Responsible Disobedience

Good afternoon and thank you for your attention.

I have given my talk to you this afternoon a title: “Some thoughts on the senior year, water fights in Al Kaziyeh, balloons, responsibility, and getting into trouble.”

As you know, Al Kaziyeh has been closed for the time being. For how long I am uncertain. That is, in part, up to you; but I did want to explain why it has been closed and ask for your help.

The reason for the closure is simple: we — and by we, I mean all of us — are not taking care of the school in the way that we should and in the way that we must, and we are not respecting the efforts, the hard work and the dedication of our staff.

Each day members of our staff wake up, long before each of you, to clean our classrooms and buildings and make sure everything is ready for the day. The staff here keeps us safe. They drive some of us to and from school. They cook our food, preparing three meals a day, seven days a week. They maintain these beautiful grounds, its buildings and campus — and so much more.

The staff at this school should not be made to feel invisible. They should not be made to feel as though their work does not matter. Without them, this school would not be possible, and all teaching and learning would cease.

The staff at this school are not here to serve you, to clean up after you, to pick up your dirty dishes or to collect your trash. Nor is this beautiful campus and its buildings here for your personal amusement and pleasure. I am glad that you have Al Kaziyeh, I am glad that you enjoy the Adirondack chairs around the Student Union; we purchased them for you to spend time with your friends and enjoy one of the most beautiful outdoor spaces that any campus anywhere possesses. But these things, I would remind you, are amenities; really, they are luxuries, and when you fail to take care of them, there are consequences. Hence the closing of Al Kaziyeh. 

Just a couple of weeks ago at Convocation I spoke to you about entitlement — its dangers and the self-absorption that comes with it. I know that there are some schools where students, particularly older students, carry themselves as if they were somehow deserving of special treatment. They want more, they expect more, they demand more, they see their education as an economic transaction — something that is purchased — rather than what it is: a great gift, an accomplishment that is achieved through hard work and application, discipline and dedication. These students are obsessively focused on themselves, they try to hide bad behavior within larger groups, and they excuse and rationalize their poor behavior, because, of course, if other people are doing it, it must be ok, right? These students are blind to the larger interests of the community and the responsibilities they have to others. They ignore the staff. They rarely express appreciation. We do not want to become that school.

The idea of this school is very different. This is a school where we ask all students, and especially the seniors, to lead by influence and example, not to establish some hierarchy based on artificial distinctions or “privileges.” Here’s the truth about life: the responsibility required of you does not diminish over time, it increases. And our mission recognizes that. It asks you to act as “stewards of what you receive” and use “your own education to help and enhance opportunity for others.”

But I forgot about the balloons. When I went to Al Kaziyeh early this morning, the grounds around Al Kaziyeh were littered with balloons — a remnant of yesterday’s water balloon fight.

I have given these balloons — and how they came to be strewn about — some thought. Someone took the initiative of purchasing the balloons for the water fight. They brought them to campus for this very purpose. They enlisted the help of others. They were organized and, presumably, they organized others. It’s worth noting that this is a kind of leadership, but it is misdirected, it is leadership in the wrong direction, and, as I said a moment ago, it is disrespectful to the good work of the men and women who keep this school running and functioning well.

I recently read that the MIT Media Lab awarded a prize for what they call “responsible disobedience.” For students in my English class, I would note that this is a textbook example of an oxymoron, the yoking together of seeming opposites, for how can disobedience be responsible? The “Disobedience Award” is intended to promote what its creators call constructive, socially responsible action. It recognizes that the fight for education, for truth, for social justice, for human rights, the fight against corruption and tyranny, often commences with an act of thoughtful, informed, principled, constructive disobedience. It sometimes involves challenging the status quo, the way things are always done. Sometimes it involves challenging unjust laws — even putting one’s life at risk.

The winners, chosen among hundreds of nominees, were two scientists who investigated the concerns of citizens in one of the most impoverished cities in the United States — Flint, Michigan — whose water supply, and children! — had been poisoned by lead because of the corruption and negligence of so-called civil servants and public officials. These scientists faced harassment, threats and ridicule, but they persevered, bringing this tragedy to national attention, and those responsible for it to justice. They demonstrated, as the citation for their efforts read, “that science and scholarship are as powerful tools for social change as art and protest, and it challenges those of us in schools and colleges to use our powers for good.” Climate scientists; those who stand in solidarity with the dispossessed, the stateless, the homeless; those who stand for human rights, and who question and challenge corrupt institutions, they too face abuse, threats and danger. 

You want to band together, break the rules and get into trouble? By all means, do so. But get into trouble for good, get into trouble on the behalf of others, get into trouble by honing your critical powers and ability to ask questions so that you can push for some good in the world. Let’s not talk any more about senior privileges; let’s talk about senior stewardship, senior leadership, senior responsibility.

I am often asked about senior pranks. There is sometimes the assumption in this question that there is a time at the end of the senior year when students are entitled to run riot and do what they want — and that it is somehow their right to do this — even when, as it always is, disruptive, often destructive, and inconsiderate of others.

I understand high spirits, the excitement of senior year, the hard work that goes into it, the natural desire to celebrate. And I am not asking you to sacrifice any of these things. But I would ask the senior class that you put to bed this tired, hackneyed and sometimes destructive ritual behind us once and for all. Let’s not talk about senior pranks anymore — let’s talk about ending the year differently, by giving something back, by saying thank you and expressing gratitude. Seniors: if you want to prank, if you must prank, prank for good. Prank on behalf of others. Invent for the school a way to end the year well, and differently.

Last night, we hosted a dinner at Beit Al Mudeer for some guests from Germany. Many of you have generously hosted them and showed them the very best of King’s. As you know, they are here at the invitation — and as guests — of His Majesty King Abdullah, and they are volunteers of an organization called, in English, Action Reconciliation for Peace. Last year they were, along with His Majesty, awarded the Westphalia Peace Prize. ARP was founded in 1956, in the years following the Second World War, and it was created out of a sense that Germans should confront the horrors of their own history, and their own responsibility for that history. In my view, the founding of this organization was a heroic act of responsibility and accountability, in which a small group of citizens sought to atone for the crimes of a nation.

ARO is known for their year-long volunteer programs and the work they do with communities who suffered under German occupation or who were brutalized and persecuted during the war. Since its founding, the organization has broadened its mission to work with refugees, those who are disabled, and with other disadvantaged groups. As I listened to stories about their work, I was very moved, coming as I do from a country, the United States, which, for all of the good it may have done in the world, has much to account for and a long and terrible history of exploitation, brutalization and servitude — one it is reluctant to confront and that continues today. 

What I found most powerful about the work of our friends from Germany is that these young people are generations removed from the war crimes, atrocities and genocide committed during the war. Yet they feel a duty and a responsibility to acknowledge this terrible history, to face its victims and to work for peace and reconciliation. That is a very beautiful idea, and one worth our attention.

Let us work to act in that spirit. Let’s have a great year. And seniors: let’s reinvent for the school how we think about the senior year — not as a time of entitlement and privilege, but as time when you lead and move the school forward.

Thank you for listening.

Last updated
October 24, 2017