The introduction to the Strategic Plan 2000 noted that “Discussions around the word community and its meaning for Campbell Hall permeated every meeting of the committee.” Certainly as the board’s Strategic Planning Committee prepares the new Strategic Plan 2008 for publication, it remains true that “when asked what they most valued about the school, current students along with student applicants and their families consistently described the strong aspect of community that the institution represents.” In some ways, the meaning of community in this context is quite clear: at Campbell Hall, we expect and work towards relationships and communication of high quality. We strive to be decent and thoughtful towards one another. When relationships are discordant, that stands out and worries us.
During this round of planning, I have become interested in expanding our common understanding of the notion of community to include our academic work more explicitly. My motivation comes in part from my own teaching experience. About a decade ago I taught a fantastic program with a horrible name: Philosophy for Children (the sixth graders informed me that they were definitely not children). Among other things, the course taught middle school students how to use critical thinking skills to approach very complex topics. The curriculum’s creator, Matthew Lipman, referred to the importance of creating a “community of inquiry” that would facilitate joint investigation and discussion of subjects where truth was not the sole possession of any one participant, including the teacher, but rather emerged in the process of dialogue.
The phrase “community of inquiry” seems to have originated from the American philosopher of science Charles Peirce, who recognized in the professional scientific community a paradigm for pursuing complex truths in every field. John Dewey in turn claimed that inquiry-based models should form the basis of all education. Retired Bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles Frederick Borsch places inquiry at the center of even our spiritual lives in his excellent book, The Spirit Searches Everything. I recently purchased copies for every trustee of a book entitled Culture of Inquiry that extols the virtues of healthy debate in the boardroom. My administrative colleagues and I have begun to investigate how the notion of a “community of inquiry” may be central to our identity as an Episcopal school.
If community just means that we all get along, it can lead to calls for oppressive conformity. If our understanding of community includes the awareness that all knowledge is provisional and mysterious, then we value the courage, civility, and discipline we show when we inquire together into difficult subjects as much as the fact that we cheer together at basketball games. We prepare students best for a larger world where highly complex and messy problems dominate the landscape by nurturing the skills of the community of inquiry so they know how to respond with grace, focus, and intelligence.