Over the last week, you may have heard that we at Sacred Heart Greenwich have been thinking a lot about stickers, banners and buttons. We’re not planning a political campaign. Rather, we’ve been debating — under the intense glare of press scrutiny and social media conversation — such important issues as freedom of expression, diversity of thought and mutual respect.
Within the context of this very serious discussion, stickers, banners and buttons have grabbed the spotlight, because we discourage our students from displaying them on campus and sometimes find it necessary to instruct students to take them down. Some have misinterpreted our position as opposition to a specific organization or an attempt to shut down independent thinking on our campus. The opposite is true. Further, we would never dismiss a student for what she believes or a cause she supports and will not now.
We believe that despite the powerful role these communications tools may play in the public square, their presence in a private educational environment can stifle learning and limit honest debate. Discouraging one form of speech to encourage more speech may seem counter-intuitive. But just consider the impact that bullying and profanity — each is a form of speech — can have on meaningful discourse. While, of course, not all messages on stickers are controversial or offensive, political, provocative or promotional displays can have unintended consequences in an academic setting.
Our learning community, which for generations has welcomed students of all races and religions, is grounded in the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church. Within the framework of the Goals and Criteria of a Sacred Heart education, we encourage the rigorous examination of broad points of view, cultures and beliefs, empowering our students with the ability to confidently express their views in an informed, constructive manner. The focus of our teaching and learning is the classroom. In our Upper School, students and teacher sit together in, as it’s known in academic circles, a Harkness-style setting. The circular setting builds trust between classmates and teachers, allows for the open exchange of ideas and helps develop lifelong intellectual and interpersonal skills. In this intimate setting even a sticker can disrupt the chemistry in the room — a chemistry that is so central to our pedagogy.
Our teaching formula combines deeply held religious views and robust intellectual pursuit, and we know there are better forums for constructive dialogue than stickers, banners and buttons. One example of this formula at work is that all Sacred Heart students in their junior year take a theology course in ethics and morality. In the class, students select from the topics of abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. They choose a side of each complex, controversial issue to debate their informed views — a far more rigorous and enriching exercise, we believe, than debating a slogan on a locker or laptop.
As an alumna of Sacred Heart Greenwich myself, I’ll reiterate I’m not surprised by the energy with which our graduates are engaging in this conversation. In fact, the level of confidence and passion we’re seeing from alumnae validates the strength of a Sacred Heart education.
As it has been for generations, a major focus of our policies and actions is on protecting constructive dialogue and freedom of expression. Stickers, banners and buttons will always play a role in our public discourse. But on the campus and in the classrooms of Sacred Heart Greenwich, we’ll continue to do our best to keep that role as unobtrusive as possible.
Pamela J. Hayes is Head of School for Sacred Heart Greenwich.