Brandeis 2023 Today - The Purpose of Challenge

The Purpose of Challenge
by Dr. Dan Glass, Head of School
In my welcome at lower school Back to School Night this week, I shared a piece of an invocation from Rabbi Saul White, one of the founders of our beloved school. I had a chance to sift through his papers some years ago, held in a special collection at UC Berkeley, and was stunned by the beauty of the words he shared on a variety of public occasions. I love sharing his thinking with our community, because, especially in celebrating this 60th year, I find great strength and inspiration in recognizing throughlines between the concerns of his era and our own. His affirmations of the value of democracy, equity, empathy, and justice—all of them resonate with our own contemporary hopes for our students and our community. 

One sentence from the invocation which I didn’t share reads “we are grateful for the restless spirit in each of us that pushes us to strive to outdistance and transcend ourselves.” I cut that line for time, for the record, not for any lack of appreciation for its message! I find myself thinking of that line, as I consider the why of a challenging academic program. 

As Jenny Rinn noted in her speech on Tuesday, we have spent the last few years in a structured pedagogy and curriculum review process, asking our faculty to consider both how we teach and what we teach, across the school. Teams of teachers have researched current thinking and best practices on everything from inquiry-based education to writing instruction, and have come up with recommendations ranging from how we select books to a new lower school math curriculum. In nearly twenty years of working in independent schools, it was the most rigorous and thoughtful process of curriculum review I have ever participated in. 

Jenny Rinn’s talk focused on how data informed the process of selecting the new math curriculum, and what data we expect to use in measuring outcomes for our students in math. As she noted, challenging academics being core to work here at Brandeis was front and center in our last strategic plan, just as it is central to our mission statement. But why is a challenging academic program important? To use another important word from our mission statement, what is its purpose?

Certainly, those of us who believe in this kind of educational program believe that school, at its best, helps push kids to be their best. As we noted in the 2023 plan, “We believe that all students deserve a school that stretches, supports, and inspires them.” We seek and create schools like Brandeis because we want our children to have the foundation they need to succeed. And for many of us, what we mean by success extends beyond just a measure of material stability and happiness, toward making a positive impact in the lives of our families and our communities. The Jobsian “dent in the universe.” Repairing the world. 

Which brings me back to the quote from Rabbi White: “we are grateful for the restless spirit in each of us that pushes us to strive to outdistance and transcend ourselves.” That restless spirit is what we hope is sparked and nurtured by a challenging academic program. In turn, we hope that our students go on to transcend themselves, think beyond themselves, and move the world beyond the limits of what is currently known.