The energy and optimism of a new school year is always refreshing after a long summer. It is in this time of promise and excitement that I find it helpful to reflect upon the school’s Honor Code, the code of ethics that we’ve all agreed to follow by being here.
The Episcopal Honor Code
One thing that I find fascinating about this code is that it reminds us of the old adage that with great power comes great responsibility. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about this kind of power and responsibility, mostly through the science fiction books I read. Though I love to read, I’ve pretty much always hated science fiction.
I mostly hated sci-fi growing up because my little sister loved it, especially the tv show, Star Trek: the Next Generation. My sister dabbled in speaking Klingon, wore a Starfleet pennant, and, when anyone criticized her Star Trek obsession, she’d shout: “Well, you wouldn’t make a very good Starfleet Officer!” before attempting to beam herself up. As her older brother, I wasn’t about to be associated with something that seemed so absurd.
But, as time has passed, one thing that has caught my interest about science fiction is the way in which these stories consider the consequences of events across time, deep into the future, and the urgent need to become aware of the power we have in the present to shape our world. This has helped shift the way in which I view this genre. One of the most famous science fiction writers of the 20th century, Ray Bradbury, wrote: “A lot of intellectuals think science fiction is trivial. And it's pivotal! People are walking around the streets with phones to their heads talking to someone ten feet away. We've killed two million people with automobiles. We're surrounded by technology and the problems created by technology, and science fiction isn't important?...I have to write these books and help change the future."
Bradbury wrote that in the 1990s. Imagine what he would write now about how terrifying it is to look at nearly every car at a stoplight, or even cruising down the highway, and see the drivers staring at their cell phones. His urgency twenty years ago about the long term effects of this technology and our habits around it was clearly prescient.
As Bradbury’s point about the urgency of looking forward to the consequences of our actions sank in this summer, I also began to consider more the ways in which events in the past have shaped our present. One article that really struck me was a recent study published in Science magazine that suggests that certain kinds of experiences can create “epigenetic memories” that can be passed down for up to 14 generations. In other words, experiences in an environment, not just DNA, may significantly affect one’s descendants across many generations. While scientists are still scratching the surface of this possibility, consider the implications of this: what effect might the experiences of your 14th great grandmother’s immigration to Iceland in 1667 have on you today? Now think of yourself as the 14th great grandparent to people in the future. What effect will the experience of sitting through this Convocation have on your descendants 350 years from now in the year 2367? The possibilities are mind boggling. Honestly, when I consider this possibility in myself, this is a power that I don’t even want to have.
There’s something kind of terrifying when we consider how dependent we are on the lives of those who came before us, and, in kind, the power we have over the lives of those who will come after us. How could we ever live up to this overwhelming responsibility?
I think one answer to this question of what we can do with this tremendous power we each hold over our own lives, and especially over the lives of others, is to not look so much forwards or backwards, but right directly in the eyes of the present moment we find ourselves in. To take responsibility for it, and for what we do within each moment. And by moment, I mean each moment...I mean this very moment. As our Honor Code asks of us, tend to this moment with an awareness of our great power, individually and collectively, to change our world.
We’ve been given the chance to be here by those who’ve come before us, and we’re giving those that come after us a chance to be here in this space of Episcopal, and on this changing planet, in a way that is better than we can ever imagine.
Thank you for taking on this commitment.
Let’s have a great school year.
Dr. Spree MacDonald
Dr. Thomas “Spree” MacDonald, joined Episcopal as the Upper School Division Head in 2016. Previously, he helped lead the development of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts’ A-rated Academic Studio as its Co-Chair, the Chair of Humanities, and Co-Chair of the campus-wide Faculty Leadership Team.