Headmaster's Thoughts: January 2021

I want to wish all members of the York Community a Happy New Year. Let us wish for a better one than 2020; a future year of joy and companionship, when New York City returns to being the vibrant, exciting place it was before COVID.
Since we are not yet at the end of the COVID pandemic, a recap of the past events of 2020 would be like judging a court case before all the evidence is in. There have been inspirational moments in a year of sickness, but I shall leave that for another time, and continue to write my “Thoughts” this month in the normal way. That is, most often frivolous and occasionally serious. This month’s piece is serious.

I want to tell you of a conversation I witnessed a number of years ago. I was going to ride in an event in Thomasville, Georgia. A friend of mine, who is an orthopedic surgeon, was lending me a horse, and I was going to stay with him overnight. I flew to Tallahassee and drove across Florida on Interstate 10.

I realized, while on the highway, that I would arrive early. My friend is a working physician, and we had arranged to meet at his house at about 5:30 in the afternoon. Here was I about to arrive at 4:00 pm. So I stopped in the small town of Monticello, Florida, just south of the Georgia border, for a cup of coffee to let some time go by. There were only two other people in the coffee shop; an older man who seemed to be the owner of the establishment and a large young man, about 25, wearing a white tee shirt with the sleeves so high cut that I could see his “Brothers of the Confederation” tattoo on his bulging biceps. He was called “Bubba” by the older man. I kid you not!

They were having a discussion on Jews. Being Jewish, I slipped into a corner and listened.

“Them Jews started World War Two,” Bubba was saying.

“Nonsense, Bubba!” replied the coffee shop owner, whose name I never heard.

“Oh yes they did. All that nonsense about camps and stuff. All propaganda by the Jews.”

Since my father had been in Dachau for a while, as an involuntary guest of the Nazis, I was tempted to intervene but thought that it would be wiser to just listen from the corner seat.

“I fought in Korea in the Air Force,” said the older man, “And the very best officer we had was a Captain Walters, who was a Jew. You don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Well, I’m telling you what everyone round here knows,” was Bubba’s reply.

Seeing me, in the corner, and realizing that I must have heard their argument, Bubba turned to me as the only audience around.

“What do you think, sir?” he asked, in a perfectly respectable tone.

I was not going to convert Bubba, so I answered in a strong English accent. “Have you traveled much, and seen the world?” I asked Bubba.

“Oh, yes. I’ve been down to South Florida and seen all them Jews down there, in their rich houses and fancy cars.”

“Have you ever traveled outside the country?”

“No, but why?”

“Well,” I might as well stick my foot in, “I think travel broadens the mind, to quote others, and I think it might change your view.”

And, as quickly as I could, I left the coffee shop.

The purpose of my telling this story is not to stress the prejudice in northern rural Florida, but to point out the dangers of being brought up in a culturally narrow society, as Bubba clearly was. I doubt that he was exposed to many immigrants or a diverse school population. I am sure he did not socially interact with them. 

I strongly believe that our advances in human achievement have been propelled by the integration of new ideas from members of international cultures. Without immigration, without mixing outside of a very narrow grouping, I fear that little progress can be made.

I maintain that the explosion of knowledge from the Industrial Revolution onwards, came from the sharing of ideas across the intellectual communities of the world. And this expansion of knowledge came from interaction not just with fellow Europeans, but with peoples of all continents. This global knowledge-sharing continues today to the benefit of all. “Bubba” is therefore an anachronism. He represents a small (hopefully declining) group who accept what their fellow group members say, without possessing the intellectual curiosity to question their group’s established dogma. There may always be “Bubbas” in our society but I would be embarrassed if they graduated from York Prep. It is one of the reasons that the predominant theme of my Senior Ethics Class is “curiosity”.

Diversity is not tokenism. It is education in a true sense. We need to continue to learn from each other, and to always challenge what is given as the “truth” by the politicized press, and the convinced beliefs or prejudices of others. The world, to take an example, is not flat, and, despite appearances, we do revolve around the sun. The view from the spacecraft of our planet was not a hoax. There, travel (a long, long way) truly proved how the truth-revealing capacity of our senses is flawed. I look up and the sun seems to go around us. It does not!

Bubba, I hope you travel and question. And teach your children to challenge what they are told.

Happy New Year!
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep