The Importance of Discourse

by Matt Walsh ’19

Forgive me for the cliché, but at St. Mark’s, we live in quite the bubble.

Throughout most of its history, St. Mark’s has been a haven for the privileged, moneyed elite. Despite the school’s noble effort to diversify and its increasing commitment to promoting equity and inclusion, St. Mark’s will remain a bastion of privilege. It’s an unavoidable reality for most boarding schools.

The school’s high concentration of privilege has given us a blanket under which we can hide from the issues that plague the real world. Moreover, St. Mark’s, and almost every boarding school, suffers from an extremely short memory—a memory short enough to cause students to forget about an event like the Las Vegas shooting within a couple of days.

Political discourse exists at St. Mark’s—I have found many opportunities to talk politics with a wide range of people—but this discourse often occurs within the context of the school community. While the conflict in Israel, for example, may occupy students’ minds for a few days, nothing incites student discourse more than political events within the school. Community and Equity Day, for example, yielded far more political discussions than did the airstrike Donald Trump sent to Syria in April. In the same way, the walkout on Friday, April 20 fomented far more discourse about gun violence than any mass shooting that occurred in the school year did.

In an era where information is so easily accessible, there is no excuse to remain oblivious. Ordinary citizens now have the ability to help cure social ills and inequities. Some would argue that ordinary citizens have the ability and therefore the obligation to help solve the problems of the 21st century. Endowed with privileges and awareness of the social ills that grip our world, St. Markers can help too. And civil discourse remains the cornerstone to solving the world’s problems—after all, the Civil Rights Movement only succeeded because Martin Luther King and other nonviolent demonstrators inspired conversation in northern cities.

The walkout served a variety of purposes. First, we wanted to honor the seventeen lives that were lost in Parkland. Furthermore, we wanted to promote civil discourse and legitimize student demonstrations. Throughout history, older generations have viewed student protests as illegitimate, naive and misguided, and the nasty ad hominem attacks against the Parkland students served as evidence. Thus, we wanted to embolden students to become more involved in political demonstrations and understand that their calls for change are legitimate. In this spirit, we printed voter pre-registration forms and provided the students the opportunity to pre-register to vote.

Gun violence is a uniquely American epidemic. No other country in the developed world has such a high gun homicide rate. Communicating that gun violence, objectively, is an issue in the United States was the first step in advertising the walkout. Moreover, we stressed that the walkout lacked a political agenda. The goal of the walkout was to encourage student civil disobedience, and Rwick and I understood that giving the walkout a political bent would deter many students from participating.

The moderated discussion, however, allowed for students to voice specific solutions to the gun violence epidemic. While some proposed stricter background checks and bans on particular weapons, others called for the use of armed guards to defend schools and other public places against shooters.

Gun violence is not an issue that directly affects St. Mark’s School. While specific students may have particular experiences with gun violence—and many shared these experiences during the walkout—the threat of a shooting does not loom over St. Mark’s. Thus, discussions directly after the Parkland shooting, while not nonexistent, were somewhat sparse. But by making gun violence a relevant topic within the school community, the walkout encouraged more political discourse. The success of the walkout demonstrates that the best way to get students involved in political causes is to make the cause relevant to them.