What We Value, Who We Venerate

As our school community gathered in the Kirby Arts Center on Thursday, January 17 to congratulate Shelby M.C. Davis ’54 GP’06 ’07 ’15 ’18 on becoming this year’s recipient of the Aldo Leopold award, I was excited to hear what he had to say.

As our school community gathered in the Kirby Arts Center on Thursday, January 17 to congratulate Shelby M.C. Davis ’54 GP’06 ’07 ’15 ’18 on becoming this year’s recipient of the Aldo Leopold award, I was excited to hear what he had to say. He must have been granted this award for a specific reason. But after hearing Davis speak, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

I have no doubt that Davis is a great man and has accomplished many things over the years. Throughout his speech, he advised us on how to survive outside of Lawrenceville and emphasized the value of good choices and education. However, as Davis is both a former vice president at The Bank of New York and co-founder of the Davis-United World Colleges scholarship program intended to fund the education of international students, I was looking forward to a speech that would give me greater insight into what it means to become a philanthropist.

Instead, I felt a sense of detachment coming from his words. His speech wasn’t centered around explaining a deeper philosophical meaning to his work: It was on how to make and save money. When Davis was asked about what kind of students are qualified for his scholarship program, he said something along the lines of, “I don’t do much.” It almost seemed like he was only involved in the money aspect of his gifting-program and didn’t know much beyond that. What I learned that morning was the importance of saving money rather than his motivation for giving back.

After the speech, these thoughts made me uneasy. They raised a crucial question: As an institution and a community, what do we value? Lawrenceville chose Davis for the Leopold Award—also known as the “Lawrenceville medal”— meaning his actions and values align with our school’s. Thus, the selection of Davis as the award’s recipient seems to reflect that the School prioritizes wealth as opposed to our mission of “challeng[ing] a diverse community of promising young people to lead lives of learning, integrity, and high purpose.” In this time of social and political chaos, shouldn’t lives of “high purpose” entail more than simply obtaining money in your lifetime? Entail becoming more conscious individuals in hopes of becoming the next social and political changers in our shifting society?

While making and saving money to support ourselves and families is important, those values can be addressed in different ways. The Leopold Award recipient should inspire us to be more aware and invested in tackling current events outside of our Lawrenceville bubbles and clearly reflect how we can make an impact beyond making money. Understanding our increasingly complex world takes a keen understanding of the many nuanced issues that plague it. Thus, as an educational community, we should instead be addressing social and environmental issues such as racism, sexual harassment, factors harming our environment, and global setbacks in terrorism and radical groups.

I do believe that Davis has done much to support those around him. As a philanthropist, he has contributed greatly to many students’ educations and is the reasons many students are able to receive such a valuable and rare education. But despite his contributions, his values seem to deviate from what Lawrenceville wishes to instill in its students. As one of the most prestigious boarding schools in our nation, the purpose of an institution is often simply to preserve itself. Though it may seem at first glance that the only way Lawrenceville can achieve that goal is by funneling in donations from alumni and that it therefore should emphasize money, I hope that the School will realize that instilling social consciousness in our students and an active willingness to give back to the community is of equal, or even more merit, than valuing money and wealth.

If this award represents is “the highest honor bestowed by Lawrenceville on an alumnus,” to hear from a speaker that would inspire us to act and make a difference in our society would possess more value than anything else. As a community, we should assess the change and impact someone has rather than what it took them to get to that threshold. We shouldn’t focus on the money-aspect that gives people the platform to make a difference but instead how they are using that platform to help those in need.