A school is a key locus for social interaction—among students, parents, alums, staff.
This almost seems to obvious to mention. Whether the school is day or boarding, in some ways it is a society unto itself. The school is the scene of a million little stories—dramas, romances, comedies, tragedies, and triumphs—and for many of its denizens it is the most important place in the world for 180 or so days a year. The effect may be intensified in residential settings, but the day-school counterpart of this intensity lies in the reality that many day schools assemble students from diverse and often distant communities who would never otherwise know one another—and who depend on the school to be the congenial the setting of their social lives.
Some independent school campuses are virtually cocoons, sheltered from “the world” and inward-focused by mission and tradition, while other schools relish being in the middle of things. There is no “right” way to be, although too much inwardness can be a dangerous thing if it finds expression in self-reverence, self-congratulation, or closed-minded exclusivity.
But a school must be conscious of its place as a social nexus for so many people and find ways to make this part of its identity attractive and comfortable even as it encourages members to cross familiar boundaries as they build relationships within the school community. Authentic diversity is based on the discoveries made by crossing such frontiers, however challenging; the crossing of social boundaries, when it passes beyond “work” to become a way of being, can provide enormous individual pleasure as well as build group and institutional solidarity and fortitude.
Lately there has been quite a bit of attention focused to the kinds of unsafe and antisocial actions that can occur in school communities—the truly dangerous side of being a place of so many intense interactions. Even as they work to strengthen the light, intentional, and positive sides of their existence as social communities, schools need to be aware of the ways in which risky and even cruel behaviors can arise and change the tenor of community life. This should, perhaps, go without saying, but some schools may be reluctant to acknowledge the full depth of their role as places of social intercourse, seen and unseen, positive and negative.
The expansion of the campus into cyberspace and across time through social media can wonderfully strengthen critical bonds in the service of advancement—particularly for current families and between the school and its graduates. It can also provide a virtual preview of the “school as community” for prospective students and families.
Schools now must also harness (and sometimes contend with) the virtual exoskeleton created beyond their campuses by social media as used by constituents, connections made by skeins of digital filaments that orbit the school universe—sometimes involving school “business” and sometimes existing just because of connections based within the school. Of the school but exactly in it, these connections are increasingly regarded—especially when they transmit dark forces—as part of the school’s responsibility to its community and its individual members.
Ultimately, though, the role of the school as social setting and social community is most often a source of joy among its members. Though they may have their moments of pain, schools are above all places of friendship and for the highest expression of love in all its forms—as desire, as appreciation and loyalty, and as the love of humanity itself.