Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person. — Walt Whitman
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours. — President Barack Obama
At the beginning of this week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and on Friday we will see the transfer of power from our first African American president to a new administration. In the face of globalization and changing demographics, our country is struggling to define itself and navigate a clear path to the future. This is not the first time that the United States has weathered concerns about identity, economic upheaval, and the integration of new markets; these issues have been a constant in the narrative of our country. Democracy is about managing differences, not about universal chorus, and now more than ever our children must grow up with the tools to successfully navigate these dissimilarities.
Nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman, fondly remembered as the “Bard of Democracy,” celebrated America in his ambitious and expansive verse. His iconoclastic style broke the conventions of traditional poetry and blurred the distinction between nature and art. He celebrated high and low culture and attempted to reproduce life as he saw it. In “Song of Myself,” written as a distinctly American epic poem, Whitman says: “I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” He is referring not only to our individual intricate and elaborate identities, but more broadly to our collective nation, its energies and contradictions that Whitman deemed exciting and optimistic. Whitman’s message of hope and change sounds just as relevant and radical today.
I don’t know about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s literary heroes, but I can’t help but think that he appreciated Whitman’s hopeful, expansive vision of America. Each year, many return to Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which at the 1963 March on Washington galvanized countless followers in his call to end racism and to enact civil rights. Generally, we focus on this speech as a cultural artifact; less often do we analyze it for its expert rhetoric. Dr. King knew the power of metaphor to make an argument. Metaphor helps people to absorb ideas because we are hard-wired to think in the language of comparisons. Metaphors create an embodied, emotionally-rich experience, and therefore connect us and inspire empathy. In “I Have a Dream,” Dr. King artfully used metaphors of hot/cold, soft/hard, dark/light, and thirst/satisfaction to sway his listeners. With a brilliantly constructed speech and his powerful conviction, Dr. King roused his audience of millions to share his dream of freedom and equality for all. His speech still resonates 54 years later, not least of all because we have more work to do on behalf of equality and justice, but also because of its strategic design that continues to speak to us.
Last week President Obama ended his moving farewell address with young people in mind: “This generation coming up—unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic…you believe in a fair and just and inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, that it’s not something to fear but something to embrace; you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. …I believe…the future is in good hands.” Our students are inheriting our complex world and are grappling with how to be in it.
Issues of identity, economic upheaval, and new markets will persist; our country will continue to diversify, and we will need to continue to make hard choices about how we will want to engage these changes for the betterment of upcoming generations.
At Turning Point, we teach our students to learn how to think critically about complex situations—viewing them with a broad lens representing multiple points of view and multi-faceted causes and effects. Like Dr. King we want them to learn how to represent their beliefs with profound power and impact; like Whitman we want them to invent innovative ways to express their ideas; like President Obama we want them to act out of love and empathy for their fellow citizens and to expect as much from themselves as they do from their country. With history to guide them and hope to carry them, our children will continue to develop into thoughtful, ethical, bright national and global citizens.
Dr. Laura Konigsberg
Head of School