At Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where I have the privilege of serving as Head of School, passionate and respectful discourse is one of our most important values.
We often focus on the mechanics of this process. How to approach subjects with open-minded respect, how to consider our values deeply, how to refine our positions on a myriad of issues, to name a few. But a recent event at Shalhevet inspired me to reflect on another aspect of this process.
It can take time to develop this kind of discourse. There are no shortcuts to the empathy and intellectual honesty (not to mention the immense trust!) required to listen openly to opposing ideas. And the more challenging the subject, the greater the investment in time and effort required.
Fortunately, as we saw last week at Shalhevet, the effort invested pays exponential dividends.
This particular story begins more than a year ago, when a member of our parent body heard the political commentator Ben Shapiro deliver a compelling speech about Israel on a Pesach program that he attended. As many already know, Mr. Shapiro is considered by many to be a controversial figure in modern political discourse. But upon hearing his speech, this parent (who himself might identify as a liberal, and disagrees strongly with many of Shapiro’s views) thought that his opinions would make a valuable contribution to the Israel Advocacy efforts at Shalhevet High School.
The decision to invite Mr. Shapiro to speak sparked a heated debate among our staff and administration. Would inviting Mr. Shapiro appear to be an endorsement of his (self-)admittedly provocative tone on other issues? Should our students be exposed to all opinions, no matter how controversial? Is the tone or substance of a speaker more important? Which value takes priority at Shalhevet?
In the end, a compromise of sorts was reached. Mr. Shapiro was invited to speak to our student body, but only on the subjects of Israel and Israel advocacy. Like all good compromises, this one made everyone a little unhappy (I always kind of think that means we are doing something right) — some viewed the decision as censorship, others saw it as a capitulation to excessive open-mindedness. But Mr. Shapiro agreed to our terms, the speech went forward, and the event proceeded successfully.
Fast forward to earlier this school year, when our Young Americans for Freedom Club (an organization promoting activism and political analysis for conservative students) requested that Mr. Shapiro return to Shalhevet for another event. This time, they hoped, Mr. Shapiro would be able to broaden his reach and address other topics important to this coalition of conservative-leaning students.
This request called for a reevaluation of last year’s decision. Shalhevet needed guidelines for inviting speakers to our school. Once again, we had to strive for balance between our sensitivity to all students, respect for the notion of free speech and respectful discourse, and the push-and-pull of ideas that we hold so dear.
Luckily, we knew exactly who to turn to to strike this balance: The students themselves.
The founding members of the Young Americans for Freedom Club — I should note, mostly made up of freshmen new to our school — rose to the challenge. They drafted a comprehensive set of principles for how to vet speakers at Shalhevet, as well as guidelines for Mr. Shapiro’s prospective speech. The YAF Club presented these guidelines to both the administration and their fellow students at Town Hall, responding to suggestions and edits until a complete set of Shalhevet-worthy principles had been achieved. Distinctions were made between full-school speakers, speakers for optional programs and texts shared in class.
Finally, the students presented these guidelines to Mr. Shapiro. He agreed to the terms (primarily staying away from making inflammatory/incendiary remarks intended to provide rhetorical shock-value), and this long process culminated in his speech at our school last week.
I cannot overstate my pride at the event’s incredible success. Over 150 students and parents attended the event, which was intensely thought-provoking, respectful, and at times very funny! The conversation was rich and challenging, but never strayed from our student-crafted principles of respectful, passionate and open dialogue.
There are multiple colleges around the country that cannot boast a fraction of our success when hosting controversial figures, but this is at the heart of what makes Shalhevet special. It’s not just a matter of engaging with difficult subjects, or people we disagree with; it’s taking the time to reach these ideas of respect and dialogue authentically, and honoring the journey we took to get there.
The event with Ben Shapiro could not have come about if we — and most importantly, our students — had approached it lightly, quickly, or with too much zeal for our own opinions. Instead, our students talked it out. Our faculty gave input. Feelings were shared, and values carefully weighed. A consensus was reached in a way that offered agency and empowerment to all involved.
This is the Shalhevet way. It is a longer path that requires more effort and thought than does spontaneous reaction. But as our event last week exemplified, the effort invested is rewarded not just in a good debate, but in the reassertion of mutual humanity among everyone involved.