On labels

January 10, 2017


How others see us can have a profound effect on how we see ourselves. As educators, we have an opportunity to help students understand their own talents and capacities in new ways.
By Ronald A. Crutcher, president

My first newspaper headline began with a label: “Bad boy, Ronald Crutcher.”

The incident that inspired it was a harmless prank. I was 6 and in first grade in my hometown of Cincinnati. After an exciting class visit to the local fire station, I pulled a fire alarm in front of the house in which we were living, not believing that the engines would come.

At that time, my brother and I lived with Mrs. Catherine Gay during the week after my mother returned to work to help my father pay the mortgage on our new home. Mother Gay, as we called her, served as a de facto guardian to several children during the week, including the boy who had dared me to pull the alarm. Within minutes, I heard the shriek of sirens and realized that the fire engines were, in fact, coming. So I ran and hid in the garage, where the firefighters found me after the same boy who dared me quickly and unceremoniously told them where I was hiding.

Although I was more curious than rebellious, I was nonetheless subjected to the castigations of a common criminal. My parents were summoned, and I was firmly disciplined. My hooliganism was announced in the local newspaper, and I was marched into juvenile court where I was asked why I had pulled the alarm (and was too frightened and embarrassed to later recall what I had even said). I had every reason to begin thinking of myself as the headline had labeled me: a bad boy.

As educators, we often see capacities in our students that they have not yet seen in themselves.

We are all susceptible to internalizing how others see us — for worse, but also for better. It’s a human tendency that those of us in higher education can turn to students’ advantage. As educators, we often see capacities in our students that they have not yet seen in themselves. We may be the first to call our students “scientist” or “entrepreneur” or “leader,” identities they can begin to embrace for themselves when we suggest them.

How students internalize the ways their professors and mentors see them is critically important for encouraging risk-taking and building resilience. In small classrooms and in research labs where faculty members know everyone’s names, or in leadership organizations or performance troupes, or on athletic teams, students explore new paths, take risks, and even fail. It’s not easy to falter and fail; it takes resilience to persevere and continue trying when things get tough.

Conversely, internalization of negative or inaccurate messages, especially when they are repeated, can prevent people from becoming the best versions of themselves. It can cause them to begin to identify with what has been spoken about them — a pervasive problem in our culture and the root cause of prejudice.

I often think back to that label applied to me and wonder what would have happened if the magistrate decided I had no promising future? Or if I wasn’t surrounded by caring people who saw in this a childish mistake, not a problem child?

At Richmond, we aspire to recognize and call out the abilities we see in one another. We aim to reject negative messages and stereotypes that limit our capacity to flourish. In the kind of liberal education that we offer, we encourage all members of our campus community to speak truth to untruth and to seek people whose opinions, backgrounds, and perspectives differ from our own in order to build trust and understanding.

We have the opportunity each day to live our values: for student growth, pursuit of knowledge, inclusivity and equity, diversity and educational opportunity, ethical engagement, and responsible stewardship. These values, reinforced as part of our current strategic planning process, implore us to use the intellectual vitality, hope, and free will that exist on our campus to imagine the best for the Richmond community, and our world.

All people deserve the opportunity to be their best selves at Richmond and to know that this community is rooting for them.