Engaging in Meaningful Civic Discourse

by Jess Hill

October 2020

During this time of heated debate in the public arena, I am particularly grateful to work in a school. Schools are about raising human beings in close proximity to difference - with virtues like respect, curiosity, and kindness at the center of their missions. They are places where teachers build a community of citizens who learn how to embrace questioning and practice understanding. There is great power and great hope in these endeavors for anyone fortunate enough to work in education.

At our school, a place filled with engaged and curious girls and young women, we understand that the world is sometimes a hard place. When it is, we turn to the words written on our walls for guidance. Our Mission, Core Purpose, and Values Statement transform principles into direction for how we should live.

Perhaps most important in a time when the election nears is our Harpeth Hall Statement on Campus Discourse. It begins, “Informed and open discourse is an integral component of a Harpeth Hall education and an essential characteristic of responsible citizenship. … Thoughtful consideration of multiple perspectives and stories encourages empathy and prepares students to participate constructively in these dialogues both in the classroom and in the public sphere.”

We understand that the strongest community does not imply singular focus or sameness in thought. The model community is formed when we invite a plethora of voices to our table, and we find ourselves right beside those of every race, faith, culture, and yes, those who have differing political persuasions. Even in our differences, our values remain the same. We continue to define ourselves by how we treat each other. No one should be diminished on either end of a debate.

Our Values Statement, written years ago by our teachers and students, declares that our community “has chosen respect, integrity, individuality, and trust to be its guiding principles.” Our faculty stated in our Core Purpose that we aspire to “nurture a sense of wonder” in our students. They continue with a pledge to “inspire students and faculty to combine knowledge with goodness and reflection with action.” 

Words like these are an indication that this place is a community filled with people who understand our calling to be much more than a means to transmit information and content to our students.  We believe in the power of the community, where connections to others and an understanding of context is essential to solve the world’s problems. 

Our Harpeth Hall Statement on Campus Discourse closes with the following: “The ability to engage in meaningful civic discourse requires a commitment to strengthening our relationships with each other. As we engage in these critical dialogues, all members of the Harpeth Hall community will work together to create a vibrant and respectful intellectual environment that values diversity of thought and difference of opinion. In so doing, we will demonstrate our faith in the promise and potential of American democracy.”

And that is why I want to be here in these weeks of debate and advertising and mayhem. We won’t be perfect because we are always learning, but we will without fail aspire to a better way.