The following letter is adapted from remarks delivered to the Upper School student body and faculty at the Presidential Service Award assembly on Monday, May 2.
Cooperation on a massive scale is the signature behavior of our species. In his 2011 book Sapiens, the Israeli historian Yuval Harari writes that human beings have evolved to “cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world.”
Very often the catalysts for human cooperation are, of course, essentially selfish ones—the betterment of our individual circumstances, or the improvement of our present conditions or future prospects. Indeed, your enrollment at MICDS is one example. The college preparatory project in which we are all engaged here is a complex cooperative undertaking that endeavors to increase the likelihood of your future success and happiness, as individuals, through education.
Material self-interest is not the singular genesis of human cooperation, however. Curiosity is another—the urge to learn, to discover, and to create—and our work together at MICDS is an example of these motivations as well. A former colleague of mine at another school, who was both an exceptional Calculus BC and English teacher and a hall-of-fame lacrosse player and coach, referred to the impetus for this wondering and wonderful kind of cooperation—both on and off the field—as “the love of the game.”
The most sustainable inspiration for cooperation, however, is an interest in the betterment of others. Last week, in speaking to the senior class about the importance of prioritizing philanthropic gifts and actions in their adult lives ahead, I shared a related statement by the twentieth-century French writer and activist Simone de Beauvoir. “One’s life has value,” she said, “so long as one attributes value to the life of others.”
The nineteenth-century American educational reformer Horace Mann, a person whose own life was thoroughly defined by the attribution of value to the lives of others—and who is perhaps more responsible for the establishment of elementary and secondary public schools throughout our country than any other person in our history—put it this way: “Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves. We must purposely be kind and generous, or we miss the best part of existence.”
To all of you whose commendable work of service to others is honored in this assembly—and to all of you gathered here in attendance as well—it is a privilege to celebrate “the best part of existence” with you this morning. Thank you, and congratulations.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. My best wishes to you for a joyful weekend ahead.
Head of School
This week’s addition to the “Refrains for Rams” playlist: Ghost by Katie Toupin (Apple Music / Spotify)