I first saw this butterfly on the sidewalk while heading past the library toward some of the houses farther down Front Street, trying to find a clue from a scavenger hunt that was supposed to help us learn more about the campus.
Walking along the shady path, I saw a clump of grass in the distance with something bright and yellow that I recognized as a large butterfly. It sat perched on the ground with its wings fanned out, displaying a vivid black-and-blue pattern. When I got within a few feet, I dug my phone out of my pocket and took a blurry picture before it could fly away.
At that point, it seemed like I should simply move on. Time felt limited, and with my team already separated, each minute only increased my awareness that we wouldn’t finish first unless we rushed through the rest of the assignment.
Yet as I stood over the butterfly, a brief moment of contemplation made me feel compelled to set my papers down and take advantage of this rare opportunity for a beautiful picture. I knew how strange I looked to passerby as I crouched down on the ground, but if I was going to accomplish this, I wanted to see eye-to-eye with my subject and really appreciate the vivid details that decorated its body.
No matter how close I got the camera, it remained in the grass, unwilling to leave whatever it was feeding on – and as a result, I was able to capture that small moment of its life. The butterfly occupied only one moment of a very eventful day, but that particular instant remained on my mind.
I just couldn’t explain why I felt so compelled to do something so irrelevant, especially when my mindset and ambitions seemed much more focused. As an aspiring Exonian of two years, I came to Summer School with the hope of finally having a chance to experience an education imbued with the approaches taken by Exeter, especially Harkness. To push the limits of any discussion or topic, I had to combine being efficient and thoughtful. So pausing to take a picture of something on the ground during an assignment didn’t seem to be what focused students did.
But as is often the case, in the process of reflection I discovered a deeper meaning in my actions. I saw that for the first time, I had not only recognized but consciously decided to pursue an opportunity independently from any previous expectations of me—including my own. Each time that choice is made, there may only be a subtle change.
But I feel that a life lived by that mindset is defined by the greatest traits Harkness emboldens within all of us: curiosity, and the courage to explore it.
Harkness isn’t simply twelve chairs around an oval table, or even a way of teaching and learning. It’s a philosophy dependent on insightful, focused questioning, where thinking broadly, even across seemingly unrelated subjects, cultivates a richer understanding. Fundamentally, it is the art of harnessing limitless curiosity in a cooperative manner. Only precious few environments are capable of facilitating this process.
Classes at many other schools, including mine, are set up with rules that discourage spending too much time exploring any particular topic. But at Exeter, there are no such rules, and as a result it has created an atmosphere where students like me finally have permission to pursue anything that inspires us—and to be inspired by the shared experiences of everyone else.
That day, when I was able to stop for a moment and observe a world only briefly connected with my own, I began to truly understand what it means to learn, and what it means to be an Exonian. So even though it is unfortunate that five weeks may be all we have to explore the countless worlds open to us, I challenge each of us to forge a unique experience which will stay with us for the rest of our lives.