Reflections from the Head

November 2011

Citizenship in the OHS Community

The centrality of community to an online high school is easily overlooked, at least until you spend a day or two at the Stanford University Online High School (OHS).  While the exceptional academic program has long been the central motivation and focus of the OHS, the community is not far beneath the surface.  The expansion of the discussion seminar format in the past year reflects a fundamental premise that learning at the OHS is not simply a matter of talented students pursuing advanced material in isolation. Rather, an OHS education is entirely about bringing a talented and passionate group of students and instructors together to dig into sophisticated material in ways that push each member to a richer understanding and a fuller development of his or her talents.

The OHS is a remarkable community in its composition.  Our student body exhibits a geographic diversity that is exceptional both in its extent and in its realization: our students do not simply come from different places (students living in 42 states and 27 countries), but rather attend class each day from those dramatically different contexts.  To this diversity of place, our students add a spectrum of academic talents and interests, filling courses from the middle school to advanced university level across disciplines.  Moreover, student clubs reflect some of the many significant pursuits our students engage in outside of the classroom, but which thoroughly inform and are informed by their work in class, including lab research, performance, sports, and service.  In our recent club fair, students formed over thirty clubs, encompassing both mainstays of any school, like a student newspaper, math, engineering, and debate clubs, to clubs focusing on entrepreneurship and activism, to artistic and creative groups.   And to such a mix of students, we add an incredible group of instructors and staff, distinguished in experience, expertise, and commitment to teaching.

Clearly, this collection has a lot to offer to each of its members, in their insights, talents, and perspectives, as shared in and out of class.  But our community does not consist only in what each of us can contribute to solving a problem or analyzing a text.  As some of the speakers noted in our inaugural assembly of the year, we are all participants in and inheritors of a tradition of mutual support and respectful appreciation of one another’s views, talents, and personalities.  This mindset finds its way into the classroom in a variety of ways that further the mission of the school.

The ideal of a discussion section, for instance, as a place to think on one’s feet, be challenged by the views of others, and to get feedback from others, is not satisfied when students make their points serially, without addressing what has come before.  To keep discussion moving in a productive direction, then, it is essential to relate one’s ideas to those expressed by others along the way, thereby both acknowledging the seriousness of a peer’s contribution, and putting one’s own thoughts into contact with some of the arguments these views will encounter outside the classroom, in the real world. As former students of our Core course, Democracy, Freedom, and the Rule of Law, no doubt recall, John Stuart Mill argues that freedom of thought and speech is essential, not for any considerations of the rights of others to speak, but for the contribution to the discovery and retention of truth that even false or probably false views can make (to say nothing of the contributions that partially true views can make).  Even in the extreme case, then, in which we are convinced of the absolute truth of our own position, Mill would have us all carefully work through competing claims and the possible defects of our own.  This practice of intellectual charity towards the arguments of others encourages the sharing of views that reveal not simply the truth of our own claims, but more commonly the exceptions, counterexamples, assumptions, and problematic inferences that need to be resolved in the construction of a successful position.  Students at the OHS practice these skills in class every day.

For an unreformed philosophy nerd, one of the great pleasures of teaching at the OHS has always been the readiness of our students to throw themselves into academic inquiry, abstract and concrete alike, without apology.  Indeed, it is this common passion for engaging the questions and subject matter of our curriculum that bridges the diversity and distance that are themselves both assets and challenges.  So while there is little need to exhort our students to cultivate these passions, it is important to observe that our community is at its best when these common values of inclusivity, respectfulness, responsibility and support – the reasons our students found their way to the OHS – are at the core of our interactions with one another.

Jeffrey Scarborough, Ph.D.
Headmaster