Good evening! Welcome to The Brandeis School of San Francisco. I greet you tonight in the midst of a challenging process, as you try to find the right school for your child and community for your family. It is a process that asks you to know your child as a learner just as they’ve begun engaging with formal learning environments, to imagine your preschooler as an adolescent, to look into the crystal ball for your family’s future and find what you and your child will most need and value, and where you will find the most powerful growth and connection. That is hard to do!
I like to begin these open houses by noting that finding the right school is made all the more complex by the moment in history in which you are raising children. In the middle of the last century Americans as a whole felt anxiety in the workplace and mastery in the home. In the second half of the 20th century those poles shifted, as parenting has become a domain of expertise, a science with an entire literature behind it. We have all read a book or part of a book (or many books!) on the topic of our child’s sibling relationships, or fussy eating, how to discipline without fighting, how to find a zen state in the whirlwind of sleeplessness, or tantrums, or anxiety. This is a graph of the incidence of the word “parenting” in English language books from 1900 to 2000, which is a flat line at zero until about 1970, at which point it spikes, building that pile of books on your bedside table. While those books may be individually helpful, collectively they tell us that we do not know what we are doing as parents.
And tonight, you are here weighing all these variables, imagining your future child, in the wake of a historically fractious presidential election. Many in our communities woke up last Wednesday morning in a different country than the one they thought they lived in—a country that was angrier, less tolerant of difference, and more willing to look past misogyny than they’d imagined or hoped. Because our entire country indulged in a carnival of negativity and othering throughout this election cycle, many of our children woke last Wednesday afraid—afraid because their friends have brown skin or are immigrants, or because they have two mothers, or because they are Muslim, or Jewish. I woke last Wednesday morning to the ugly reality that I had made this election harder on my children than it needed to be, by reaching for simple answers when more complicated ones would have better prepared them to truly understand other perspectives.
See, I don’t know about you, but my five-year-old asks a lot of questions. Like, a lot of questions—from simple clarifying ones about picture books to the infinite whys of any given day. It’s a practice that can be trying as a parent, but also one that suits this community well. From the four questions at Passover to the thoughtful intellectual engagement that sets our foundation for teaching and learning, questioning is a ritual here at Brandeis, and one we cherish. As Rabbi Hillel taught:
A person who does not ask questions will never learn, and a teacher who is too strict cannot teach. (2.5)
Asking questions is also central to the work of design. Recently, we hosted a conference on design thinking and early childhood. In one session, we had our lead curriculum designer for this CREATE space along with folks from the Center for Children’s Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and from the K12 Lab Network at Stanford’s d.school. Here at Brandeis our approach to design insists upon the centrality of Jewish ethics to the process—of an ethical creativity that is tuned toward building a better world. This is a topic they are also wrestling with at the K12 Lab—the ethics of empathy, as they describe it—and we are exploring with them how our two approaches to the question can be mutually reinforcing. Susie Wise, who runs the K12 Lab project, explains that
Empathy is, of course, the root of human-centered design. Leading with empathy builds on the classic definition of "walking in someone else's shoes" to get us out of our own heads and into the lived reality of others so that we can understand the implicit needs and root causes of the situations in which we work. Leading with empathy means pushing yourself to get closer to people, and to do so consistently, publicly, and with conviction.
This kind of empathy, of attempting to truly understand the lived reality of other people, and especially people who are different from us—a radical empathy, as we’ve been talking about it at Brandeis—feels especially important right now, as our country feels built more of gaps and differences than similarities and connections. And our insistence on Jewish ethics as an underpinning for that empathy-based design work is not just idealistic—we face challenging new ethical questions seemingly daily, as advances in wearable technology or bioengineering bring into the world what had previously lived in science fiction novels. We want our students to leave Brandeis and become leaders in designing solutions to real world problems, as much as they are leaders in grappling with the meaningful ethical dilemmas that will they face along the way.
I recently read an article in the Times Sunday Review titled with the provocative question “Whose Life Should Your Car Save?” In it, the authors explored a challenge presented by the autonomous cars beginning to show up on our roads—essentially, the question is whether the safety systems in these cars should be tuned toward saving the lives of the passengers in them, or pedestrians or other drivers. This picture comes from a project created by the MIT researchers who authored the article, called the Moral Machine, which paints stark either-or scenarios, and asks you as a viewer to choose which feels like a better outcome. In this case, a brake failure, and the car must decide—the passengers or the pedestrians? This one’s tough—though I’ll admit my own anthropocentric worldview here, and tell you that the ones featuring animals were no difficult decision for me.
I bring this up tonight not just because this is a fascinating set of questions, though it is, but to point out the purpose of the work we are doing, in connecting learning and purpose, and design and ethics, in making it matter. In this wireless present, when you can order up an organic lunch that arrives to your office in minutes, or in a not-too-distant future when we’ll ride to school in cars that make decisions for us, we need to ground our children in the rituals of asking good questions and checking their own spiritual and ethical compass as they go about their day. We need to be raising children who can see the human and the good in themselves and each other, and bring the light of that empathy to their work in the world.
I want to end tonight with a poem by Samuel Menashe, a Jewish poet from the latter half of the 20th century whose work is fairly new to me. This is the first poem from his first collection published here in the U.S., in 1971:
The shrine whose shape I am
Has a fringe of fire
Flames skirt my skin
There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the Prophets and Blake
And like David I bless myself
With all my might
I know many hills were holy once
But now in the level lands to live
Zion ground down must become marrow
Thus in my bones I’m the King’s son
And through death’s terrain I go
Making my own procession
It seemed fitting to end here tonight, as a reminder that there is no United States but these United States, and there is no earth but the one we walk. However you think of the sacred—as God, the universe, nature, the connections between us all—we carry it with us as we go. And it is our work here at Brandeis, and all of our work as parents, to teach our children well, that they carry such strength as that, even to their bones. Because the shrine whose shape our children are, is precisely the possibility of the new worlds they will imagine, and imagining, build.
Thank you for being here with us.