Thanks to the generosity of Christy and Jay Orris and their commitment to faculty professional development, I recently had the opportunity to attend the Aspen Institute Executive Seminar in Aspen, CO.
The Aspen Institute was originally founded in 1950 to create a comfortable atmosphere for people to have in-depth conversations about some of the world’s most pressing problems. The Executive Seminar incorporates classic philosophical readings in discussions about the evolution of a modern society and how to become better leaders. The Aspen Institute founder, Walter Paepcke, explained the goal of the seminar was to make leaders “more self-aware, more self-correcting and therefore more self-fulfilling.” My goal for the week was to learn ways to strengthen the BCD Middle School Seminar model that our students participate in later in the school year.
The twenty-person group that attended the seminar with me came from diverse and unique backgrounds. We represented the fields of education, community organization, media, athletics and even people from the Central Intelligence Agency! At the beginning of the seminar our two moderators explained that we would need to be “freely authentic and morally present” as we dove into deep discussions. Our assigned readings were some of the “Great Conversations” of our time, including passages from Plato, Mencius, Hobbes, Martin Luther King Jr, and Simone de Beauvoir to name just a few. One our moderators would joke about the need to begin with Greek Philosophers early in the morning as if he was getting his first sips of caffeine, “Ah, Aristotle on a Monday morning!” I found that I needed caffeine first to be able to tackle Aristotle that early!
One of the texts we read was Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Much like his classic Moby-Dick; or, The Whale the story of Billy Budd takes place on the seas. Billy, a seaman aboard the ship “Indomitable”, is falsely accused of conspiracy to mutiny. The group discussed the fate of Billy Budd and were in fierce debate about what we would have done if we were in Captain Vere’s shoes. Another highlight of the week was performing Sophocles’ “Antigone” with the entire group. The reading sections were rich in ideas and sparked interesting conversations among the group. It was a fun metamorphosis to observe as discussion of text began to change into discussions of leadership and the change we could impacts as leaders. Despite our different backgrounds the individuals in the group all understood how we had the moral duty to be strong leaders while still wrestling with everyday decisions.
The BCD Middle School will continue our seminar model later in the year. We have invited back Todd Breyfogle, Director of Seminars for the Aspen Institute, to moderate conversations with our Middle School. I think it speaks volumes of our students to have the opportunity and ability to be able to tackle some very challenging texts such as Shooting an Elephant by Orwell or Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. and then discuss them at a very high level. The Middle School seminar is an approach to developing responsible and fulfilled citizens by providing a text-based, moderator-led, group discussion for middle school students to identify, evaluate and articulate their values. One of the highlights of the Middle School Seminar is when student create personal mission statements, which will continue to be developed through a student’s Middle School experience. These mission statements are then placed next to the 8th grader’s diploma when they graduate. The Middle School seminar will be taking place after winter break and will be one of the topics discuss at our student led conferences.
Please feel free to come and speak to me anytime about the texts we read, the Aspen Institute, or the Middle School Seminar!