The Summer Times: Why Religion? Why did you decide to teach this particular field?
Russell Weatherspoon: When I arrived 30 years ago, I taught in the Religion Department, The English Department, and it was then called the Drama Department. I was teaching some of the subjects that are in Religion, including scripture studies, Ethics, ultimately Psychology, but I was also teaching English in the English Department to all grades, and I taught one course in the Drama Department on public speaking. So I ended up in those various departments doing things that I have background and practical knowledge.
ST: What is one of your favorite memories from your 30 years working here in Exeter?
RW: I don’t have a favorite thing. Across 30 years, which is twice as long as some of you have lived, there has been too many things that’ve happened to classify any single one or two as that outstanding. Thousands of students pass through here every several years and you have the privilege of being able not only to teach them but coach them, counsel them, and realize at the same time that they are in the process of becoming adults. That within four or five years, they will show more of the signs of the directions that their lives are going to go. Again when you teach for a long period of time — I taught 10 years elsewhere before I came here. I also worked in Harvard University for two years and did some other things. So I’ve had a professional life for over 40 years, and the number of people I’ve met and worked with over that time is large. A fraction of those people I’m still in contact with, have conducted marriages for them, and done other things. I’ll be doing a wedding actually, this weekend in Massachusetts for a young woman who was my advisee here. So taken together, probably the biggest thing is that you get a chance to meet so many different young people from around the world, who will not remain young — when I say young I mean teenagers, they will become adults and you will continue relating to them as adults. Yes, there is a plethora of other experiences that I’ve had as a teacher, as an administrator, as a coach, as a representative of the school, travelling internationally to speak for the school. Experiences which have been quite wonderful, and life changing.
ST: In your experience, what is the most rewarding thing and what is the most difficult thing about dealing with young people?
RW: That answer is complicated. Among the many things about working with young people which is encouraging, is that they are in the vestibule of their real serious intellectual life. Because by the time that you are 12 to 14, you begin this intellectual jump, you actually can think more creatively about the world than you could when you were 8. By the time you’re 17 you can think about things even more creatively. So to be able to sit with them and talk as they’re becoming intellectually more with it, is a wonderful thing. At the same time young people are well-aware that their emotional life is more powerful than their intellectual life.
RW: This is something also that adults forget. We have this built-in machinery that makes us think that whatever we are saying is well reasoned and we discount how the way we feel about things, drives the way we think about things.
RW: I want to make a statement which is psychological, it’s not political: The current president of the United States is clearly an emotionally immature person. His complex or rather simple emotional stuff raises this to the surface, not only daily but pretty much with every public utterance, putting aside the tweets. If you put the tweet into it, it gets even more wrong. So in him you are looking at a 71-year-old human being whose intellectual apparatus is hijacked by the emotional stuff on a regular basis. He has not gotten out of middle school. So when you are teaching the typical high school student, you’re teaching someone who’s at least gotten past that point, and can make better arguments about things.
RW: One of the great blessings of teaching young people is that they’re literally blossoming intellectually, socially, and morally because they’re worried about community issues, national issues, politics, race, gender, the way society works, and they want to get involved. That is great stuff, they can teach you no matter how old you are, they can teach you stuff. Which they do. That’s why people teach. They teach probably because they want to learn from other people. That is the great part, and the tough part is when the teenagers don’t recognize what their emotional stuff is, they will sometimes do stuff, that when they look back on it 15 minutes later, they’ll go like: “Oh my God that was dumb, why did I just do that?” Well, you did that, because you’re a teenager who’s emotional stuff is running away with you.
ST: What advice would you give to the international summer school students here at Exeter?
RW: I would say that in all likelihood, what Exeter Summer School is asking from the on that front, is the same the school where they came from is asking. Every good school is trying to get young people to push the quality and the level of their thinking a little higher. They’re trying to get young people to identify facts and then respond to the facts because our emotional stuff is so powerful.
RW: If you’re an international student in particular, among the many things you need to do is observe the Americans here and the other international people, get out in the town, and get into casual conversations with people who are not a part of Summer School: shopkeepers, other young people, folks who are sitting on benches. Just start talking to them and listen to what these average people have to say. Then when you get back home, do the same exercise at home. Americans tend to be not anywhere as well-read as where they need to be about stuff in their own country and stuff around the world. They’re startlingly ignorant about all kinds of stuff. However, like most people around the world, they’re nice enough. I think it’s important to branch out here on campus no matter who you are and talk with as many different types of people from as many different parts of the United States as possible, and then with many different people from many different countries as possible and also talk to people in the town, because when is the next time you’re going to be in this particular town?
RW:By the way, I would also say that being an American, America is more complex and sub-divided than America understands. America talks as though being an American is a simple thing. Being an American is not a simple thing. It is like being in another country — a complex matter. It depends on where you live, how much money you’re making, what’s your race, what’s your gender, your politics, the nature of your community … it’s much more complex than it looks. I’m hoping that the American students who come here will also talk with students from other parts of the country and realize that, “Oh wait a minute! It’s not that simple as sometimes we suggest it.”
ST: Do you have one particularly form of worship you personally associate with?
RW: I’m a Christian. For many years I have worshipped regularly at an Episcopal church here in town and another on 134th Street in Harlem. My sense of being a Christian is broader than what’s up with the Episcopal Church but one has to park oneself some place. I mean, actually, literally! If you’re going to church you have to sit on some pew somewhere, even if it’s a rock on the ground, you have to sit somewhere.
ST: What do you think it is about the Exeter climate that allows so many different cultures and religions mix so easily?
RW: I think it’s easy because people recognize that the time is short, five weeks. This is fast. Second of all, most of the people who come, beside wanting to experience Exeter, they want to meet new people. I think that’s their genuine impulse. There’s some people here that don’t, they want to come with a few of their friends and they want to stay with their friends, and if you say hello to them they’d be like, “Are you talking to me?” But I think most people, especially your age, are uptempo, hopeful, open, and say “Hey! Tell me your story!” And the more they are that way, the better off we are. If each of you can push that into your individual experiences I think that it’s a good thing.
ST: Compared to New York, New Hampshire is a lot less diverse. How does the atmosphere change?
RW: This school has the benefit of being able to draw people from all around the United States and all around the world. So you don’t have to deal a lot with people who’ve had few experiences who are other than themselves. When I’m out in the community, over the 30 years, the community sometimes and the town around here, I’ve gotten into situations with people who’ve really spent their time talking to black people for instance. And sometimes it’s literally a new experience for them. On the flip side, I’ve actually met people here at Phillips Exeter Academy, black people for instance, who have never been educated with white people and this was the first time they were having that experience.
ST: Right now you’re in the religion field, but you’ve worked in other fields. What made you choose religion right now? What caught your attention to religion to want to teach it right now?
RW: What I’m thinking about is that the things that create passion, like religion questions that create passion, philosophical questions like “Does life have a meaning?” objectively speaking, or “Does life only have the meaning that we impose on it?” When the fellow who walked up to a police van and opened fire on one of the police officers killing her, what was the meaning? Does that have a meaning? What did he think he was doing? Beyond what he thought he was doing, what was he doing? So, philosophical questions like that are important to me. A romantic love is very important to me, love in general is important to me. Literature is important to me. All of these things meet in areas where I have taught both religion and English in my life as I have lived. I am a questioning person by nature. I am also an affirming person by nature, which means that when I come to think that certain things are true I will describe them as such. I will speak in public about them, and I will also preach. I would be doing that whether or not someone paid me, because this is me. So the things that I have done with my teaching, arise from the passions of my life. Let me say one other thing. Let me talk about religion a little bit more. I could talk about politics in the same way. To be involved in an area like religion is to run across from time to time some pretty crazy people who will be urging that people do stuff in the name of religion and if you look up the stuff that they’re urging you kind of go, ”And you think that God is down with it? What is your notion of God?”