November 11, 2011
Last Wednesday the Upper School had the good fortune to hear a presentation from University of Richmond President, Dr. Edward L. Ayers. Dr. Ayers, a renowned, award-winning Southern historian, offered us a thought-provoking and enlightening lesson in American history, one that resonated with our community on many levels, from the way he used technology as a vehicle for enhanced teaching, to the core message about the way in which an understanding of our history is crucial to our ability to operate in and contribute to our modern world. As an educator and a citizen, I thought Ayers’ presentation was an impressive example of how the teaching of history can strengthen our civic understanding. In reminding us of the importance of recognizing the hard questions that are central to our national heritage, Dr. Ayers illustrated why historical understanding is so central to civic literacy which is itself so critical to being an informed and active contributor to our civic enterprise, the democratic process. Meanwhile, in challenging us to face up to hard truths about the causes of the Civil War, Dr. Ayers forced us to face the sometimes unpleasant past from which our present sprouted and from which our future will ultimately grow. Such an effort is not easy, but it offered a sterling example of the role education generally, and history more specifically, can and must play in our effort to foster a civic mindset.
Dr. Ayers’ work at the University of Richmond has been no less distinctive. Indeed, at a time when educational leadership is too often confused with management and the race to become more prestigious and selective often leads to a program more aimed at marketing than educating, Dr. Ayers has articulated a clear vision aimed at ensuring that the University of Richmond offers a program noteworthy for the quality of its liberal arts curriculum while being clear in its institutional goals of opportunity and access to that student centered type of educational experience. Indeed, while he is in the forefront of efforts to more effectively utilize technology in the historical profession, he is a passionate and articulate spokesman for the importance of the human connection in the educational process. After years of teaching undergraduates in large lecture classes at the University of Virginia, he has a distinctive perspective as he touts the value of the small classes that characterize the Richmond experience and the value of the human connection inherent in that more personalized approach. Indeed, while I think President Ayers would probably be the first to acknowledge that that there is no single way to teach effectively, while also recognizing that there are many different reasons that students choose the schools they do, he and the University of Richmond offer a clear example of a model that serves students in an impressive fashion and that also reflects the commitment to the kind of rigorous, intellectual experience that has been the hallmark of Dr. Ayers’ scholarly efforts.
No less impressive, has been the way the he has demonstrated how university leadership (in ways no less applicable to independent schools) can reach out and engage the broader community in discussions and dialogues that can benefit all. Indeed, the lesson that President Ayers shared with the Upper School was simply a small piece of the community wide discussion that he has been fostering in the greater Richmond community, an effort that has garnered him and the university much notice but more importantly has raised the level of civic and cultural awareness. Such a dialogue about our past and its relationship to our future demonstrates clearly the incalculable value of the study of history in a democratic society that is founded in the belief that an educated polity can govern itself. When President Ayers challenged the students to actively and intellectually pursue a greater understanding of how it is that we came to where we are and then to use that understanding to advance all of us in the ongoing effort to achieve the promise that is at the heart of the American experiment, he was calling upon us to fulfill our fundamental civic responsibility. In that way, in a democratic system rooted in “we the people,” Dr. Ayers’ presentation was an important reminder of the link, too often forgotten, between our past and out future. Indeed, our understanding of our shared past is critical to the assumption, the embracing of our shared civic responsibility which is ultimately the engine for the pursuit and realization of our shared future. There can be no more laudable goal for an educational institution.