Moreover, we must admit that as fellow human beings we desperately need each other. We constantly see examples of those who think that the world is divided between us and them, and I am counting on our students to understand that they are all part of the same us. Each student, with any point of view or opinion, develops a connection to and a shared respect for other students here. Each has the same desire to belong, to feel worthy, and to be understood. 

As we continue down this path of growth and learning, let us remember that we are a great source of strength for one another both in situations that challenge us and uplift us. We are stronger if we have diversity of thought and beliefs bound up together in the threads of a community that always puts girls first.