Education With Heart

Jenny Zhao ’25 (Features Editor, 144th Board) in Editorials | April 26, 2024

          On its website and Discovery Day pamphlets, Lawrenceville proudly displays its guiding mantra: “House, Harkness, Heart.” For the most part, we put this motto into practice during Saturday night feeds and spirited discussions across the Harkness table. Yes, Lawrenceville builds a distinctive community and cultivates intellectual engagement, but what role does “Heart”—or, according to the School, “developing a welcoming and inclusive community through cultural competency”—play in our lifestyles? Cultural competency, as defined by the American Association for Health Education, is the ability to “understand and respect values, beliefs, and morals that differ across cultures.” The School provides us many opportunities to exercise this skill: with its mosaic of students and faculty from around the globe, the campus is naturally a melting pot of cultures. Despite the rich diversity in heritage and thought that surrounds us, a gap emerges in our Lawrenceville experience: our curriculum’s relative negligence of building “cultural competency.” This disregard would be less of an issue if the School was simply unequipped to prioritize fostering a complete moral education, but Lawrenceville is not the case. 

          The School boasts an incredible Religion and Philosophy (R&P) Department with more than half a dozen associated faculty. The course catalog offers deep dives into the nuances of different cultures, belief systems, and philosophical traditions that few other high schools have the resources to provide: classes like Studies In Christian Origins, Philosophy, and Social Ethics and Genocide all demand that students reflect on the long-term effects of great societal ideas, explaining the intricacies of today’s cultures as products of past attitudes. Both deep knowledge of global histories—from religious myths to interstate warfare—and the ability to analyze that expertise in the context of each other are indispensable tools to build the “cultural competency” that Lawrenceville preaches. Without knowing a given group’s fundamental beliefs, whether religious or secular, we cannot begin to understand their values or morals, never mind their politics, economics, social relationships, or art. Therefore, we need to promote opportunities to take R&P classes–giving students reasons to take risks and pursue 400- and 500-level study.

          The two terms of R&P credit that Lawrenceville mandates for II and new III Formers seems impressively high compared to schools with a smaller amount of resources but suggests—when placed side-by-side with Lawrenceville’s nine-term science and six-term history requirements—that learning about chemical reactions and the Revolutionary War outweighs understanding the moral ethics of being a kind, productive member of society. Although technical, career-focused preparation for college and beyond is indeed important, so is the capacity to tolerate and respect differing beliefs both within oneself and between others. For instance, aspiring executives navigating the corporate work space must foster dialogue among a diverse set of colleagues in order to earn the mutual respect needed for a coveted C-suite position. Even in a chemistry lab, scientists must rely upon their ability to communicate effectively in order to collaborate on research projects while maintaining a positive team dynamic. Cultural acuity among any team’s members not only enhances its productivity but also creates a work environment where everyone feels valued.

          In my Introduction to Religious Studies class alone, I learned the basic tenets of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, gaining a comprehensive understanding of their beliefs and historical significance. These explorations not only expanded my intellectual horizons—I would never have gained such broad exposure without taking this required class—but also challenged me to question my assumptions. When I read Jan Nattier’s comprehensive definition of religion, I questioned whether my pre-existing definitions of “religion” adequately capture the diversity of religious experience. The knowledge I gained through these R&P classes extends far beyond two terms of discussions and assessments. To truly embody the spirit of “House, Harkness, Heart,” I will take this cultural competency beyond Lawrenceville’s gates.

          As a preparatory school, the topics we learn about should prepare us for the real world. The School provides ample opportunity for us to take on rigorous, fast-paced course loads, so being technically ready for post-Lawrenceville options is not a pressing problem. Does Lawrenceville do its part in preparing strong- and open-minded individuals who can foster “cultural competency” in any setting? To put action on the vague terms of “encouraging” and “promoting” R&P classes, Lawrenceville should lower the graduation requirements for other academic departments to make room in students’ schedules. The question of being prepared as a scholar for post-Lawrenceville paths immediately comes to mind. However, any students who genuinely find non-required subjects appealing will still take the classes. A small step is still a step in the right direction—cutting down on graduation requirements will lower the barrier of entry for students who have even a slight interest in taking R&P classes, and their only roadblock is making room in their schedule packed with classes that appeal to them only because they fill in their missing graduation requirements.