“If only…”

Bill Hulseman
13 min readJan 27, 2021

Changing traditions, changing culture in independent schools.

A row of high school graduates in caps and gowns, shot from behind.

If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made.
That is the promised glade,
the hill we climb if we only dare it.
Because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into and how we repair it…

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.
Our blunders become their burdens…

When the day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it,
if only we’re brave enough to be it.

from Amanda Gorman “The Hill We Climb”

In the days following the Inauguration of President Biden, Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem was the thing everyone talked about — more than the president’s address, more than the unusual setting of an empty National Mall and a smaller-than-usual, socially-distanced mix of elected officials and special guests, more than the glass ceilings shattered by Kamala Harris’ assumption of the role of Vice President, more than former First Lady Michelle Obama’s plum-colored nod to Shirley Chisholm that turned the Capitol dais into a Fashion Week runway. I watched in real-time as her followers on Instagram amassed — her followership of 159,000 doubled by the time she reached her final lines and expanded to over 1 million within a day. A week later, she had over 3 million followers.

Was it a great poem? Was it the best delivery of an inaugural poem? Will the text itself survive among the great works of literature? I don’t know. (For the record, I was deeply moved, so no shade to Ms. Gorman). But I do know that the moment was memorable and impactful, and the poet, the text, and the setting instantly became artefacts of an important moment in American culture. In the days following the Inauguration, my friend, arts educator Jennifer Katona, and I were inspired not just by the moment and whatever changes we anticipated because of it — we were inspired by the ways that an important moment was facilitated by the things we geek out about.

For Jenn, it was the stunning experience of the arts integrated into the ceremony, highlighting the value of creativity and performance and casting a glaring spotlight on the undervaluing of arts education. “As a society,” she wrote, “we need to value the starting point of the arts we love in their final polished forms.” Gorman’s poem was just one of a dazzling and precise intersection of performances: the United States Marine Band performed as the crowd gathered and accompanied throughout the ceremony; pop diva Lady Gaga sang the national anthem donning a prominent dove-and-olive-branch brooch and an ensemble reminiscent of The Hunger Games; singer and dancer Jennifer Lopez delivered a medley including Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and a quick (but deliberate) reference to one of her own hits; Garth Brooks appeared in his trademark jeans and boots and delivered a (rather breathy) rendition of “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that was itself the confessional poem of a former slave-trader. Both the ethnic diversity and the variety of genres represented in the ceremony reflected a broader swath of American society than any previous Inauguration, and it seemed an intentional reaching-out to communities that experienced disenfranchisement from the work of government, from power. The arts served as the common language to communicate a vision for Americans to pursue.

My own geekery in the moment was focused on the role that the ritual of the Inauguration played. I applied my own ritual lens to reflect on the ceremony and suggested that, in addition to delivering a newly sworn-in POTUS and VP, the “unintended effect of the Inauguration was the reconstruction of the American canon — who, whose voices, which media, and what ideas are formally and institutionally recognized as fundamental in American culture.” In this light, it strikes me that this Inauguration is an excellent example — really, the example — of the successful adaption of a tradition to facilitate social or cultural change.

If the ceremony didn’t adapt and didn’t reflect its extraordinary context, it would’ve rendered itself immediately irrelevant. It couldn’t have been the same old quadrennial pageantry. By the time the Inauguration happened, over half a million Americans were dead from the global pandemic, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery brutally revealed systemic racism and injustice, and the very steps that hosted the Inauguration dais were raided weeks before in an insurrection in which five people died. Gorman elegantly braided all of this into her poem, the peak moment in the ceremony that revealed who we, gathered symbolically on the Capitol steps, are and who we aspire to be.

This was a beautifully orchestrated moment — and I don’t observe this cynically. The people who designed the ceremony used the familiar setting, language, and form of the Inauguration not only to facilitate the transfer of power but also to communicate a particular set of values, effect a change in perceptions, and to establish new relationships. In short: an old ritual used some new tricks, and the effect was a shift (or rather, the beginning of a shift) in American culture.

“…a gateway between one world and the next.”

As the pandemic spread across the globe in 2020, Arundhati Roy reflected on what meaning we might be able to glean, and she noticed a common desire to return to normal (whatever that was). “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality,” she wrote. Previous pandemics “have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” The important question to consider now isn’t about what comes next; it’s about what we choose to carry with us through the portal.

Roy published those words in early April, but they became more poignant when the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery forced a reckoning with systemic racism and injustice in American culture. The complicity of independent school communities was made clear through @blackat accounts on social media — throughout the summer, BIPOC students, alumnx, and parents shared the lingering pain and impact of experiences of prejudice and discrimination that had been overlooked, brushed aside, or stifled. Taken all together, these insights constituted a deep indictment of independent school culture, and in this light, especially as we consider the future of independent schools, nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

In schools across the country, much attention has been paid to curriculum, admissions and financial aid structure, and enabling the voices of community members, but I haven’t heard about much attention to schools’ traditions. Sure, the cognitive and affective development of students in the classroom is at the center of the life of a school, but a school’s mission isn’t bound by the walls of the classroom. Mindful of this, it’s easy to recognize schools as more than centers for learning — they are laboratories for culture.

Traditions enable students, staff, and families to build relationships and forge a community. They connect the community to previous and future generations, they make a deep imprint in the memories of students, and they echo in the lives and relationships of alumnx. If we are going to take the challenges and truths revealed to us seriously, if we are going to not just see the light that Amanda Gorman pointed to but to be it, and if we want to develop a broader culture characterized by equity, justice, and respect for human dignity, we need to attend to the traditions that tie our communities together and create contexts for learning, relationships, and developing culture.

Traditions & school life

Since I started teaching in 2001, I’ve reveled in the rich and diverse symbolic life of independent schools. As a teacher, campus minister, and administrator, I took the responsibility of engaging a school’s symbolic life very seriously, but I was never satisfied to replicate traditions as they’d always been done. I maintained my lens as a ritualist and knew that for the traditions to “work” in a ritual sense — for students to be piqued by those experiences, for everyone in the community to be transformed by them, for them to remain relevant as powerful experiences, and for them to communicate the school’s mission and the community’s values — two conditions were necessary: we had to understand why we were doing something, and we had to see ourselves reflected in it.

Understanding why we are doing it doesn’t just mean reciting the history of the tradition or adopting the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude. It means inquiring into the origin of the practice, paying attention to the ways it is carried out and by whom, and tracking the diverse ways people respond to them. It means pausing when something feels uncomfortable or unjust, when something doesn’t seem consistent with our desired outcome or our current values. It means critically reflecting on what we want to get out of each tradition, on what we experience and learn about ourselves or others because of it. It also means adapting.

Ensuring that we can see ourselves reflected in a tradition is a bit trickier. Many traditions were developed and cemented in a very different world and carry echoes (or sometimes sledgehammers) of misogyny, racism, heterosexism, socio-economic disenfranchisement, gender-role reinforcement, religious hegemony, and of wildly outdated cognitive or academic expectations regardless of neurodiversity. But here’s the thing: we hold on to traditions not because they are accurate reflections of our experiences but because they are familiar, because they are old, because they give tangible form to what we think is the essence of school life, because we think we see or should see ourselves in them.

Popular depictions of school life distract from problematic aspects of traditions with nostalgia and sentiment. How would we know if it’s a graduation scene if there aren’t caps and gowns? How would we know she’s a strict teacher if she isn’t pacing the well-ordered rows of her classroom? How would we know he’s a trustworthy and friendly type if he isn’t leading a circle-discussion of poetry in a corduroy jacket? How would we know that a student identifies as queer if they aren’t being bullied? Of course, these are types, tropes for storytelling that allow the audience to catch up quickly, but they reinforce ideas, images, and actions that perpetuate all the isms that hold us back.

School traditions have the capacity not only to reflect the life of the community but also to shape it and to influence the ways that individuals understand themselves, their relationships to each other, and their places in the world. Many of us who have worked in schools probably already have a short-list of the traditions we hope might fade away, but culture doesn’t change by chance — it changes because people make choices. So, when a new normal for school life emerges, the pressing question is less, “What will school look like?” and more “What will we choose to maintain, and what will we choose to let go?” Those choices will communicate much about what each community actually values.

Independent schools continue to exert disproportionate influence on American culture through the privilege experienced and power obtained by its alumnx. If school traditions shape their communities, then they can also impact the broader culture through those disproportionately empowered alumnx. So…what are the traditions that we need to reimagine?

Traditions that highlight academic honors

Academic honor assemblies celebrate the core work of schools and justifiably highlight the successes of individuals or groups. However it is couched, academic distinction relies on defining the lines between perfection, mediocrity, and failure and sorting students accordingly. Quantifying success and publicly fixating on it does nothing to highlight the process of learning or to enable what Carol Dweck coined as a “growth mindset.” Celebrating academic life doesn’t rely on ranking students. Schools can scrap traditions that reinforce fixed mindsets and other outdated assumptions about learning and build traditions that reflect and promote a growth mindset, that praise growth, and that prize the demonstration of mastery.

Traditions that build community

“Community” is used far too frequently as an alternative for “group.” Designation as a member of a community connotes far more than just the fact of association or shared identity — community implies active engagement with, contribution to, and being shaped in meaningful ways by the group with whom one is associated, with whom one shares an identity. In school life, community building often reinforces what seem to be natural boundaries, like grade levels or gender groups, but this is classification, not community building. Those boundaries were constructed, based on the insights and social conventions of a different time, but their pragmatic usefulness (articulating curricular scopes and sequences, organizing and supervising social interaction, and sorting smaller groups) have kept them around and largely unchallenged.

We know now that people’s brains and capacities develop at varying paces; we know that sorting people into a gender binary is deeply flawed; we know that the cost of participation can be out of reach for so many students; we know that children and adolescents are particularly sensitive to words and feelings, to being singled out and to being marginalized…and yet, many of our traditions that ignore these insights remain in tact. To students (and staff and families) who find themselves outside the explicit or implicit norm of a tradition, it’s one more message of “you don’t belong.” Schools can scrap traditions that explicitly or implicitly alienate students from each other, authorize some students over others, or come with an inaccessible cost and build traditions that give form to the kind of community your mission actually calls you to be.

Traditions that mark rites of passage

As schools are in the business of developing people, of citizens, and of society, it’s no surprise that ceremonies marking moments of transition reflect far more than acknowledgement of academic progress. Because high school graduation happens around the age of 18 for most students, graduation ceremonies do far more than concluding the process of basic academic education. The ceremonial practices associated with high school graduation — a formal processional, the walk across the stage, the reception of the written diploma, the flip of the tassel to the other side — effect the transition from childhood to adulthood, from learning to career, from dependence to independence. But now, many schools create a graduation ceremony for the end of middle school, for the end of lower school, for the end of kindergarten.

Seeing 5 year old children in academic robes may be adorable, but, developed by European universities in the Middle Ages, academic robes indicated the progress or completion of one’s degree. When replicated at earlier transition points, these practices carry with them the vocabulary and symbolism of a much different kind of transition, relegating both the kindergarten and high school graduations to little more than elaborate photo ops and diluting the value of the symbolic practices. Instead of replicating a developmentally inappropriate practice, why not mine the experience of those transitions to mark it appropriately? Schools can scrap developmentally inappropriate traditions and build traditions that truly reflect the transition or change being marked.

Traditions that engage a broader context

Most independent schools’ mission statements commit to preparing students who will be able to change the world for the better, and schools frequently review their curricula to be up to date with academic and scientific standards or to reflect particular social commitments and values. The time of a school’s founding, though, remains dominant over its symbolic and ceremonial practices. Like academic courses, community traditions prepare students to engage the world outside the school’s walls in meaningful and powerful ways, and it is through this kind of programming that many students shift their focus beyond the walls of the school. Thinking about the years to come and the potentially dramatic shifts we’ll see in our lives and in our schools, independent schools must face the ways their traditions perpetuate inequalities and reinforce socially-developmentally inappropriate expectations.

In terms of perpetuating inequalities, a glaringly obvious topic to explore is the dark side of the history of independent school, founded as elite institutions with all the restrictions that came with an elite world — no women, no Jews, no Catholics, no Blacks — while the price of tuition communicated a clear boundary to limit socio-economic diversity. Some schools were founded in the wake of “white flight,” the exodus of white families from urban centers in the wake of school and social integration. Most school communities have worked to distance themselves from these ethically troubling origins — some have earnestly scrutinized their histories in order to acknowledge and make amends in small and big ways — but symbols and practices that originated in those contexts persist. The very structures within a school community might be reinforcing inequalities in subtler ways. Policies that insist on “one boy and one girl” as co-leaders, pairing boys and girls (whether or not they identify as such) for formal processions, and “daddy-daughter” and “mother-son” dances reinforce potentially damaging gender constructs. Schools can scrap traditions that reinforce developmentally inappropriate expectations and build traditions that acknowledge diversity, promote inclusion, and prepare students not to dominate the world but to engage it.

Photo of a sign outside a school with the quote: “‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And you can, too.

Easier said than done, right, Hulseman? I know. It’s a 30,000 foot perspective while educators are in the trenches. Each school has its own constellation of traditions, values, and practices to explore, but change doesn’t come while gazing up into the (in this case, metaphorical) stars. Schools — specifically, people who make decisions about their schools’ cultures — need to make choices that are informed by thorough discernment. Here are some starting points: reflect, engage, and listen.

Reflect:

  • Dive deep into your mission, past all the buzzwords, and stick what is at the core.
  • Identify for whom the tradition exists and who is at the center of it.
  • Articulate your desired impact, where you want to go with the tradition, and what you want people to experience or do because of it.

Engage:

  • Research the origins of the tradition, the who-what-when-where-why-how of its institution.
  • Understand how and when and why it changed or was adapted over time.
  • Honestly assess its relevance to your community today.

Listen:

  • Invite your community members to articulate their experiences of the tradition.
  • Listen earnestly and whole-heartedly to the experiences of your community members. Pay attention to the ways they communicate about a tradition without words or direct feedback, through their participation or reticence.
  • Listen for discomfort, language of alienation or marginalization, or even for silence.
  • Listen for any transformation they experience, even temporarily. Listen for the ways people bring that experience with them, whether it’s just down the hall or years down the road. Listen for the things that tell you that the tradition “works,” that it actually effects what you desire.

Throughout, keep two questions at the fore:
Why are we doing this?
Do we see ourselves reflected in it?

In the coming weeks, I plan to post a few reflections on examples of adapted school traditions. If you know of a school tradition that has been adapted, I’d love to hear about it. Let’s connect!

Visit billhulseman.com for more information on weekly guided meditations, symposia, and opportunities to collaborate and to subscribe to my weekly newsletter.

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