Head of School Mr. Patrick Gallagher welcomed students to a new school year with remarks about the importance of a spirit of eager curiosity and striving to be more:
Last year, an intrepid young reporter scored a real scoop.
Keith Schiller, a bodyguard of President Trump’s, had been photographed. Atop a stack of papers in his hands, was a sticky note. Blown up and rotated, a handwritten note was clear: “Jim, Mad Dog, Mattis” – followed by a personal cell phone number for a top Cabinet official, the United States Secretary of Defense.
Much was made of this “revelation,” “exposure,” or “breach,” as the contact information of one of the most powerful men in the world was unwittingly made known to the world.
What made the story stand out for me, however, was not its momentary, blink-and-you-missed-it place in the 24-hour-a-day news cycle.
What made me want to share the story with you today is the fact that the reporter who moved on the unexpected ‘tip’ and won an interview with the publicity-shy Mattis was no established, hard-hitting career journalist from the ranks of The Wall Street Journal or The Washington Post. The reporter was one Teddy Fischer, a sophomore at Mercer Island High School in Washington state, and his paper was his high school newspaper, The Islander.
So, a resourceful and persistent teenager landed an interview that made him the envy of career professionals.
I believe Teddy’s initiative is worth pausing over as we embark together upon this new academic year.
His is an instructive example. By all accounts, he was persistent but respectful in seeking the interview, such that Mattis welcomed it with neither assumption nor prejudgment: “I speak the same to high schoolers, college grads, or congressmen,” he told Teddy. “I’ve found high schoolers to be plenty bright.” Likewise, Teddy did not shy from putting tough questions to the secretary; he took full advantage of his rare opportunity.
But more than a testament to a bold play well played, the thorough 5,000-word interview that resulted is also remarkable for Mattis’ advice to his teenage audience to engage seriously with the world.
“What subject areas do you think students should be studying in high school and beyond,” Fischer asked, “to better prepare themselves to be politically active and aware adults?”
“Actually, I’ve thought a lot about that question. I would tell you that no matter what you’re going to go into, whether it be business or politics or international relations or domestic politics, I don’t think you can go wrong if you maintain an avid interest in history... History will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask. [With] the human condition, the aspirations, the dreams, the problems that are associated with being social animals – not being a hermit and living alone, but having to interact with others, whether it be your local school district, your community, your state, your county, your national, your international relations – history will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask and, furthermore, it will show you how other people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with [them].”
Our mission at US is to inspire boys of promise to become young men of character who lead and serve. Dedicated faculty, rigorous curriculum, and experiential programs foster intellectual, physical, creative, and moral excellence.
As you think about the year ahead, your teachers and I encourage you to think about your own growth as we all work together to foster it.
Oftentimes our goals are measurable: cutting time in a run for a new personal best, or getting that practice ACT done before the testing date. Sometimes our goals are monolithic: learning to play the guitar (despite never having picked up an instrument) or searching for the next billion-dollar entrepreneurial idea (even without resources or any clue where to look).
But any meaningful goal, at least at the outset, can be modest, by comparison. All we are striving for, in any and all goals, is to be more – more capable or adept at something not yet mastered, in some fashion more than we were before.
Now before Mr. Lewis and his colleagues tell us they’re right and we’re wrong, that history is the only part of your schedule worthy of your attention, I want to attempt “equal time” for other dimensions of your studies.
This summer I finished a book I very much enjoyed called But What if We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is an ambitious and inventive thinker, and he takes on a huge range of topics in exploring his title question: whether, for example, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick really deserves to be considered great literature; if in the foreseeable future the most influential figure in American music might be Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, or someone else altogether; or even whether our understanding of something so fundamental and consequential as gravity might be overturned before too long.
In that last example, Klosterman tries mightily to get his bearings in a scientific setting where he freely admits he is outmatched by his interviewees (just as he would be by Mrs. Axelrod and her colleagues). He talks about developments in physics from Aristotle, to Isaac Newton, to scientists of today like Neil de Grasse Tyson and Brian Greene. In studying the history of great minds’ takes on the subject, Klosterman’s questions lead him to Greene’s conclusion: “There is a very, very good chance that our understanding of gravity will not be the same in five-hundred years.”
It’s a pretty radical statement of Greene’s, but a reasonable one given the series of questions he poses – and a reminder of just how valuable Klosterman’s open mind was in posing his questions.
Fischer, Mattis, Klosterman, and Greene are models for us. Each in his own way seeks to be more inquisitive, more knowledgeable, and more humble, asking questions of ourselves and others informed but not limited by the experience of those who came before. Their interests are not politics or physics. Their interests are not answers. Their interests are questions.
So as you start your classes today, I encourage you to take them head-on in this same spirit of eager curiosity. Ask good questions. Learn from your teachers’ and your classmates’ questions, just like those whose stories I have shared this morning. Don’t ask questions just to confirm what may or may not be on the test. Ask questions so you might understand all the better. Ask questions so that you and others might ask even better ones in the future. Ask questions today so that you are better tomorrow.