Monoculture and Moral Injury in NAIS Schools

By Carter Latendresse posted 10-15-2013 04:30 PM


Admittedly, this is a strange piece of writing, peculiarly weaving together thinking on farming, war, and NAIS schools. It is exploratory in nature, following metaphorical links, rather than being a linear analysis. I would hope, though, that it helps to push our thinking to empathetic and just action.

Part I:        Monocultures


Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and Rob Hopkins have all written extensively about the links between monocropping, peak oil, global warming, and world hunger. It’s a bit confusing to the untrained eye, for when we visit farms and see acres of the same fruit stretched out to the horizon, we might wonder how this can represent harmful practice.


Shiva explains: “Small biodiverse, organic farms have higher output than large industrial monocultures” (Earth Democracy, p. 162-163). This is perhaps a counterintuitive assertion that also seems to contradict the grandeur of the tomato and banana stacks in grocery stores. “The globalized, industrialized food [system] . . . is too costly for the earth, for the farmers, and for our health (p. 163) . . . . It is incapable of producing safe, culturally appropriate, tasty, quality food. And it is incapable of producing enough food for all because it is wasteful of land, water, and energy. Corporate agriculture uses 10 times more energy than it produces, 10 times more water than ecological agriculture. It is thus 10 times less efficient. Labor efficiency is also a myth; all the researchers, pesticide producers, genetic engineers, truck drivers, and soldiers engaged in wars over oil are part of the industrial food production system” (p. 163).


One of the things I like about Shiva is how she drills down into the seemingly transparent issue of food, analyzing the interconnections between global warming, hunger, water use, colonialism, and globalization. What at first appears self-evident—that the globalization of, say, cotton growing, garment production, and retail sales—is actually, when analyzed, an unsustainable, inefficient system that is harmful to human societies and ecosystems. Let’s stick with cotton as a monocrop.


Tom Philpott, in a Mother Jones article entitled “Are Your Skinny Jeans Starving the World?” points out that cotton is the world’s thirstiest crop (for water). It also uses 16% of the world’s insecticides, more than any other agricultural product. Cotton dominates large swathes of West African, Chinese, and Indian land that might otherwise be used to grow organic, biodiverse food for the millions of hungry in those places. However, the market desire of the rest of the world’s citizenry for cheap cotton clothes pushes that unhealthy land and water use, creating more global warming in the production of fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical harvesting, machine clothes production, shipping overseas, and retail store electricity.


The seemingly innocuous t-shirt I wear, purchased on sale at Target, actually is the mechanism by which environmental, social, and our first-world countries onto the emerging countries of India and China foist economic injustice. It’s strange: when I get up in the morning to teach colonialism in the Middle East to my sixth graders with a lesson I have created collaboratively with colleagues in an interdisciplinary way, using the latest best practice of Backwards Design, I am still wearing the flag of colonialism, my cotton t-shirt.


Here’s the first strange connection: Are NAIS schools similarly and unintentionally caught in our own webs of success? When we analyze monocultures in nature, we see that despite the corn’s initial shiny appearance of robust yellow health in our U.S. grocery stories, it may be, if it comes from a GMO and fertilizer-rich monoculture in Mexico, contributing to other, unimagined systemic problems, like CCD in bee populations, ground water pollution, unemployment and food insecurity in Mexico. I wonder if our schools are similarly structured? I wonder if we might do the kind of analyses of our NAIS schools that Philpott, Shiva, Berry, Pollan, and Hopkins do with agribusiness? It would be important if this analogy is strong, for just as monocultures are ultimately unsustainable in nature, cultural monocultures promise the safe and recognizable while holding the seeds of their own downfall.


Apartheid was overthrown in South Africa. Colonialism in India and Africa were pushed out. Slavery and segregation in our own country were outlawed. All of these cultural systems succeeded for a time with the idea that genetically-superior leaders led, crowned by God or human evolution; over time, however, the oppressed unmasked the racism undergirding these ideologies, insisting on the moral necessity of self-determination. Still, when we look at the demographics of NAIS Heads of School, we see that only around 5% are people of color. Obviously, systemic racism has lasting effects.


Similar historical trajectories can be traced with women in positions of leadership around the world, though, embarrassingly, perhaps not as quickly or successfully. While U.S. statutes outlaw sexual discrimination, we still live in a world with glass ceilings. If half of our citizenry has been female, then half of our Presidents should have been female—though not one has risen to that rank. Even in our own progressive world of NAIS education—where 66% of teachers are female but just 31% of our Heads are women—we see perhaps the vestiges of institutional and historical sexism at work.


I would argue that these past examples of racism and sexism can still be felt systemically in our world, obviously harming the physical and psychic bodies of poor non-white women and children, especially; in addition, there is also a moral harm (the second odd idea in this piece) to the privileged class of people who benefit from racism and sexism, and this benefit is carried, like a cancer cell, as part-and-parcel of his own inheritance of privilege. I want to suggest that moral injury, along with negative traits of racism, sexism, and homophobia, is a historical inheritance that the straight white male (the norm for board members and Heads of School) is bequeathed upon entering the monoculture NAIS world. It’s not that the NAIS world intends this; this is just an unintentional byproduct of the demographics at NAIS schools.


This seems a hyperbolic claim. Is the NAIS world really a monoculture? Is there really a cancer-like inheritance? Don’t we teach with the smartest, most progressive people we know? Aren’t the people we know wonderful? Yes, of course, but read on.



Part II:      Some Statistics about NAIS

Heads at NAIS Schools

2009 NAIS Heads of School:

69%     male

31%     female

5%       People of Color

95%     White

Source: “The State of Independent School Leadership 2009: Report of Survey Research Among School Heads and Administrators” (Washington, DC: February 2010)



2010-2011 NAIS Head of School:

3.9%    People of Color

Source: 2013 PPT entitled “Diversity and Leadership,” by Patrick Bassett, former NAIS President (


Boards at NAIS Schools


Typical NAIS Board:

60%     Male

83%     Caucasian

$4,035 gift to school

Source: 2013 PPT entitled “Diversity and Leadership,” by Patrick Bassett, former NAIS President (



Teachers at NAIS Schools


Teachers at NAIS Schools:

13.7%              Total Faculty of Color as % of Total Faculty

86.3%              Total White Faculty as % of Total Faculty

Source: “NAIS Facts at a Glance 2012-2013”



Teachers at NAIS Schools (2007-08):

66%     Women

34%     Men 

Source: “Teaching in Independent Schools,”



Stats on NAIS Day Schools:

27.5%              Enrollment of Students of Color as % of Total Enrollment

67.3%              Percentage of European American Students

$54,900           Median of Mean Teacher Salary

$78,500           Median of Highest Teacher Salary

$37,120           Median of Lowest Starting Salary

$216,000         Head of School Median Salary

$20,148           Average Median Tuition Grades 6-8 (Average Median Tuition for Grades 6-8 in Boarding School is $38,600)

 Source: “NAIS Facts at a Glance 2012-2013”



Students at NAIS Schools


NAIS Students As a Percentage of All U.S. School Students K-12

1% of U.S. students go to NAIS Schools

Source: Bruce G. Hammond pointed this out during his lecture at our 10/3/12 school faculty meeting. Bruce is director of college counseling at High School Affiliated to Nanjing Normal University. He is also executive director of the Independent Curriculum Group. 



Missing the Value of Diversity:

“Many constituents don’t know or acknowledge the value of racial & ethnicity diversity.”

“Work around race considered by many ‘do-gooder’ distraction rather than education…a core value.”

“The agenda is set by white men who predominate as leaders of schools and in a school environment of (largely) white privilege and wealth.”

“Race is discussed in terms of numbers rather than having conversations about what diversity means.”

Source: 2013 PPT entitled “Diversity and Leadership,” by Patrick Bassett, former NAIS President (



NAIS Diversity

In 2008, 42.7% of students in all schools in USA were students of color, but only 22.4% of the Independent students were students of color. [When public school students, teachers, administrators, and parents look at their schools and then at Independent schools, they may see us as being schools for rich white kids.] Only 5.9% of Independent students in 2008 were African American. Only 6.8% were Asian American; only 4.0% were Hispanic.

Source: 2013 PPT entitled “Diversity and Leadership,” by Patrick Bassett, former NAIS President (



The Cost of NAIS Education


Who Can Afford NAIS Schools?

Average Median Tuition for an NAIS Middle (Day) School is $20,148.

Median Financial Aid Grant is $10,574.

Only the upper and upper middle classes can afford this, as the average cost after financial aid grant is $9,574, or $800/month.

Middle, low-middle, and lower classes cannot spend $800/month on school.

Source: “NAIS Facts at a Glance 2012-2013”

When measuring income in current (not constant) dollars, the percentage of Americans making over $200,000 in 2007 was 3.201%”



“The next income level is what is commonly called the ‘5 percent,’ or the percentage of Americans who make more than $150,000 annually. At the top of the economic ladder is the so-called ‘1 percent,’ or households that earn more than $250,000 annually.”
Where Do You Fall in the American Economic Class System?” by David Francis, September 13, 2012, in US News and World Report,

Another source, working with census data, argues that the average middle class worker makes $49,842/year, while the average upper-middle class worker makes $80,080/year, and the average upper class worker makes $178,020/year.=

“What Is the Middle Class?” by Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post online, September 16, 2012 


“There is no getting around the fact that the primary clientele of independent schools are the wealthiest families in our country: the 1 percent, to use ‘Occupy’ terminology. Who else can afford tuition costs that in some areas are approaching $40,000 a year?”

Source: p. 1, “Our 1% Problem: Independent Schools and the Income Gap,” by Fred Bartels, Fall 2012, Independent School Magazine



College Graduation


Who Is Graduating College These Days

“Whites represented three out of every four students completing a bachelor’s degree.”

 “Most graduates also came from upper or middle-class family backgrounds.”

“58 percent [of those graduating with a BA] were women.”

 Source: “Report Finds Demographics of College Graduates Do Not Reflect Changes in Overall Student Body,” published May 16, 2013 on



Ethnic Diversity in the U.S.

Given current census trends, White people will no longer be the ethnic majority in the U.S. in 2043 Source:


Part III:     Conclusions Drawn from the Statistics


NAIS Heads of School are primarily white (95%) upper class (the top 3% of income & making more than $178K/year) males (69%). NAIS Board members are primarily white (60%) upper class (the top 3% of income & making more than $178K/year) males (83%). NAIS Board members and Heads therefore come from the same circles and speaking positions. They are self-replicating constituencies.


NAIS families, including parents and students, for the most part, come from the same circles and speaking positions as the Boards and Heads (white and wealthy)—though all positions of leadership are disproportionately male. NAIS day school students are primarily white (67.3%) and from the upper-middle and upper classes. College students graduating with BAs are primarily white (75%) and from the middle classes or wealthier. NAIS schools therefore serve as highly effective childhood-to-adult pipelines for wealthy white communities in the USA, though they are less successful at empowering women than men.


We have a reversal in numbers of what we should have in terms of sex: women are 66% of NAIS teachers who should then move into positions of Head of School and onto NAIS Boards, but only 17% of Boards are female and only 31% of Heads are women. Female students at NAIS schools therefore continue to be marginalized, as they are half as likely to see their own reflections in our primary positions of leadership than boys. When half of the world citizenry is female and 66% of NAIS teachers are female, but only 31% are Heads of School and only 17% of Boards are female, we have a major problem in terms of gender equity.


NAIS students of color and LGBTQ students continue to be marginalized, as they rarely see their own reflections in our primary positions of leadership, Heads of School and School Boards. We are therefore missing the opportunity to accept and retain more students of color and LGBTQ students onto our campus, as having Heads of School and Board Members that look like them is the most important symbol of hope we can provide those student populations.


If you are from the middle, low-middle, or lower class as an NAIS student (whatever your ethnicity or sex), you do not share that commonality with our primary position of leadership, as Heads are wealthy, given their average annual salary, $216,000. Further, if you are a female NAIS student of color from the middle, low-middle, or lower class, you do not share any common speaking position with our primary position of school leadership. Finally, if you are a wealthy white straight male NAIS student, you share the most interlocking commonalities with NAIS Heads.


This monoculturing of speaking position creates moral injury in our NAIS communities, and it needs to be addressed.



Part IV:     Moral Injury

Now it’s time for the second strange idea: The foregoing statistics that elucidate the monocultures on NAIS school campuses, especially in the HOS offices and Board rooms, may create a moral injury in us teachers who recognize our own complicity in the exclusivity of our campuses. We all always aware, just under the surface, that NAIS student, teacher, administration, and Board populations are not representative of U.S. society or of world society. It doesn’t
have to be, of course: parents are paying a lot of money for their own kids to attend our wonderful schools. It’s not a parent’s job to pay for another child’s education. Still, the perception exists out there that we are the rich white kids’ school.


Every NAIS teacher has heard this characterization before, and many of us are morally wounded in the hearing of it, as we know it to be true, in part. Many of us got into teaching because we loved or despised our own school experience, and we wanted to pass along that love or reverse that hate that we ourselves experienced. Many of us enjoy thinking on our feet and working creatively with others, including kids, and it seemed like a stable job. Many of us, after reading Marian Wright Edelman, Jonathan Kozol, and bell hooks, headed to schools to make a difference in the lives of kids who come from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Most of us, I would bet, wanted to increase the joy, empathy, and justice in the world, in addition to providing the tools to problem-solve the world’s trickiest problems. Whatever our early impulses, we have all made our different ways here, to NAIS campuses, perhaps with the idea that by educating the most powerful segments of society, we can achieve the greatest good. These NAIS kids, we might reason, will be the political, business, and social leaders in the 21st century, and we are in a unique position to steer them to use their power for the benefit of all. When we look around our NAIS campuses, we also see the world’s smartest, funniest, hard-working colleagues. We impress and humble each other, and we should—we are an impressive bunch. However, some of us also sometimes walk with the guilty consciences of those who suffer daily, quotidian moral injuries. We know that 16 million children in this country, or 22% of U.S. children, for example, live in poverty, and with great exception, those aren’t the kids that we are working with on a daily basis at NAIS schools ( Some of us feel guilty about this fact and wish we could do more for the 16 million.


That said, we are educators who work extremely hard to run our NAIS schools with all the empathy, best practices, and determination we can muster. Parents also work extremely hard—they scrimp and sacrifice—to send their kids to our NAIS schools. We all love kids, and our hearts break when we consider statistics like the 16 million kids living in poverty in the U.S. We experience, I would suggest, a moral injury, as NAIS teachers, when we think about issues like these, and then we go to work at our schools for the 1%, where our children, thank God, are protected from the horrible threat of poverty and its attendant threats of neighborhood violence, limited educational opportunity, weak access to quality food, and the rest. Shouldn’t all children be protected, though, we wonder?


What is moral injury? Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, in their book Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War, explain that the moral injury of war “comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs. . . . Moral injury results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings. . . . Killing, torturing prisoners, abusing dead bodies, or failing to prevent such acts can elicit moral injury” (Soul Repair, p. xiv-xv).


Before I draw the analogy out, let me be clear: NAIS teachers work in absolute luxury, peace, and plenty when compared to our soldiers deployed in war. The comparison at first blush seems ludicrous, actually. “While civilians and veterans may both experience moral injury, we would be disingenuous if we claimed that each experiences the same moral anguish. . . . Equating our collective responsibility [for sending U.S. soldiers into combat] with the moral anguish of soldiers trivializes the struggles of veterans” (p. 113). It’s the veterans who struggle with PTSD, homelessness, broken marriages, nightmares, amputation, substance abuse, and the rest—not the NAIS teachers, as a rule.


“Similarly,” Brock and Lettini continue, “acknowledging moral injury as a society does not give U.S. civilians license to claim the status of ‘victims’” (p. 113). Just because we work at NAIS schools and we have to acknowledge the fact that we teach just 1% of this society’s kids does not mean we are victims when we sometimes feel as though we should do more for the children who do without great NAIS schooling.


Of course, we are at peace, not war, on our campuses, and we have not killed people in the course of our jobs. There is a world of difference between the soldier’s moral injury and ours as NAIS teachers. Still, many NAIS teachers, when we review the aforementioned statistics, continue to have our ethical bearings buffeted and our consciences harassed, especially as we continue to hire and appoint more straight wealthy white men to positions of Heads of School and Board of School. Of course these men are talented, capable, and deserving. That’s not the point; the point is that there are also talented, capable, and deserving women, people of color, and LGBTQ people for those same positions. Some of us who are committed to overcoming the lingering toxicity of racism and sexism as well as the economic inequalities in this country may feel that NAIS schools are continuing to transgress our basic moral identities as teachers and to violate our core moral beliefs as caring educators.


Sometimes as NAIS teachers our understandable reaction to our own moral indignation is to teach the very issues that we are relatively immune to on our campuses: war, poverty, ethnic diversity, the Occupy Movement, global warming, and so on. In doing so, however, we sometimes enact the same unintended bit of imperialism that U.S. soldiers sometimes carry out when they return to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. “In attempting wistfully to reincarnate what they imagine they have destroyed but of which they still lack any deep knowledge, victors may also seek forgiveness, absolution, and friendship with survivors or descendants among their former enemies” (Brock and Lettini, p. 104). The analogy is strained here, I know, but we NAIS teachers may be doing something similar with our inclusivity and multicultural campaigns, even as our student, teacher, administrative, and board demographics remain the same. “Imperialists maintain false innocence through solicitous kindness, paternalistic charity, admiration for the imaginary other, and the ‘elegance of manners.’ In doing so, they maintain their own privilege and fail to make themselves vulnerable to engaged, complex, and intimate relationships that challenge the imperialist script” (p. 104-105). I would suggest Brock and Lettini’s analysis of post-war imperialism might also be employed by NAIS schools, for there are many teachers, administrators (including Heads of School), and financial aid officers, who feel diminished by our inability to offer our world-class education to the broader public. We may fear that we have become part of a generational mechanism of the 1% to bequeath its wealth to its descendants—and this causes many of us a soul sickness. We may feel that our campuses are simply too white despite all of our diversity day trainings. Finally, we know that the replication of a monoculture is neither morally just nor healthy and inevitable.


Part V:       The Future


First, we must admit that we as NAIS teachers are also wealthy, comparatively, to the world’s citizenry. I may be middle class in the U.S., but I am certainly “rich” when I travel to most of the world’s countries. We as middle class teachers and staff who work at NAIS schools shouldn’t create unnecessary divisions between ourselves and the families we serve; nor should we imagine opposition between our administrations and ourselves. NAIS teachers instead should align ourselves imaginatively with our administrations and the more wealthy families we serve, empathically identifying our sameness. After all, in a global sense, we are more similar than different. We also have the same goals: to teach the students with inspired, creative, and enlightened ways.


Second, we should also insist on the differences in our socio-economic classes and recognize the opportunities that NAIS schools create for our students. There are many teachers among us, for example, whose parents did not graduate college and whose grandparents did not attend college. We as middle class teachers who have been to college should recognize our personal empowerment made possible by college. Our very abilities to analyze these interlocking issues of ethnicity, class, and gender are made possible, for many of us, by our college education. We are now passing these tools of social, economic, environmental, and historical analysis, remembering that, as was stated previously, were are really more similar than different when looked at globally.


Third, NAIS should reaffirm that without a constant infusion of socio-economic, gender, and ethnic complexity into our positions of teachers, administrators, and Heads of School, we are compromising our own abilities to flourish, in much the same way that monocropping eventually makes a desert of arable land. While it’s true that straight, white, wealthy men must begin analyzing and unpacking and taking responsibility for the mutually-supporting social apparatuses of our privilege in order to begin to create more equitable schools, the fact remains that if straight white wealthy (male) people only see reflections of ourselves in the top positions—on boards and as HOS—it is unlikely we will undertake that analysis, as we will unconsciously assume that history, destiny, or God has decreed the social arrangement thusly in a kind of social Darwinist predestined inevitability. The lethargy (and moral injury) that results from this kind of social monoculture is unsustainable in nature and in schools.


Fourth, white people need to recognize that whites, given current census trends, will no longer be the ethnic majority in the U.S. in 2043 ( When my sixth grade students turn 41, they will live in a different U.S. that we live in today, and I hope our NAIS school leaderships are constituted ethnically and by sex in a more equitable ways than they are constituted today. Imagine if in 30 years we still had 95% of our NAIS Heads of School being white while they were no longer the ethnic majority in this country. That really would be a new kind of insidious segregation.


Fifth, when NAIS schools begin restructuring with eyes on justice and equity, we should do so being “very clear about the complexity of [our] moral positions and [we should] not indulge in the easy and self-indulgent stance of slipping into a victim role,” of people who have suffered a moral injury, even though some of us may feel at times the heavy weight of the issues of under-representation and inequity (Brock and Lettini, 114). It’s important that we, like returning soldiers dealing with the exponentially more intense moral injuries sustained during wartime, “remain fiercely committed to avoiding denial and forgetting” (114). If soldiers can do this, we can also begin to not only intellectually wrestle with demographics, but to make real changes in terms of admissions, hiring, and appointments. Returning soldiers with moral injuries “seek to remember what they did personally to harm others and to take responsibility for how they violated their own moral conscience as their route to recovery” (114). Likewise, we, as well intentioned NAIS teachers and administrators, can begin to realign with our moral centers as we take concrete steps toward diverse schools that embody equity and justice. We should avoid denial and forgetting by continuously reminding ourselves that NAIS educational leadership, like that of corporate leadership and political leadership, is overwhelmingly straight, white, upper class, and male. It is a rarity of historic proportions when the speaking positions of straight white upper class males get silenced. Because we teach girls, people of color, and people from across the socio-economic spectrum, NAIS schools should seek with great ardor—for the sake of justice and empathy—to hire people, appoint boards, and admit students from these same non-dominant speaking positions. Embracing diversity with empathy and ardor for the sake of representation and inclusivity in our NAIS communities will help to overcome the stultification of monocultures and the moral injuries caused by exclusivity currently at work on our campuses.