We have officially surpassed the midpoint of summer. Sadly, just five weeks stand between us and the start of new faculty orientation, faculty meetings, and the slow build up to the start of the year. Between now and then, we will enjoy sunshine, warm temperatures, and regular swims in Elbow Pond. We will read, journal, and listen to all the podcasts we don’t have time for during the school year. We will take time to reflect on our work as educators and our role in influencing young people’s lives at Proctor.
One of the hidden joys of living in a learning community like Proctor is the constant intellectual stimulation by coworkers. Emails and texts fly back and forth, even during the deepest doldrums of summer, sharing innovative perspectives on education, learning, and our collective work at Proctor. Two such pieces floated through my sphere this week:
- A Hidden Brain podcast on the influence of brands on our identity.
- An essay by Cody Delistraty published on AEON titled “Why the Coming of Age Narrative is a Conformist Lie” .
Both pieces challenged my thinking, forced me to take a step back and re-evaluate not only our work creating communications and marketing content for Proctor, but our role as an independent, college-preparatory boarding school. I encourage you listen to the podcast and read the essay. Absorb the content within the context of Proctor and think critically about how our independence of thought has been compromised by a constant influx of media, marketing, images, and societal expectations. As a school that prides itself on helping to develop independent, critical-thinking young people, the cultural barriers we must overcome in pursuit of this goal are significant.
Shankar Vedantam’s interview with Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, illuminates the power brands have on our identity, not just our behaviors, as consumers. He notes, “A brand is so much more than a tagline or a logo, it is more of a meaning system. Therefore, a brand is a promise to deliver on values, and to connect consumers who might have in their minds a sense of synchronicity to what they believe those values are.” Whether we like it or not, the shoes we wear, jackets we buy, the political party or the professional sports team with which we associate have successfully infiltrated our lives and have become a part of our identity. With each brand association, we willingly chip away at the objectivity with which we live our lives. We insulate ourselves from any attack on our identity, and in turn, hinder our ability to think independently about who we are and who we desire to become.
Cody Delistraty’s essay weaves a similarly pessimistic narrative around one of the principles central to most boarding school’s value propositions: the pursuit of self-discovery through coming of age experiences. Among the countless gems in Delistraty's piece is the following:
“The idea of there being a single ‘self’, hidden in a place that only maturity and adulthood can illuminate and which, like archaeologists, we might dig and dust away the detritus to find, is to believe that there is some inner essence locked within us – and that unearthing it could be a key to working out how to live the rest of our lives. This comforting notion of coming of age, of unlocking a true ‘self’ endures, even though it is out of step with current thinking in psychology, which denies a singular identity, and instead posits the idea of staged development, or an eternally malleable sense of self that shifts as we grow older, and with the uniqueness of our personal experience.”
Parents often wait with great anticipation for the ‘moment’ their child will come of age, but we have known for generations as educators that maturation is a slow, gradual process. There is no magical moment, no singular transformative experience. Sure, students who study abroad at Proctor see accelerated growth during their ten weeks off-campus. Yes, certain programs, classes, and relationships will inevitably serve as a catalyst for development. We know definitively adolescents who feel safe and surrounded by trust will be open to deeper learning. But most importantly, we believe every child, every human, is on their own unique journey through life with an identity as fluid as the experiences they will encounter. The years we share with our students are merely a piece of that journey.
The pressures we feel to grow up, to arrive, to have that transformative experience that will define us are creations of the identity-sucking brands that inundate us with powerful messaging. As a school, and as individuals, we must work to counter this narrative with one of independence of thought, where we are empowered to be ourselves, to live in the moment, and to enjoy each experience for what it is, and not for the impact we believe it might have on who society desires us to become. If our students graduate simply knowing they are enough, what a gift to our world that will be.