Headmaster Dennis Manning closes end-of-year chapels, closing ceremonies, and even Graduation with an exhortation to students, that -- while often varied in its expression -- can be summed up in a single word: “Read!"
Faculty don't need the encouragement, as they view the summer months as prime time to dive into books that have been piling up on shelves and e-readers. While teachers read individually, there is a decades-long school tradition that they are also assigned a collective “summer read," a book that will drive professional development at fall faculty meetings.
Typically, the summer reading reflects the faculty's shared vocation, as well as contemporary issues and challenges of which Mr. Manning likes to make sure the faculty stays cognizant -- books about child development, philosophy, history of ideas, pedagogy, new approaches to spurring students' curiosity, and the national educational landscape are often featured.
In keeping with this important professional habit, this year Mr. Manning has selected two works that reflect the school's commitment to advancing social justice and deepening our understanding of slavery and racism, which he elucidated in his Headmaster's Statement: Creating a Just Society on June 4. The book choices are recent publications, one fiction and one historical, that explore racism in American history and the enduring impact on contemporary society:
-- Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., was published last year and referenced in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2019. Gates's history explores the Civil War and the promise and paradox of Reconstruction, which was methodically dismantled, as the rights that blacks had gained were stripped away; he also explains how the years following Reconstruction affect Americans today. Gates created a PBS series, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, which offers another layer of explanation to the material in the book.
-- The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, portrays a “network of black and white activists who helped slaves escape to freedom in the decades before the Civil War — and turns it from a metaphor into an actual train that ferries fugitives northward." A New York Times reviewer, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, called the novel “a brave and necessary book," noting that the novel is also about the “myriad ways in which black history has too often been stolen by white narrators."
Mr. Manning's letter to the faculty expanded upon his June 4 statement, in which he noted the force of the national awakening and expressed the school's intent to act with renewed conviction. For himself, he also noted, this has been a time of reflection, introspection, and learning in recent weeks, as he has been talking to alumni, parents, grandparents, and current students. He noted that he has also met with the faculty leaders of the Pluralism Committee, who are working on initiatives arising from the school's recently adopted strategic plan, “Creating a Just Society: Integrity, Leadership, and Pluralism," so that work can continue throughout the summer.
“All members of our community share an aspiration for us to improve, to be better, in the ways we serve all of our students — especially our students of color," he said in his letter to faculty. “Yes, there have been measurable achievements and gains. But I would rather us focus on the future and ways we need to improve, calling on all of us to redouble our efforts to 'prepare our students to be useful members of a democracy' and to help “create a just society," as our mission enjoins us to do."
Interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. from Fresh Air with Terry Gross on NPR
Reviews of Underground Railroad: New York Times (and podcast excerpt)
In-depth article about Colson Whitehead, cover story in Time Magazine, “America's Storyteller."