Headmaster’s Thoughts – August 2011

I felt rather proud to be a New Yorker when Governor Cuomo signed the Marriage Equality Act into state law. For me, it was—and is—a non-issue; I never understood the opposition. I defy anyone to be able to distinguish which of our students comes from a heterosexual home setting and which from a homosexual one. I was pleased to see that we were respecting the differences in our state’s citizenry.

But apart from that bright moment, I have been troubled by what, lately, seems to be an increasing lack of such respect. It is most obvious in the national political debates as well as screaming arguments and bullying interruptions on television in which we would not allow sixth graders to engage. Unfortunately, I see that anger and lack of acknowledgment of other people’s positions, showcased by the opposing left- or right-wingers, leaching out into our society in general. People seem to get angry more quickly and show less mutual understanding than ever before.

Perhaps we are forgetting how to communicate with each other. Technology is certainly depersonalizing our communication. I know, because there are enough jokes about this, that I am not the only person who feels that the niceties of life are being ignored when they phone a company (or another school for that matter) and have to navigate through three menus of “If you know your party’s extension, dial it at any time”; “If you want to complain, dial three”; “If you want to congratulate us, dial four”; “If you want to talk to someone, wait until the next menu when we might find out what you want to talk to someone about.” Perhaps my own irritation with all of this is why, when you make a telephone call to York Prep, you will be answered by one of the two charming receptionists at our front desk.

I never know the party’s extension, and I always (without exception) want to talk to a real live human being, who I hope, if I actually get through, has the skill-set to be able to answer the questions that need answering. I am sure that Bangalore is lovely, but when I finally get through all those menus, I wish the nice man on the other end of the phone would not pretend he is Phil from Texas and tell me who he really is in Bangalore, India. The game is played where I don’t tell him that I know he is not from Texas (not rocket science), and he pretends that I think he is from Texas. He tells me about the weather in Dallas (he is half a world away), and if I say “How about those Texas Rangers?” he says “Yes!” because he does not know what I am talking about. One could take that to some funny places if one wanted to: “How about those Houston Urinals?” But that would be uncivil, and I think I am complaining about the lack of civility.

In the local bank, where I go as rarely as possible, I object to young well-dressed executives chewing gum while trying to carry on a conversation with me. When you are wearing a tie and communicating as a professional, you should not chew gum. You probably think I am trying to be another Andy Rooney, whom I like a lot, but is it not time that the rest of us express (with him) our nostalgia for some of the courtesies that seem to have been lost? No sensible person would ever say “the good old days”; they were, in many ways, very bad (see my first paragraph for an example of their intolerance), and yet there was such a thing as civility—or politeness, if you want another word—and I miss that.

I am a fan of using technology in teaching, but not at the expense of personal communication. “Distance learning” or taking classes online seems to be doing just that. It probably is far more convenient for many, but I remember with fondness my years at Oxford primarily for the personal connections I made with an outstanding faculty. College by computer screen would not have been the same experience. In fact, my guide to knowing whether a student is at the right school is to ask him or her if he or she has a favorite teacher. If the student does not, then something is wrong. I may be inviting trouble, but consider asking your child the same question.

If you apply to York Prep, you will meet me. You may think I am a crotchety old man (especially after you have read this piece), but at least you will have shaken my hand and come to some assessment of whether you can trust your child to this Head of School. If you need me, you can reach me. To apply to a school which has a voice menu rather than a person answering a phone and whose Head you never meet personally in the initial admissions process (and I am not talking about the “dog and pony shows” of open houses) just seems to illustrate the lack of personal connection and respect that this piece is about.

I was taught that the conclusion paragraph of an essay has to tie back to the opening one, so somehow I must get back to New York State’s acceptance of the Marriage Equality Act. It certainly represents a triumph of both personal respect for individuals as well as the fact that partisan differences can be overcome by some politicians who communicate with each other. So I end with that celebration, and hope you forgive the curmudgeonly nature of this piece…

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section More News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.