All-School Apathy

Why does it take a tragedy to unite a school? In the unsettling wake of hateful acts at our peer schools, Phillips Academy held specially-arranged meetings by cluster this Wednesday during the time allotted for All-School Meeting. Walking in groups across campus, through the chill of an end-of-winter fog, students discussed the events with one another, trying to make sense of what happened. At more than one cluster meeting, these regrettable events sparked meaningful debate, as students shared personal experiences and questioned whether a similar incident could happen here. Students were respectful at these meetings, motivated by the seriousness of the topic or perhaps genuine interest. Phillips Academy All-School Meetings should always be held to this caliber of discussion. They should offer thought-provoking speakers every Wednesday, to achieve the purpose of ASM: to unite, enrich, inform, entertain and stimulate the community. There is no reason for students to sidle into the chapel apathetically every week, to reach distractedly for cell phones and unfinished homework or lean back in the pews, eyes and mind shut. To many students, All-School Meeting is a tarnished tradition that has become part of an irreverent routine. But with some changes to the status quo, Phillips Academy can reclaim ASM and instead make it an engaging break from the somewhat monotonous routine of student life, as well as a time for the entire school come together. First, whenever possible, lectures at All-School Meetings should be followed by question and answer periods. A time students once used to challenge speakers or clarify uncertainties has eroded to a single suspenseful pause at the end of speeches, in which a trembling mass of students, gripping their backpacks, awaits dismissal. Second, teachers should attend All-School Meetings. Without the presence of faculty members, “All-School” is a misnomer, and ASM is instead just the student body’s rare quality time with the administration. Third, there is a simple way to address the issue of students doing work during ASM: move All-School Meeting to the end of the Wednesday schedule. That way, students will not feel compelled to study for a test or cram the last few pages of an unfinished reading for their next-period class, and may instead focus on the speaker or presentation. Finally, there is the issue of choosing the speakers. It is undoubtedly a challenging task to find speakers that are capable of holding the attention of an audience of 1200 people between the ages of 13 and 19, for 30 minutes in the middle of the day. Still, the worst speakers usually fail on three counts: a lack of a sense of humor, an inability to relate to students or poor oratory skills – including the inability to use the microphone or enunciate. The school should use its resources as effectively as possible; there should be fewer traditional All-School Meetings, so that Phillips Academy does not sacrifice quality speakers for quantity. Financing for ASM comes from many different sources, and that money should be spent on speakers that will be worth listening to – whether because they represent a controversial point of view or because they have accomplished something extraordinary. If a speaker cannot hold students’ attention, it is no wonder that iPods and private conversations begin to emerge in an embarrassing hum of ambient noise. In addition to Cluster Meetings, Class Meetings and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech, there should be five meetings in the Fall, three in the Winter and four in the Spring. While it would be unfeasible to bring twelve interesting and engaging speakers, seven should be reserved for customary programs, not requiring a lecturer, including combined student-faculty entertainment, and five for outstanding speakers. To get our money’s worth, these All-School Meetings should be extended by at least 15 minutes. The current 30-45 minute program time only allows presenters to skim the surface of some issues, and we often receive the abridged version of an otherwise comprehensive and compelling speech. The free time slots could then be used for optional community-oriented programs, such as Philo Forums or CAFÉ meetings. These community forums would provide a convenient setting for dialogue between students and faculty. A successful All-School Meeting requires two things: an engaging speaker and a cooperative audience. Although reducing the number of All-School Meetings may reduce the rare time we spend together as a community, the occasional times we would meet would hopefully be more worthwhile. The current All-School Meeting program earnestly tries to unify the student body by meeting often, but falls short of its goal by not keeping students engaged. It should not take extraordinary circumstances to engage Phillips Academy students, but it will take a few improvements. Note: The Phillipian would like to commend Associate Dean of Students Carlos Hoyt for his efforts in gathering student input on the All-School Meeting program.