When I was in college and for many years after, I worked for the Virginia Beach Leadership Workshop, a program run by the city school system in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It’s a camp, basically; in addition to leadership training, it has all the trappings of a regular sleep-away camp: decades of history, traditional songs, athletic competition, nightly skits, summer love (some years), intense longing (every year), and moments of epiphany.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it was at VBLW where I started my career in education. It’s where I learned that I loved teaching, even if I wasn’t especially good at it.
It’s also where I was introduced to a short book called The Silent Majority: The Problem of Apathy and the Student Council, written in 1971 by Kent M. Keith. Keith’s thesis is that there are legions of students who wander through schools each day feeling no connection to the institution or those who fill it. He describes that existence as “…a world of lost longings; of things one would like to do but does not have the ability to accomplish…or of things one would like to understand, but does not have the insight for…a world which, if painless, may seem empty and meaningless” (4). It seemed (and seems) to me to be at best a sad way to go to school, and at worst a scenario with potentially tragic consequences. To Keith, student activities exist as an antidote to this – as a potential conduit for connection between students and the school. Student leaders, then, are the primary catalysts to create a culture of acceptance and mutual value in schools.
Given that I totally bought what Keith was selling, it’s not hard to understand why, halfway through Donna Hicks’ Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict (2011), I wanted to stand up and cheer when I encountered an analysis of “the profound human desire to belong, to feel the comfort and safety that acceptance brings” (48). Dignity is a book with some age on it now, but that hasn’t stopped it from regularly surfacing at conferences and in conversations with educators. And with themes ripped right from the philosophical playbook of any caring educator, this important book is indeed worth reading.
Dignity also comes at a critical time in our evolution as a species and as a nation, beset as we are by the difficulty we have in connecting with each other in authentic ways. As Hicks rightly notes, “We all seem to know how to belittle and criticize others” (13) (thanks, Snap Chat!) Hicks believes we can re-learn to connect with and value each other – and, what is more, to create genuine cultures of dignity. I hope she’s right.
Hicks defines dignity as “an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things” (1). She contends that violations of dignity are often at the root of conflict (she ought to know; she’s mediated intractable conflicts between warring parties across the globe), that treating others with dignity is a fundamental human right, and that establishing a culture of dignity is essential to organizations that want to thrive.
Dignity’s organization is simple. Part one describes the essential elements of dignity; for example, giving people the freedom to express their authentic selves, making others feel like they belong and are safe, treating people as equals, and believing what others think matters. Operationalizing this section of the book would help make every conversation in a school more authentic and our schools feel more welcoming. All educators would be wise to commit to memory its precepts. (I am tempted to send copies to our state legislature).
The second section is an analysis of what violations of dignity look and feel like. Not surprisingly, these violations are easy to commit, and it’s even easier to play an unwitting role in violating our own dignity. Hicks maintains that most of this – avoiding conflict, saving face, resisting feedback, blaming others to avoid guilt — stems from a deep-rooted desire for self-preservation.
The final section of the book is a treatise on how to reconcile conflicts by using dignity. It contains an extended recounting of a reconciliation that Hicks helped mediate between a former member of the IRA and a British police officer he shot and almost killed. Hicks contends that recognizing dignity has the potential to heal deep rifts between people.
One of the most poignant anecdotes Hicks shares is her fish-out-of-water story of leaving Madison, Wisconsin for a fellowship at Harvard. Upon arrival in Cambridge, and for a variety of reasons feeling inadequate and unworthy, Hicks found herself questioning her decision to join this new community. It wasn’t until she was literally welcomed with open arms by a colleague that she began to feel safe and valued. How many of our new families or faculty feel that same indecision, panic, and dread when faced with joining our school communities for the first time – or, after, when they feel their dignity has been violated? It’s fun to envision the schools we would have if all of our constituents — every family, employee, and alum — felt as Hicks did when her colleague exclaimed, “Welcome, we’ve been waiting for you!”
A version of this review appears online here.