Headmaster’s Newsletter

Your Vote Is Your Voice

October 27, 2020

Message from the headmaster



A couple of weeks ago, St. Johnsbury Academy Social Studies teacher, local business owner, and State Representative Scott Beck gave a timely Chapel talk about the critical importance of voting to our democracy. He cited instances of local elections hinging on just one vote — which is evidently not as rare as you would think — and it was daunting but exhilarating to consider that one vote could mean the difference between one person or another being empowered to represent us in our government. As I listened, it struck me that right now many Americans are feeling genuine anxiety about just this fact: that our ability to be heard or represented could depend on the strength of one voice.


This year we’ve been asking students at the Academy to spend more time asking questions than declaring. We’re asking them to engage in Socratic dialogue, to check their assumptions, and to be careful of alienating each other in their classes by expressing personal political beliefs, or offering hyper-partisan views. We ask this because we want our classrooms to be safe spaces for students to engage in culturally and intellectually critical conversations about everything, including racism, justice, and civil and human rights, without feeling that we are pushing any one point of view.


I think this is right. St. Johnsbury Academy as a school does not take a political stand on issues of the day, or back a political candidate, or support one party or another. I feel strongly that we should not do this. This is why the only flag we fly is the American flag, and why we ask community members not to wear flags and symbols on their clothes or masks.


But I don’t want anyone in this community to think that this means we don’t stand for anything, because we certainly do. We stand for and will continue to teach, as I believe the Academy always has, values that do not belong exclusively to one political party or another — that are not matters of ideology but of ethics — not matters of party affiliation but of basic respect for each other’s humanity. There is an essential difference between indoctrination — which is the insistence on uncritical acceptance of certain beliefs — and teaching — which is the insistence on critical inquiry, questioning, and reasoning.


And while questioning is an important part of teaching, we also uphold values in our community that are absolute and beyond question. Chief among these is the equality and right to equal treatment of people of all races, religions, genders and gender identities, nationalities, and beliefs — this is not an issue to be debated, but a self-evident truth to be cherished. We want students to be very clear that when we say we want to create a safe space at this school for civil discourse, we don’t mean that there is safe space for hatred, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny, ignorance, or violence. There is no safe space here for bullying and intimidation, or for reinscription of pain and harmful prejudice. The best teaching space is not safe from discomfort — learning can be tremendously uncomfortable — but is instead space in which it is safe to discuss, disagree, and widen our perspectives.


We are all in the process of becoming who we are — and while we often delight and amaze each other, we also often make mistakes and hurt each other, or try on postures or take actions that make us feel powerful at the expense of others. We are here to help students find their way out of those kinds of mistakes, to avoid hurting others without meaning to, and to understand how to be good people in the world, curious about and compassionate toward the people around them.


Mr. Beck ended with an exhortation to our eligible community members to please, please vote, and I want to do the same here. Voting is a precious right of citizenship, and it is your voice in how you are governed. Until you use that voice, you never know how important it might be.


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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