Head of School Installation Speech

Ron Kim, Head of School
Thank you,  Bishop Brown Snook. Welcome to all our special guests and friends here today. Your presence here says so much about this school and about the importance of this day.  I believe this may be the first time that we have combined the head of school installation with a matriculation ceremony. It seemed proper to do this as a reminder that what we do is always about the students in our care.

None of us accomplishes anything noteworthy alone so I would like to begin by recognizing my family. My mom, my older sisters Susan and Linda, my wife Theresa, and my children Maya and Sam sitting in the first row.  I wouldn’t be here without their love, support and guidance over many decades.

I have been working in independent schools for 26 years, and one of the great delights is to see your former students become adults in the world.  When I was asked if I wanted to invite someone to speak, I knew that I wanted a former student. Teaching and nurturing young people is the ultimate joy of this work, and it felt right to have my former student Geena Kandel here. You will hear from her soon, but I want to say that she was one of the students who I knew well and in turn she knew me well through our U.S. history class and also in my role as an advisor during her senior year. And we share a love of golden retrievers and history. For the students in the audience, she is someone you would recognize—hard working, generous and kind, endlessly curious to learn and eager to make a difference.  

As I thought about beginning as head of this great school and what to share on this day, I knew that I wanted to link my past and the School’s past with the present and the future. Before I went down the path of school leadership, I was a teacher of American history, and Geena and I were in a memorable fall term class many years ago that began with the colonial period and ended at the cusp of the American Civil War. One of the books I assigned for that class was a book by historian Eric Foner called the "Story of American Freedom." In his brilliant book, Foner described how the idea of freedom, so central and fundamental to the identity of this nation, also evolved and was re-interpreted over time--how the ideas of personal, political, religious, moral and economic freedom often overlapped and clashed, even to the extent that some could argue that they had the freedom to own another person. It was fascinating to study how our core principles remain but what they mean can change over time and context. It was no secret to the class how much I loved these historical discussions and the book by Foner which propelled them.

At the end of the term, Geena gave me a gift, and it was Eric Foner’s newest book entitled "Trial by Fire" which was about Abraham Lincoln’s evolution on the question of slavery. I was so excited to get the book, and Geena could tell how delighted I was as we bonded over this history geek moment. Of all the books on Lincoln, and there are many, I find this perhaps the most compelling, and it will guide the first part of my comments this morning.  

We remember Lincoln as the great emancipator, the person who ended slavery, and put the country finally on the path toward greater racial equality. Foner points, however, that none of this was predictable or predestined. Lincoln grew up in humble circumstances in Springfield, Illinois, separate from regular interactions with black people, but not removed from the emerging crisis about the future of slavery in America. We like to think that he was a staunch supporter of the abolition of slavery from the start, but he wasn’t. As someone who invoked God and scripture later as president, we might imagine that his faith led him to oppose slavery, but that was not so. As an adult he never became a member of a church, and he viewed religion through the lens of the Enlightenment that saw God as distant from human affairs. His strongest belief was in the importance of free labor, the right to work hard to create your own success, and he criticized the impact that slavery had on the economic success of free men. On the most pressing moral issue of his time Lincoln was often silent, and when he took a position it was usually careful and calculated. 

However, at the same time that Lincoln’s political ambitions grew, the future of slavery in America became a national crisis, and it forced Lincoln to evolve his thinking. As a youth, the issue had been far removed from his daily life. At that time, he viewed slavery as primarily an economic problem. As a candidate for the United States Senate and then as president, he confronted the slavery question as a monumental political problem that threatened the union. And then finally in the crucible of a long and traumatic civil war, Lincoln articulated the issue as a moral question and focused his leadership on the rededication of the nation to its fundamental and radical belief that all men are created equal. This summer all of us on the faculty read a book by the professor of theology Harvey Cox entitled "When Jesus Came to Harvard." It’s a wonderful book about how we make moral choices today. Lincoln’s evolution can be viewed in what Cox wrote: “when it comes to a moral dilemma, any moral dilemma, we always face three steps. The first is the most important: we must recognize it as a moral issue. The second step is to find an answer to the question. What should I do? Then comes the third, and undoubtedly the hardest step: to summon the courage to do it.”

The meaning of this brief history lesson for us is what Foner said: “If Lincoln achieved greatness, he grew into it… and to rise to the occasion requires an inner moral compass and a willingness to listen to criticism.” What we might today call a growth mindset is what made Lincoln the Lincoln that we know and remember today, and it provides all of us with an example of how we might become the people that we hope to be.

In 1844, while Lincoln was beginning his legal practice in Springfield, 8-year-old Ellen Browning Scripps’ father moved the family on a long journey from England to Rushville, Illinois, roughly 50 miles west of where Lincoln was living. At that time, it was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination that young Ellen would one day grow up to establish The Bishop’s School. She was busy helping to raise her younger siblings, and was the only one of 13 to attend college, matriculating in 1856 at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois slightly north of her hometown. At Knox, she was like many of you students in the audience, socially conscious and eager to make an impact. She advocated on behalf of the temperance movement and the abolition of slavery, and she supported Lincoln’s Republican party. Young Ellen resisted the formality of organized religion, but in Galesburg she was an admirer of the local minister Edward Beecher and she joined his first congregational church. Beecher had organized the first anti-slavery society in Illinois, and Ellen read the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Beecher’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

As you may remember from your history classes, in 1858 Lincoln entered a series of memorable debates for the United States Senate against Stephen Douglas. One of the debates took place on the campus of Knox College while Ellen was a student. It’s incredible to think about this intersection of history. Given Miss Scripps' interest in abolition, it is highly likely that she was there to witness Lincoln in person at the debate. One can imagine her watching Lincoln and Douglas go at it, arguing at an enviable level of erudition, and hearing Lincoln say about slavery that no one “has a right to do wrong” and that one “cannot institute any equality between right and wrong.”

In the Civil War that followed three years later, 10 men from the Scripps family served, two of whom never made it back home, and as the war was near its end Miss Scripps and her family were devastated by Lincoln’s assassination. In future years, she displayed an American flag outside her home every Feb. 12 in memory of Lincoln’s birthday.  For her, the Civil War was formative in turning her ideas into action. Miss Scripps and thousands of other women had joined organizations to support the war effort, and they experienced first hand and for the first time what their service could accomplish. What she would do with her future was unclear, but Miss Scripps reflected that “in union is not only strength, but wisdom and justice.” 

After the war, Miss Scripps could have done what most Americans and especially what most women did at the time. Stay near home. As the educated and most reliable sibling and with an ailing father, her presence at home was appreciated. Meanwhile, her older brother James had begun working in newspapers in Detroit, and he invited his sister to join him. Had she chosen the former, safer, and more traditional path, to stay in Rushville, Illinois, history would be very different and none of us would be gathered here right now. However, Miss Scripps longed for what she called “work of any kind, it doesn’t matter what, so it keeps the mind employed.” She left for Detroit, worked as a writer, and joined her brother as he began his own newspaper, selling for just two pennies per issue so that the poor could afford to read it.  

This small newspaper grew from a family business to a thriving chain and eventually into the highly successful Scripps corporation with the motto “give light and the people will find their own way.” When Miss Scripps was a young adult during the time of the Civil War, she had been energized by the national social and political issues of her time. By the late 19th century, she again devoted herself to significant causes—women’s suffrage, labor unions and educational reform. This time she had the resources to make a bigger impact, and she was one of a number of Progressive reformers who fortunately for us, was drawn to the transformative power of educational institutions.  

Miss Scripps found a partner in Right Rev. Joseph Horsfall Johnson, bishop for the Los Angeles diocese of the Episcopal Church. Johnson, too, was part of the progressive movement. Motivated to address inequities, he supported institutions that served immigrants, children and the elderly, and he was looking to open a college prep school for girls. They may not have shared a religious tradition, but they shared a faith in higher education as a path for children to improve their futures and to become capable of addressing social issues.  

As we know, Bishop’s is one of many institutions that Ellen Browning Scripps established in this area, including hospitals, museums and research centers. She believed in institutions, and in their ability to affirm democratic principles, advance social progress and promote justice. She lived during the high tide of progressivism, when such beliefs were common.

Today, over a century later, we are living at a time when there is widespread skepticism about institutions and cynicism about the adherence of institutions to their stated values. Polls show that in almost every area, Americans trust institutions less than they have in the past—law enforcement, government, companies, science, churches, schools and colleges. It is easy to be cynical. One can find fault where one seeks it. This is also a perilous path.  

Without institutions that we can believe in, we can drift into becoming more isolated individuals, limited in our capacity for growth, lacking in imagination, less capable of achieving great things and more limited in our ability to see the greater purpose of our lives. Educational institutions unmoored from their greater purpose can become nothing more than the sum of individual academic ambitions. Institutions like this one must continue to make possible dreams that are bigger than ourselves. All of us gathered here today as students, parents, faculty and staff, alumnae and alumni, trustees and friends, all of us reinforce the belief in this place, this school, and in each other. It is why Miss Scripps created this place for us, and it is rooted in her fundamental beliefs about democracy, justice and the potential that we have to make a difference in a world that could use some help. I hope that this installation will provide for all of us a recommitment to this institution and all that it stands for, and I pledge to hold firm to a moral compass to guide me and all of us through the challenges ahead, foreseen and unforeseen.

I close with this comment from Miss Scripps that resonate strongly on this day. “I have never been particularly interested in myself, except as that self has been of good to others. I do not like to emphasize the personal note in what I try to accomplish, except as that may be of value in some way.”

Thank you all, again, for being here.
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THE BISHOP’S SCHOOL     7607 La Jolla Boulevard     La Jolla, CA 92037     (858) 459-4021
The Bishop’s School is an independent, coeducational college-preparatory day school for students in grades six through twelve who live throughout San Diego County. Founded in 1909, the School is affiliated with the Episcopal church.