By Jim Benz
Chester Wenger was a 96-year-old revered minister and administrator in his tight-knit Mennonite congregation in Lancaster, PA when he faced a crisis of the heart. Many years ago, his son revealed to him that he was gay. Homosexuality is forbidden in the very conservative Mennonite religion, so Wenger’s son had to leave the religious community that he grew up in and loved. But that’s not the crux of the conflict. The crux comes several years later when Wenger’s son told him that he wanted to marry his partner and, more importantly, he wanted Wenger to officiate the ceremony.
In his podcast, Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a concept called “Generous Orthodoxy”, a term conceived by theologian Hans Frei and explained by Gladwell using the story of Chester Wenger and the dilemma he faced about his decision to officiate his son’s wedding. To officiate the wedding meant breaking with the orthodoxy of his beloved religion and relinquishing his role as minister. To not accept his son’s love of another man meant not acknowledging the beauty of love in all its forms.
Wenger loved his congregation and the traditions of the Mennonite religion - its orthodoxy is essential. At the same time he was also outward looking and understood the need to be open to change. Frei defined this openness to change as “generous” and likened it to charity and humility.
“Hans Frei thought the best way to live our lives,” Gladwell explains, “is to find the middle ground.” “To be orthodox is to be committed to tradition. To be generous is to be open to change. Orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness, and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty.” Hence, the middle ground honors tradition while simultaneously being open to new ideas.
I don’t think we were aware of the term “Generous Orthodoxy” as we wrote the strategic plan over the past year, but the tension between tradition and innovation was definitely on the minds of the strategic plan task force members as they met to determine goals and priorities for the school. Hence, the new strategic plan has exciting and aspirational goals that are guided by important values that date back to our founding nearly 100 years ago.
On December 8, 2018, the Board of Directors unanimously approved the strategic plan, a culmination of extensive work conducted by the five task force groups who worked hard and thought deeply about how each of the five identified cornerstones of the plan - Program and Professional Development, Physical Environment, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Staff Recruitment and Retention, and Communications - could strengthen the school.
Peninsula’s founder, Josephine Duveneck, held an enduring belief in the promise of progressive education to inspire children to learn for a lifetime, promote social justice and preserve the joys of childhood. She also understood that in order to remain, well, progressive, courage is required of the school’s community: there must exist a culture of continual reflection and assessment, walking a line between preservation and innovation, generosity and orthodoxy. “A progressive school should keep pace with the times,” she wrote. “So easily does tradition seize us and its deadly grip closes over the open mind! Nothing is easier than to slip into the self-satisfied, complacent belief that what we have once decided to do is the pattern for all time.”
Our new strategic plan acknowledges the school’s strengths and identifies areas of growth meant to meet the realities of a rapidly evolving future. The plan has many important priorities, but three of them are critical in that they focus on our people and our program. These priorities identify challenges that will require fortitude and the commitment of the entire community to address.
First, while Peninsula has a long history of social justice, we must be more ambitious in building an environment in which all students, families and staff feel a strong sense of belonging and inclusiveness. This includes examining our program and practices and, equally important, addressing the financial costs - tuition, child care, professional assessment and academic support - for families to send their children to Peninsula.
Second, staff have always been the beating heart of Peninsula. The autonomy teachers enjoy combined with the school’s inspired mission to serve children in an authentic manner continues to attract top talent. However, the local economy compels us to better address compensation and benefits to support and retain our valued staff.
Last but no less essential, the program, broadly defined to encompass the entirety of the student experience, is the foundation that has and continues to anchor Peninsula. Cognitive brain science has immeasurably advanced our understanding of how children learn, and there exists a body of scholarship that supports many of the components of a Peninsula education and helps to articulate what we do and why we do it that way. It is, therefore, crucial that we review the program’s pace and scope, developmental appropriateness, and continuity across all grade levels.
This will not be easy work. The decision for Chester Wenger didn’t come quickly or without struggle, and for us discussions and alternate views will challenge perspectives and question traditions. We are fortunate to have our values - Play, Authentic Communication, Community, Equity, Meaningful Academics, and Freedom and Responsibility - which have sustained the school for nearly a century, and remain deeply ingrained in the fabric of our practice.
As always, Josephine’s insightful words will provide inspiration during our process of implementation: “...we must ask ourselves honestly and often if we have lost the ability to pioneer, whether we are still sensitive to the challenge of new situations, new factors, new discoveries.”