A Letter from Mr. Becker

3 mins read

by Mr. Becker

As we (“we”=The Gunnery community defined broadly) celebrate “The Highlander’s” move from print to online, we (“we”=all human beings) ought to take the opportunity to reflect on why the founders of the United States considered a free press so important that they included protection for it in the First Amendment to the federal Constitution. Specifically, they wrote, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” What issue were they, in 1791, responding to? What were they trying to protect or protect against? Why does the press get treatment similar to religion and the right of an individual to speak? That seems to grant the press a whole lot of weight; a not obvious level of significance.

For my part, I probably would not be in my role, and probably would not be in education, if it were not for the press. As a junior at boarding school, I first attended an organizational meeting of the school’s newspaper because I was romantically-attracted to the editor in-chief. Though I had no experience, or maybe because of that, she assigned me to write a story for the Features section on the history of the first black student at our boarding school, Taft. I did not know at the time what the Features section was but threw myself into the assignment with relish. That work quickly led to the school’s archives, where I learned that I loved archival research, piecing together as accurate an understanding of the past as possible from the evidence available. I credit that assignment for initiating a love of history that ultimately led me to teach. Moreover, six years later, when we were both 22-year-old college graduates, I married the editor-in-chief.

It’s impossible to know if the authors of the Bill of Rights could conceive of an internet-based press, although they were familiar with experiments in the press of their day. (Anyone interested in learning more about the role and changing nature of the press in early United States history need look no further than Ron Chernow’s now-famous biography of Alexander Hamilton. A robust scholarship exists on this topic generally.) Moving online provides Gunnery students and faculty a profound opportunity to experiment daily with the creation and publication of knowledge in the 21st century and to explore the two-sided coin that is the internet. On the local, school level, what once were deadlines driven by the need to print the paper by a certain time (which usually included students working through the night–very good preparation for the real world if not good preparation for the next day’s calculus test or soccer game), today the deadline is both arbitrary and perpetual. The internet’s flexibility (no printing press, no delivery mechanisms) has both terrific advantages and enough disadvantages to drive an editor mad.

“The Highlander” online now also means that the audience includes every human being on earth with access to it. That certainly changes things, or should. Public performance is a powerful pedagogical tool–typically students in any discipline (academic, artistic, athletic) focus a little more, work a little harder, sweat the details a bit more exactly when they know that their work will be on public display rather than read just by a teacher. This ultimately is a good thing, but it requires a different kind of emotional preparation for all involved. I expect that our writers and editors will review work with a finer-toothed comb now that they know that their reach extends to the corners of the globe, and that their work product is essentially permanent. No longer is today’s newspaper just used to wrap fish-and-chips or to line waste paper baskets–it may be that our student writers’ future employers read it.

The move from print to digital bears consideration for another reason: the internet is insatiable and effectively limitless in ways that traditional print news was limited. Print newspapers funded operations through advertisements so that the decision to add a page corresponded to that page’s ability to generate revenue and cover the cost. That was the model for approximately two centuries. We are now in the early stages of an experiment in how the press will fund itself (although The Gunnery’s intrepid reporters are protected from this pressure, which has its own ramifications) and that has already had profound implications for the way the press operates–yes, in terms of newspapers closing, but also in terms of what gets reported, tone and style, and form. The point is not whether these changes are good or bad, but rather that students should be aware of them, and moving online provides an opportunity for students to learn about and reflect on them. Author and educator Neil Postman should be required reading for all students, especially for those involved in creating news and publishing it to the internet.

As with any endeavor like this at a school, so much of the success depends on students. I am proud of the students who have pioneered this move, grateful for the adults who supported and facilitated the process, and excited to see how next year’s students carry it forward. What seems like a fairly simple change in format is actually a terrific, ongoing learning opportunity, and I look forward to watching our students seize it. If they also happen to meet a future life partner in the process, all the better!

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