A Punahou Education in a Shifting World

By Mike Latham ’86

Amid the disruption of a pandemic, it’s eminently clear that the existing order is being shaken hard, perhaps even to the core. It’s a moment of tremendous flux and changes. Clearly the world that we imagined in some respects as being stable, ordered and predictable is turning out to be anything but.

It’s striking to realize that by late August of this year, our own country has now experienced six million coronavirus cases. We’re experiencing a major economic downturn and recession, but I think there’s something deeper underway too. I think we’re seeing accelerating shifts in the patterns that previously governed politics, technology, business and culture. I think we’re seeing older conventional pathways to higher education being challenged and radically overhauled. I think the world of work is being transformed as older models are discarded and new professional pathways begin to emerge. Overall, the rate of change in the world is rapidly accelerating. So how do we prepare our students to go into that environment? What should Punahou School be doing?

I think, as we’ve been discussing over this past year, the ability of our students to learn, adapt, relearn and innovate will be absolutely vital. Of course, older values still hold true. We want to graduate students who are great critical thinkers, who have outstanding skills and quantitative reasoning, who can deliver a compelling oral argument. But we also recognize the value of a wider lens. Their ability to collaborate, their creativity, originality, empathy and ability to think and learn across cultural borders will become absolutely crucial.

Punahou is preparing our students for exactly the kind of world that they will encounter. We are preparing them to do the things that employers cannot teach and machines cannot do. These are the capacities that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. These are the tools they will need to thrive. These are the abilities that will enable them to respond creatively to a radically different situation. The good news is that Punahou’s curriculum is already placing a strong emphasis directly upon this work through inquiry-led learning. We are now engaged in deep work across the School to prepare our students for just that kind of a future. I think we have every reason to expect and believe that our Punahou students will thrive in that environment, and that they will go out to make the world a better place.

Global pandemics are not new, but the nature of the outbreak and speed of this disease illustrates how profoundly interconnected our world has become. An effective response to this challenge will also have to be deeply interdisciplinary. Think about the areas of knowledge, the bodies of skill and understanding that are required to approach a wicked problem of this kind. Surely this must involve things like epidemiology, biology and medical knowledge. That scientific horizon becomes absolutely vital, but I would go farther and say that a successful response and resolution also has to embrace fields like public policy, education, history and even philosophy.

Stop and think for a moment about the kind of questions the pandemic raises. What structures for international cooperation are required to generate a more effective and coordinated response to a global crisis like this one? Should governments rely more on new technologies of data integration or surveillance to manage human behavior, or should they pursue campaigns of education to try and achieve greater voluntary compliance on matters of pressing public need? What degree of public responsibility should be taken for a society’s healthcare? As the pandemic demonstrates that our fates and our futures are so clearly interlinked, these are precisely the kinds of dilemmas that our students will increasingly confront, and the coming challenges are many. We can see them as the pace of change accelerates, and the demands created by things like global climate change, human migration, food security and sustainability itself will all transform our lives.

A Punahou education, therefore, has to prepare students not only to acquire knowledge from different fields, but to collaborate with others and to learn how to put it into action. It must give our students the space to apply what they learn to authentic real-world challenges, and to go through the process of testing, failing, adapting and revising. In this respect, we have great news. Our School is moving with tremendous energy precisely in this direction. We see it in the kind of work underway across large sectors of our curriculum as well as at the Luke Center for Public Service, Case Accelerator for Student Entrepreneurship, the Wo International Center, and in the work that we do in design thinking and outdoor education. All of this work is giving our students exactly this kind of experience – recognizing the complexity of the world around them, enabling them to draw knowledge from different fields and to work together in teams with people from diverse backgrounds to solve specific problems. We are in a true way, planting the seeds that will bear fruit in the future for all of our students.

Ever since the pandemic broke, we’ve all wrestled with the social and emotional components of it. Social distancing can help keep us safe, but it doesn’t do very much to preserve bonds of personal friendship and solidarity that we often miss. We wrestled as well with the challenges of incomplete information. We don’t know how long the pandemic will last. We don’t know how our government will try to fight it. We don’t know how long it will take to develop an effective and widely shared therapeutic response. We don’t know how long it will take for a vaccine to be widely available or what the effectiveness, costs and distribution of it will be like.

Finally, we have reckoned with the human toll. Over the past few weeks, what was unfolding across vast oceans became more of a reality here at home. We began to watch triple-digit case numbers and increasing rates of positivity here in Hawai‘i. That human dimension can be very tough because we worry about our families. We worry about our friends. We worry about our loved ones. Amid the uncertainty, ambiguity and stress of that current moment, our commitment to social and emotional learning matters enormously – our ability to manage stress and anxiety; our ability to give our students a sense of resilience, confidence and self-knowledge; the work that we do to help them establish meaningful social relationships; teaching them that asking for help when needed is never a sign of weakness, but instead a sign of maturity. These lessons become all the more crucial now, and these lessons can be taught.

I see it in the work that we’ve done in our student health and wellness curriculum in the Academy. I see it in the development and further growth of the Yale RULER program for emotional intelligence across the School. I see it in the work at Kuaihelani Learning Center in stressing ‘Ike Hawai‘i – helping our students understand their own distinctive history and culture, and helping them come to understand it as a source for purpose, values and meaning. I see it in the work across our School in physical education, in athletics, in music, in art, in dance, in theatre – defining the places where students develop talents and skills and abilities they didn’t know they possessed.

A Punahou education must in a real way unleash the power of self-discovery, the kind of learning that inspires our students to get a sense of themselves and what they are capable of doing in service to others. It’s an education that emphasizes that strain of ethical responsibility. One of the persons
who I think captured that moment of revelation best was the late John Lewis, a Georgia Congressman and one of the transformative leaders of the Civil Rights movement.

Reflecting on his first arrival in college in Nashville, having come from a remote and tiny Alabama farm, Lewis put it this way, “The center of my world was school, and I dove into it with a vengeance. The universe of philosophy and religion was open to me, and I took to it like a fish to water. Now my brain was crackling as it strained to address and absorb these new ideas. Now I saw philosophical and theological underpinnings for what I’d sensed and deeply felt all my life, that there was a connection between what was, and what ought to be.”

Lewis’ education allowed him to recognize, to interpret, and to explain the deep fractures between a society that sharply limited the futures of African Americans and the essential rights that they possess not only as U.S. citizens, but more fundamentally as human beings. It also helped him to
understand exactly what he and others could do about it.

In our own day and time in the midst of renewed questions about racial justice and the starkly unequal impacts of a pandemic that affects us along the lines of poverty and ethnicity, those questions remain, and a Punahou education must lead our students and our School to grapple with them as well. How do we preserve accessibility to ensure that students of ability, potential and talent from any background can attend this School? How do we make inclusion real, beyond welcoming students into our campus? How do we ensure that all have the opportunity to thrive – to believe in their hearts that this is a community to which they deeply and truly belong? Those are the questions that I think now stand directly before us.

Finally, and perhaps most personally, I think the pandemic reminds us of the fragility of life. I am sure we have all experienced moments where we wished that this crisis had passed us by. If only it had happened in some other time, if only it had happened to some other people or some other generation – not us. The pandemic’s complexity is humbling, and it reminds us of how much we still do not know. But this we do know. While we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control how we respond. And I am glad to say that Punahou’s response is a powerful one, both for the longer run and for the present too. That is something that I hope we can all draw confidence from. This is work we can all be proud of, so let’s go forward to do it together.

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