Textual analysis of the “Per Aspera ad Astra” (through adversity to the stars) letter does not give the full story concerning the bell’s removal, which was precipitated in haste in response to new student demands presented in the wake of the George Floyd incident and while the School’s campus was rather isolated from its larger community by the pandemic.
That tumultuous period has invoked reference by some to the opening stanza of The Second Coming by Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Or to the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
But it is for precisely these sorts of situations that Belmont Hill should be training its best and brightest to retain their convictions and their courage, to remain focused, thoughtful and calm in the face of seeming chaos, to be ready to provide principled leadership in the midst of controversy and unchecked passions. Sound critical thinking skills are the prime objective of education, but they are largely wasted without the strength of character to incorporate them into personal conduct.
Creature comforts are one thing, and Belmont Hill students are hardly deprived on this score. But intellectual comfort is quite another. The whole idea of education is to challenge opinions and beliefs, to foment debate and discussion, to open minds to new ideas and creative impulses. Far from making students feel comfortable, these challenges necessarily involve mental discomfort as students consider the possibility that some things they thought to be true may not be so, or may be different, or just more complicated.
In its student and faculty “Town Hall meetings” about removing the bell, the School appears to have fumbled what might have been an opportune teaching moment. Taken as a whole and as discussed in prior articles, the Atkins family’s Cuban operations were a veritable jewel in the post-slavery reconstruction of Cuba, but none of that history seems to have mattered. The mere fact that the bell had once been a “slave” bell was by itself sufficient to compel its removal, especially in the eyes of the woke, blind to all but their own feelings and sense of moral outrage.
Also apparently irrelevant was the later demise of the Atkins family’s Cuban business, including Soledad and the Atkins Garden, under Fidel Castro.* To ignore the lack of freedom under that regime’s communist policies while bewailing slavery in a bygone era strikes an odd and hypocritical balance of priorities.
The death of anyone in police custody is a tragedy to be avoided. That George Floyd was black provided the spark needed for an egregious over reaction to alleged police misconduct, subsequently punished by a murder conviction of the principal offending officer, in respect of his excessive use of force in trying to arrest a robbery suspect plainly under the influence of drugs and previously convicted of armed assault on a pregnant woman. However tragic the manner of Floyd’s death, it did not make him a hero, still less an example worthy of emulation.
That this incident should have convulsed the School into a sophomoric review of its history, not to mention an act of astonishing ingratitude, can only be fully understood in the wider context of critical race theory (CRT), otherwise known as “cancel culture” or being “woke”. Facts and established science fail before political beliefs. Argument is constrained by censorship and intimidation. American history comes in two versions: the traditional based on the events of 1775; and the revised where the introduction of American slavery in 1619 set the foundation for an irretrievably racist nation.
At Belmont Hill what sparked to life the previously tabled issue of the bell’s future was a “Call to Action” presented by three students led by the captain of the football team. As told by H. Natanson in The Washington Post (Aug. 17, 2020) [sic]:
At Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts, Ugbaja said, officials’ response was a mixed bag. After he and two friends penned a public “Call to Action” — which asked for removal of the bell as well as more Black authors and Black history taught in classrooms — the head of school requested a meeting.
During the get-together, the head of school seemed passionate, “like he wanted to fix this,” Ugbaja said. Still, the head of school warned that not all of the requested changes could happen right away, according to Ugbaja….
The bell at least is on its way out….
Ugbaja will be glad to see it go. Sometimes, he said, White classmates rung the bell. As the chimes died away, they turned and stared at him, the only Black person in the room.
That used to feel intimidating.
“But after all this, I feel — no I know — I have a lot more to say than I did before,” Ugbaja said. “Being one of the only Black kids at the school is not a hindrance now. It is a power.”
Assuming some white kids were teasing black students by ringing the bell, an allegation somewhat undercut by reports that the bell had been dysfunctional for years, it would seem to present more a disciplinary problem than cause for removing the bell.
But what is far more important is the lesson that this student took from his experience. It had nothing to do with critical thinking about history, slavery or the trials and tribulations of the people of Cuba, past or present. For him the take-away seemed to be increased appreciation of the power of being black derived from white sympathy for past victimization of his race.
As it turns out, notwithstanding his enrollment at Yale, Ugbaja is a credible professional football prospect. It is a career path where skill and ability count far more than skin color. Merely being black grants little advantage among competitive athletes, many of whom are themselves black. Nor are white players or coaches likely to prove as pliable as woke educators high on white guilt.
What might grant an extra step in that or any league is not CRT but a mind trained in critical thinking. For good reason, many young athletes sleep more soundly today because they exercised critical thinking regarding their own health. They: were not duped by official and media propaganda and lies about COVID-19; recognized the dangers in taking an unproven injectable therapy billed as a vaccine; weighed the risk/reward ratio for their age and health status; made an informed decision to refuse the “shot” and had the strength of character to stick to it, often at considerable personal cost in the face of mandates by employers, schools, colleges and universities (including many with medical schools), professional sports leagues, the U.S. military and more.
It is not Ugbaja’s fault that the School failed to use the issue of the bell’s removal as a teaching moment. Rather he—like other students—was short-changed on his education by the School’s failure to challenge their superficial and rather naive views about the bell and its history as related to the School itself, to slavery in all its forms, and to the often sad history of the people of Cuba, for a time once brightened by Soledad plantation as managed by the Atkins family.
*During Castro’s rise to power, cocktail parties in Belmont often generated sharp debate between the Atkins heirs running Soledad, who were warning of Castro’s communist leanings, and others who considered him some sort of democratic or agrarian reformer. Castro’s principal supporter, also a Belmont resident and a dean at the Harvard Law School, was William S. Barnes, who secured Castro an invitation to speak at Harvard Stadium during freshman orientation week in the fall of 1958 (my freshman year).
Speaking in English but with a heavy Spanish accent, Castro’s only memorable line came when he tried to say that “the future belongs to the youth”, but due to his accent the word “youth” came out as “Jews”, provoking much laughter given the sensitivity at that time to their increasing numbers in the student body.