“Ethics is a verb.” When Kaia Stern ’90 said this, she was evoking one of our foundational beliefs: ethics cannot exist solely as an idea or a sentiment; we must put our values into action.
We nurture our students’ capacity for morality and empathy, helping provide the framework and knowledge necessary to live an ethical life. We teach our students how to think critically and then act with compassion. We teach our students to ask, How am I contributing? and Is this right? We teach our students to confront questions of power and privilege and who gets to tell their story. We lean into difficult conversations.
Throughout our curriculum, both teachers and students are encouraged to broaden their worldviews, question the status quo, and practice ethical decision-making.
In “Ethical Issues in Science,” juniors and seniors explore the role that science plays in how we make personal and political decisions. Each year, the curriculum is determined in part by the students: they choose which core topics to focus on based on articles they’ve read or news they’ve watched. They debate the issue from all sides, paying close attention to which values are at stake and who the stakeholders are.
Part of an ethical life is listening to others — especially those who struggle to be heard. In “Silence and Noise: the Politics of Storytelling,” students explore the privilege of those who get to tell their story and the power and value in the stories we often don’t get to hear.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower, and humanize.Chimamanda Adichie
Combining the study of English, history, and ethics is an interdisciplinary course called “Freedom,” which asks students to confront what it means to be an American and what it means to be free. Tenth graders in this team-taught course are encouraged to embrace the tensions that emerge from these questions — whether found in works of literature by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Toni Morrison, or as seen through the lens of American history.
Our community spends time throughout the year tackling ethical issues head-on in small-group and community-wide sessions. We suspend our normal schedule to give us the time and space needed to examine issues of local, national, or global importance.
One of these programs, called Modified Awareness Days, allows us to discuss the themes of a shared book. In 2017, Angie Thomas visited our upper school after students read her book The Hate U Give; our community then attended workshops and discussions throughout the day to explore the book’s lessons. Some of these workshops included:
All Schools are Tools for Social Control: Exploring the School to Power and the School to Prison Pipeline
Systemic Racism and Institutional Power
Strategies for Youth of Color when Confronted by Law Enforcement
Powering Through It: Understanding the Exposure and Experience of Trauma in Communities of Color.
During Fieldston Awareness Days, our community attends special classes, seminars, and activities revolving around a specific theme or topic for an entire school day. Recently, by request of our students, we hosted one centered on consent, which included sessions such as:
Hooking Up in the Digital Age: 9 Pro-Tips for Navigating Dating + Tech
From Carrying Mattresses to Hunger Strikes: Understanding and Navigating Consent on Campus
Undoing “Slut” Shaming and Sexual Bullying
What Makes a Culture ‘Rape Prone’ and What Can We Do About It?
By providing the time and space for these events to take place, we are declaring firmly that ethics — the exploration of what it means to be a moral and responsible member of society — is at the heart of what we do here.
Of course, the very point of our ethical education is so that we can improve the world around us, not just within the walls of our school. It’s common for our students to organize community service events, and it’s just as common for people from all across the ECFS community to join in for these events. Last year, students from our upper school organized a day of service with Rise Against Hunger, an organization that aims to end global hunger by 2030. Our students were joined by faculty, staff, families, and alumni — volunteers ranged in age from two to eighty years old. By the end of the day, volunteers had packed and shipped over 10,000 meals to developing nations around the world. This event was just one of 350 service learning events that occurred last year.
Ethics is central to all that we do. We consider multiple perspectives, practice radical empathy, nurture care and compassion, and tackle difficult questions about issues and problems that are seen and unseen throughout our curriculum and our community. Students and adults alike are expected to be responsible not only for themselves but for the health and success of their peers. Ethics is a verb.