A Challenge to Our Democracy

Punahou President Mike Latham ’86 shared this letter with the Punahou community on Jan. 7, 2020.

Dear Punahou Community,

Yesterday, we witnessed a shocking challenge to the vitality and enduring character of American democracy. A mob of insurgents, fueled by falsehoods, forcefully breached the walls of the United States Capitol building, entered the chambers of Congress, and for several hours prevented our legislators from fulfilling their constitutional duty to review and certify the results of a presidential election. Amid the violence and chaos of the day, lives were senselessly lost, and the citadel of our democracy was desecrated.

For many of us, myself included, this was an appalling and deeply troubling moment. It echoed darker periods in our nation’s past, including Senator Joseph McCarthy’s demagogic attacks on civil liberties at the height of the Cold War as well as more recent instances in which America’s democratic principles have fallen victim to violence, bigotry and hatred. Amid a devastating pandemic, moreover, it became yet another dark chapter in an extremely challenging time.

As difficult as this moment is, however, I want to offer you two thoughts. First, I believe that schools like Punahou have a great opportunity to become part of the solution. Amid deep polarization, we can empower our students to engage in thoughtful and meaningful discussions of difficult subjects and controversial ideas. Through our teaching, we can build the skills grounded in empathy, collaboration, mediation and critical thinking that will be essential for our graduates to promote civil discourse and rational inquiry. Together, we can work to build the emotional intelligence and capacity to assess one’s own biases that responsible debate requires, and we can graduate students who both respect the vital elements of our country’s democratic character and enhance the life of their communities. In the face of our contemporary challenges, and indeed because of those very challenges, I hope we will all draw strength from and take pride in our mission to enable every student to realize their potential and contribute to the building of a better world.

Second, I ask that we all continue to treat each other with respect, patience and compassion. Our students and colleagues need to know that we are there for them, and that we will stand together. Punahou is a community with deep reserves of kindness and caring, and this is the time for us to bring that to the fore. Parents, please know that our teachers, counselors and deans stand by to support your children as they wrestle with the emotions and strain of events that they may not understand. You may also find the following resources helpful as you talk with your children:

Finally, as an educator and a historian, I take comfort in the knowledge that our country has been lost before and found its way home again. As Punahou’s most prominent alumnus, President Barack Obama ’79 has reminded us that in the face of tremendous oppression, the heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement had every reason to give up on democracy. But they never did, and their courage and commitment ultimately helped us move closer to the full realization of our country’s promise.

Punahou is a special place, and we all have important work to do together. Let us recommit to building a more peaceful and just society for our children – a future of which we can all be proud.

With aloha,
Michael E. Latham, Ph.D. ’86
President, Punahou School

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