Last fall at Laurel's School's Center for Research on Girls Symposium, Carol Gilligan, who did important work on behalf of all girls at Laurel in the late '80s, returned to our school and challenged us to consider what is important for girls to know. Since then I, headmistress of Laurel and mother of two recent graduates, have reflected on this question. Now as we prepare to launch our next graduating class, filled with remarkable girls, I offer my list.
To know. Once education was about acquiring knowledge. A liberal arts education remains an enormous privilege, but discernment has replaced acquisition. Knowing how to speak another language, to find the poetry in mathematics, to bring a spirit of inquiry to science, to build an argument in history and to write a compelling essay in English -- those skills continue to have enormous value. And I still want girls to know some poetry by heart to comfort them when times are hard.
Yet now school is much less about learning facts or events or content. With the click of a button, we can discover much of what we want to know. We go to school to learn to think. Certain content makes us feel in control and makes it easier for us to learn other concepts. But because of easy access to knowledge, I want girls to know how to discern, to think, how to detect bias and how to figure out if a source is reliable.
What else do I want our girls to know? I want them all to know that
1) they can trust their own voices as sources of power and inspiration.
2) the components of resilience -- growth mindset, creativity, purpose, self-care and relationship -- are always available and can always be developed.
3) learning how to tolerate frustration is a life skill.
4) the ability to adapt, to be flexible, to collaborate, to change direction is often more important than being right. But, I want them to know too that there are times when it's important to take a stand, not to yield. I want them to know the difference.
5) a truly courteous and respectful woman speaks to everyone in the same tone of voice.
6) there is a difference between want and need, and a difference between their own aspirations and those that society seems to expect or require.
7) talk is cheap and that actions really do speak louder than words.
8) empathy and that respect for all people is worth fighting for.
9) they can dream big, be bold, unafraid, daring, entrepreneurial.
10) risk can be worthwhile; failure can teach us. Character is forged through what we learn from mistakes.
11) there is value in hard work and that sometimes you really do get points for showing up.
12) it's not a weakness to ask for help or find more resources in order to persevere.
13) their own education matters, and that when they are struggling in a course, the struggle, itself, has value. Through struggle we know persistence and, sometimes, satisfaction.
14) grades and GPAs and SAT scores are not, ultimately, indicative of how smart they are; that they won't always have to be good at things they don't like; that in their lives and careers, many will be able to do what they find interesting, but there will always be a certain portion of unappealing work that has to get done.
15) in their relationships -- the ones they choose -- they must not to do all the emotional work; in real partnerships, that work must be shared.
16) each of them is lovable.
17) what they weigh and the size of their jeans is not nearly as important as the culture tries to make it seem.
18) we feel better, sometimes, when it's not all about us, when we occupy ourselves on behalf of others -- whether taking care of young children or pets or reading to the elderly or volunteering for an organization whose mission resonates. However, I caution them about the danger of spending their lives caring for others without thinking about themselves.
19) feminism is not a dirty word. Equity is what so many of our own mothers fought for and yet we've gained too little ground in 50 years. Too many women, with the same education, experience and qualifications as men, are still paid less than those men.
20) getting mad is not irreparable; sometimes we have to get angry in order to bring about change.
21) they can make a difference if elected to office and that some of them MUST take that risk. Each one must vote in every election -- no excuses. Voting is both a right and a privilege.
22) education is the way out of poverty and that education for girls is a critical global issue.
23) money matters and they must know about how to earn it, manage it, save it.
24) doing enough practical things -- using power tools, changing a tire, coping with technology -- helps women feel competent and in charge, but I also want them to know there is no shame in calling a mechanic or a plumber or tech support.
25) their bodies belong to them, always.
26) their health matters; they must be proactive about breast exams and pap smears and encourage their friends and mothers to do the same.
27) knowing how to restore themselves, how to take the time to do things that bring joy, solace -- reading for pleasure, yoga, knitting, baking, running, taking a bubble bath -- is time well spent.
28) they are not alone, that we often feel better after a good night's sleep and that we should all drink more water.
I feel grateful to Carol Gilligan for inspiring me to consider all I want our girls to know. At Laurel, we do not have all the answers, but we are interested in the questions and the many voices we encourage to participate in this conversation. Because we know #29... that learning never ends.