This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 Harker Quarterly.
A parent was recently talking to me about the big idea behind organizations. It was his contention that when an organization is founded on a big idea, like ending poverty or stopping global warming, people follow that organization more readily. The big idea can be quite simple, but it has to be big.
The parent then asked me what Harker’s big idea was. I immediately thought that Harker students are taking their academic knowledge and applying it to real-world problems to make a difference in the world.
Yes, most independent schools say something like this. And yes, this sounds a little like a parody of a sentiment from the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley,” when the founder of the fictional company Goolybib says, “But most importantly we’re making the world a better place. Through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.”
So we too are guilty of dreaming big. We have students doing award-winning research in tumor detection and climate modeling. We have a second grader who wrote the White House about her concerns about smoking.
We have journalists who wrote about the gender gap in technology in the student-run magazine Wingspan. We have students from preschool through senior year making beauty in the world through visual and performing arts.
Most schools fortunate enough to have students and teachers like ours can highlight similar efforts. The point is that students today want to learn deeply in academic and extracurricular domains and apply their learning to the world around them. Learning and doing to make a difference. (Hey, that sounds like a motto.)
It is inspiring to watch. It is even more inspiring to inspire, as our teachers have the opportunity to do.
The difference students make in the world as children and young adults does not have to be large in scale. Ralph Waldo Emerson defines success like this: “To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Now that is a big idea.
So what’s the big idea? When I was in high school, my biggest preoccupations were getting a date to the prom and joining a rock band. Teens still have some of those concerns these days – and thank goodness they do. But I am optimistic about today’s youth precisely because of their propensity to learn and do to make a difference. Will they make the world a better place? That is a tall order for any generation, but I think this generation already has.