Changing the World in Ways Big and Small

Each year in 11th grade English, Georgetown Day School students study Aristotelian Appeals. They learn the three elements of great oratory—ethos, logos and pathos—examining speeches from history and analyzing how they map onto Aristotle’s blueprint. Last week, they witnessed a living example of the Aristotelian Triad unfold on Capitol Hill.

Along with many people across the nation, their eyes were turned to the fourth impeachment trial in American history. At the heart of the trial was Jamie Raskin, a constitutional legal scholar turned congressman who served as impeachment manager for the House of Representatives. Raskin, a gifted jurist and progressive thinker, graduated from GDS in 1979, shortly after our High School’s founding. His daughters, Hannah and Tabitha, are GDS Class of 2010 and 2015 respectively. Of course it is difficult to extricate an impeachment trial from partisan politics. Nonetheless much of Raskin’s brilliant oratory this week transcended politics and reflected what we hope is the best of GDS.

First, to the Aristotelian Appeal. Ethos is the establishment of the speaker’s personal credibility. With a self-effacing reference to his three decades as a professor of constitutional law and a promise not to bore his audience, Congressman Raskin achieved this goal mere seconds into his opening statement. Logos is the engine of the argument, the brick by brick construction of the case employing reason and logic. Raskin accomplished this in such a skillful and accessible way that some of his rhetoric may well find its way into the American lexicon. He riffed on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ prohibition against shouting fire in a crowded theater by introducing us to a proverbial fire chief who incites a mob to set the theater on fire and then watches approvingly as it burns. Finally, pathos, where the speaker appeals to his audience’s emotions to clinch his case. Listeners will not soon forget Raskin’s palpable grief as he described Tabitha telling him she didn’t want to return to the Capitol following all that she’d experienced there. Whether quoting Lincoln or elucidating a point of parliamentary procedure, one couldn’t question Raskin’s sincerity, his humanity, his deep love for his country. Raskin’s greatness was inextricably linked to his goodness and watching him we felt the importance of the subject matter even as we understood the message he sought to convey.

Georgetown Day School’s founding Board Chair Philleo Nash once wrote of our School, “It is not enough to assert that democracy is good. It must be lived through and made to be good, in our time and place.” Seventy-five years after our School’s founding, Philleo would take pride in a GDS alumnus making democracy good “in our time and place.” And perhaps he would draw a connection between the education provided at GDS and the courage and capacity Congressman Raskin exhibited on the national stage. Raskin’s classmates certainly drew that connection. Last week on the GDS alumni Facebook page, David Taft Morris ‘78 reflected: “It’s hard to imagine a better goal of a GDS education than to prepare someone so well in so many ways for this moment in time: History, Politics, Philosophy, French, Oral Argument. His presentation came across like the GDS curriculum. Our school should be so proud.”

Raskin himself introduced GDS into the impeachment proceedings. “And we might take a moment to consider another Voltaire insight which a High School teacher of mine told me when a student asked, ‘When was the beginning of The Enlightenment?’ and she said, “I think it was when Voltaire said that ‘Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’” The teacher was Marvina Shilling, GDS High School French teacher. Raskin was discussing the Enlightenment and Voltaire in French.

In our forthcoming 75th Anniversary Book, Raskin writes, “I have always been able to love and embrace GDS because its founding story is so powerful and because my experiences there were consistently humane, challenging, and uplifting.” As an educator, my work is grounded in the belief that those humane, challenging, uplifting experiences helped form the man who so capably honored our democracy and nation last week.

Not long ago GDS adopted the audacious tagline, “where students love to learn and learn to change the world.” The GDS Leadership Team and Board of Trustees discussed whether the tagline was too much, whether it overpromised or lacked humility. And yet changing the world happens in ways big and small. Of course it happens when a congressman reminds his country what it means to lead with both head and heart. But it also happens when a college graduate like Tabitha Raskin commits to Teach for America to teach high school math, as her father proudly recounted in his opening argument. Or when Malvika Reddy ‘23 joins with the DC Attorney General to pen an opinion piece for The Washington Post advocating for stricter gun laws. Or when Lexi Berzok ‘25 puts together a panel of individuals with different abilities to educate her Middle School classmates. Or when Ziyah Holman ‘20 provides a model for what it means to never give up. We change the world by how we show up to the circumstances life presents us.

Congressman Raskin’s leadership of the impeachment trial was remarkable not only in substance, but also in form. Reflecting on the proceedings, Raskin’s beloved teacher Kevin Barr, who retired from GDS last spring after 43 years of service to our School, wrote the following:

The subtext of Congressman Raskin’s whole presentation since Tuesday has been what kind of America are we to be. In his brilliant closing statement today, he reminded us of Lincoln’s “beautiful vision” of a “multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic” United States. I suspect that not since Thaddeus Stevens stood in the well of the Senate has anyone declared that the “United States was established as a slave republic” but that however flawed as men the architects of the country were they inscribed in the Constitution and the Declaration principles that in time would open America up to “transformation.” It wasn’t so long ago that… neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.”… Today we had a Jewish man supported by an extraordinarily diverse set of colleagues offer a passionate defense and articulation of the ideal America. Patriotism was on display today and there wasn’t a proud boy in sight.

Our country has its work cut out for it. It is for this reason that last month GDS announced the creation of a new
Center for Civic Engagement with a vision of “a democracy renewed and sustained by the civic participation, advocacy, and action of youth in the DMV region and beyond.” This week we can feel community pride that “one of our own” modeled the very best of civic engagement. We would all do well to follow his example.

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