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Elvis, Nixon, and “I don’t know”

The last two weeks have passed by quickly, and the leaves outside our academic building are slowly turning toward fall. DC is feeling more and more like home to our students, and the piece of the city they will take back with them in December is growing exponentially.

Our second case study this semester, “Leadership in times of crisis,” gave us the opportunity to meet several historical figures, and to see how these leaders applied their ethical beliefs in the most difficult real world situations.

On Monday, students divided themselves into four classic leadership styles: Driver, Expressive, Analyst, and Supportive. Each group completed the same given task quite differently, and the ensuing conversation revealed, among other insights, the importance of having each style reflected in any decision making group.

Our mid-week trip brought us to the Holocaust Museum (our visit coincided with Rosh Hashanah) and the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. The Holocaust Museum visit allowed students to reflect on that era’s leadership decisions (both big and small) and their hopeful and terrifying consequences. At the center, we met with former NATO Ambassador and Special Counsel to the President David Abshire, who discussed the West Point cheating scandal of 1951, and Egil “Bud” Krogh, former Director of the Special Investigations Unit (better known as the “Plumbers”) in the Nixon Administration.

Bud (as he asked the students to call him) was responsible for approving the break-in at the office of Dr. Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist who had worked with Daniel Ellsburg, the man who released the Pentagon Papers. Bud went to prison for his actions and has since devoted his life to studying and educating students about integrity. Bud began his talk with the famous account of Elvis’s visit to the Oval Office, which Bud attended and helped to broker. (You can read about this visit, see pictures of Bud, the President, and Elvis, and read Bud’s offical account of the visit here. The climax of the story occurs when Elvis asks Nixon for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The President turned to Bud and asked, “Can we get him a badge, Bud?” Bud stopped the story here and asked the students, “What should I have said?” The correct answer? “I don’t know.” The actual answer? “Yes, Mr. President.” Bud’s point? Don’t be afraid to think for yourself and speak the truth, even if the energy in the room is pushing you to go along. Bud’s failure to take this advice would later lead to his incarceration and the downfall of the Nixon Administration. (In reality, a civilian cannot legally obtain such a badge, and Bud’s quick answer caused quite a stir at the Bureau. Elvis got his badge anyway.) Bud also presented his own matrix for making ethical decisions, called “The Integrity Zone.” The diagram tells us to ask three key questions when faced with an ethical decision: “Is it whole?” “Is it good?” and “Is it right?”

On Friday, Bud joined us at SEGL to present us with a gripping case study drawn from his time at the White House. In 1972, Bud was responsible for addressing the takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs by American Indian activists. The potential for destruction and death was high, just days before the Presidential election. (click here to read the set-up that we read prior to Krogh’s visit. You’ll have to ask an SEGL student what really happened!) How Bud arrived at his eventual decision is a study in ethical leadership in times of crisis.

Friday evening after a dinner of chicken curry we watched “Ghosts of Rwanda,” a devastating PBS documentary that chronicles the United States’ response to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Amidst the tears following the film, one student rallied her peers: “This is why we are here. Let’s take action to make sure this never happens again.” The following morning, we met with one of the people featured in the film. Carl Wilkens was the only American (and one of only a handful of Westerners) who chose to stay behind during the genocide. His choice, and his subsequent actions (including saving an entire orphanage from certain slaughter), speak to the power of ethical leadership in the most awful of circumstances. Along with his wife Teresa, who traveled to neighboring Kenya with their children during the genocide, Carl told the students powerful stories and challenged them to reflect on their own assumptions about others. (Carl’s website is www.worldoutsidemyshoes.org. He is also currently writing his memoirs.)

LESSONS/VISITS On Monday, students studied the classic Western political philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. We introduced these thinkers because each has an ideal mechanism for the way groups of citizens ought to make decisions (for example, Hobbes’ Leviathan or Rousseau’s volonte generale). We then discussed the preeminent political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls, stepping behind his famous “veil of ignorance” to form the rules for our own ideal education system. Students voted anonymously on a variety of topics, deciding to allow charter schools, to outlaw the education of illegal/undocumented immigrants, to pay for low-income children to attend private schools, etc. They were then given new identities and imagined living with the consequences of their decisions in this new society.

This week’s case study focused on education in the District of Columbia. Taking advantage of the mayoral primary held on Tuesday (DC is overwhelmingly Democratic and so primary winners are expected to take office), we investigated a polarizing issue that relates directly to each of our students’ current and future lives. SEGL students played the dual role of citizens and future parents/guardians. How ought DC to improve its schools? Are the reforms of DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee a success? Are charter schools good for the District? Do independent school students receive an unfair advantage? Should the government subsidize independent school tuition for low-income students? And where do our students want to send their own children to school (public, charter, religious, independent) some day?

Now that we have investigated several classical ethical theories (Aristotle, Kane, and Mill), and seen how several historical figures have applied ethical thinking to critical leadership decisions, we can explore how societies respond to crises (in this case, the public education crisis in DC). We therefore began our case study with social contract theory, as exemplified by the political philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Each thinker has a different take on human nature, and therefore a different take on the ideal form of government. (For example, Hobbes believes that humans left to their own devices in a “state of nature” would lead “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” lives; this requires a government with wide-ranging authority.) We then discussed the preeminent political philosopher of the 20th century, John Rawls, stepping behind his famous “veil of ignorance” to form the rules for our own ideal education system. Students voted anonymously on a variety of topics, deciding to allow charter schools, to limit support for the education of illegal/undocumented immigrants, to pay for low-income children to attend private schools, etc. They were then given new identities and imagined living with the consequences of their decisions in this new society.

On Tuesday during Flex Period (the homework-free afternoon/evening before Wednesday’s E&L session), Jay Rapp from the National Association of Independent Schools led students on a series of exercises designed to explore our different backgrounds and experiences. SEGL’s student body is remarkably diverse, which allows our discussions on education (and many other subjects) to be richer and more complete. The conversations which followed the exercises were promising and fascinating; diversity is a difficult topic (and can be a difficult reality) and I am impressed with our students’ willingness to engage respectfully and honestly.

On Wednesday, we visited two of DC’s best schools and spoke with students and administrators. First, we traveled to the National Cathedral School, an all-girls private religious school. In the afternoon, we traveled to the Anacostia neighborhood–one of DC’s poorest–and toured Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School. Though students found both schools impressive, the contrasts (college placement, facilities, drop-out rates, etc.) were striking. In between visits students discussed the No Child Left Behind Act, the ethics of independent schools, and DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s plan.

Friday’s culminating session was a first for SEGL: we invited five distinguished educators to join us for a conversation about education in DC. Our guests included David Shapiro, head of the Edmund Burke School in DC; Jesse Nickelson, a top DCPS administrator; Gene Batiste, Vice President at NAIS; Kris Amundson, former Virginia state legislator and Fairfax County, Virginia School Board chair, and current Communications Manager at the think tank Education Sector; and Dede McClure, a charter schools advocate. (Dede brought along a very special unannounced guest; speak with an SEGL student to find out more.) Rather than a panel discussion, with questions for and answers from experts, our goal was a conversation in which students and guests were on equal footing. The conversation was intense but collegial, and students rose admirably to the challenge. Understandably, much of the discussion centered around Chancellor Rhee, a lightening rod for praise and criticism whose days as Chancellor may be limited (her boss, current Mayor Adrian Fenty, was ousted in the primary).

Tonight we will relax with salsa lessons from Maylen and an impromptu dance. Stay tuned for pictures next week! Meanwhile, our next case study will be on global HIV/AIDS.

Sep 18, 2010

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