School Climate & Safety Opinion

Georgetown University’s Long-Overdue Slavery Apology

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 08, 2016 4 min read
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We must not see any person as an abstraction
Instead we must see every person a universe
with its own secrets
with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish
and with some measure of triumph--
Eli Weisel*

Georgetown University Plans Steps to Atone for Slave Past, a NY Times headline to an article that opened:

Nearly two centuries after Georgetown University profited from the sale of 272 slaves, it will embark on a series of steps to atone for the past, including awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved, officials said on Wednesday.

The article goes on to report that:

More than a dozen universities including Brown, Harvard, and the University of Virginia have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade.

Recognize Wrongs Committed in the Past Based on the Values of the Day and Act
Certainly, as much as slavery has been a part of our history so has opposition to it. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Quakers had firmly planted themselves in abolitionist leadership. But, the philosophical, political and economic motivations supportive of slavery perpetuated it, bringing the nation to division and war.

The whole notion of slavery, here and abroad, one human being possessing a right to own another, gives us pause. But, many in this country are personal heirs to this legacy as the owner or the owned. And, many have parents and grandparents who can attest to the Jim Crow laws that followed freedom. And, yes, we have only to look with unveiled eyes now to see segregation living and well in our country and deeply engrained biases surviving beneath the surface. Is it a flaw in our national conscience? Our soul? Our higher selves? Whatever it is, what is provoking these institutions to offer recognition and apology now? Can we be hopeful that, as a society, we are evolving to a more awakened set of values?

So how does this have anything to do with school leadership, teaching and learning? We believe it is central and we turn to Margaret Wheatley who wrote:

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask “what’s possible?” not “what is wrong?” Keep asking.

She goes on,

Be brave enough...Be intrigued by the differences...Invite everybody in...Trust that meaningful conversation can change your world...Rely on human goodness...Stay together (pp. 144-145).

Moral Dilemmas
Schools are faced with moral dilemmas every day. The implementation of a new set of standards may come accompanied with moral dilemmas. Even more obvious are the dilemmas about team names and mascots. Schools who have taken on the fight between those who hold strongly to the tradition of a name and those who feel deeply the offensive meaning of a name know the difficult nature of the fray as they engae the two groups and come to a decision. Other moral dilemmas are presented in student and teacher disciplinary issues, in promotion and grading, in parental interactions, and even in hiring and purchasing decisions. Leadership calls for moral clarity and courage.

Insults, derision, bias, bigotry—these have no place in our schools. But if they exist, even silently, in the hearts and minds of those working in schools, they will most certainly seep into their professional lives. The school leader who doesn’t know her and his own heart will be unable to understand the reactions others have to actions and decisions. They will vacillate when tough choices are required or look for an authority to follow or to mandate compliance. Leading to the unpopular but higher ground is not easy. These are the times when leadership is most essential and often, most lonely.

Moral Courage
How does this work? It isn’t what is taught in most leadership preparation or even teacher preparation programs. It isn’t in any job descriptions that we are aware of. But it seems now more than ever, it is an essential aspect of school leadership and public leadership in all its forms. When we think of the courage to act morally, the work of Rushworth M. Kidder informs us.

...moral courage is the courage to be moral. And by moral... we tend to mean whatever adheres to the five core moral values of honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion. (p.10)

Now, Georgetown, almost two centuries after slavery was abolished, is taking action; it is acknowledging its past and issuing an apology. Even if healing has happened, the scars remain. Corrective action can still serve. We are watching with rapt attention as both presidential candidates are being questioned about issues directly connected to the their truth telling and their morality. We think of those five core values Kidder identified: honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion. Who would be a human being, as a leader, as a community, as a nation, as a school if our actions could be simply guided by those values? Schools are institutions gathered together as learning environments in which students as well as their teachers and leaders learn and grow together. Within that environment, situational factors often complicate simplicity. Or we find moral values, themselves, competing. When we sense that happening, begin with questions,

  • What is the stand I take if guided by moral courage?
  • How can I invoke it in others?

Kidder, R.M. (2005). Moral Courage. New York: Harper Collins
Wheatley, M.J. (2002). Turning to One Another. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

*from The Nazi Doctors and the Nuremburg Code

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.