Hannah Rogers, Dawson Class of 2011
Bishop Gorman High School, Class of 2015
Duke University, Class of 2019
Duke University School of Law, Class of 2023
Keynote Speaker at the Enrollment Management Association Annual Conference, September 2023
The most important thing I ever learned in school was not a fact or a book or a formula. It was a question. It was the first day of eighth grade at Alexander Dawson, and my history teacher Mr. Burby explained that most history classes taught the “five questions” when instructing about historical events. You all know them: who, what, when, where, and why. But that day, Mr. Burby told us there was a question missing from that list, and it was the most important question of them all. That question was, “So what?” Why should we care? Why are we even studying this at all? It was a bit liberating for a room of teenagers to finally have their existential angst and moodiness validated by a teacher. But it was more than just affirmation. It was an invitation: an invitation to an entirely new way to approach education.
That “So what?” question was the first time I ever really understood there is a difference between learning about something and caring about something.
An independent school has a unique opportunity to truly foster independent thought in its students. Asking “So what?” promotes independent thought. Unlike every other one of the “big five” questions, there is no “correct” answer to why is something important. The space to answer allowed us a freedom to uncover and discover the way history reveals itself over time.
And when I think about it, there was such a humility to Mr. Burby’s question. When children are in school, they are being told what is important. Mr. Burby, however, didn’t just dictate to us why things mattered. He sought our opinion, our understanding of why they are important. This allows a young student like I was to be a part of the conversation that is history. Not just a recipient of it.
I took Mr. Burby’s question with me after I walked out of Dawson’s doors for the last time as a graduate. When I went to college, I majored in history. I felt uniquely prepared for the way a collegiate history curriculum challenges its students to think about the “so what” of the history, whether that was the Civil Rights Movement or the Medieval Renaissance. It shaped my academic and personal journeys. During my sophomore year at Duke, I took a seminar by Professor Nancy MacLean on the Cold War. Our capstone project was entirely open-ended: We could write about anything we wanted that had anything to do with the Cold War.
So I looked into one of the “so whats” of my own life. I’m a fourth generation Las Vegan. I’m very proud of that history. It’s one of the first things people learn about me. But…so what? Well, my grandmother, grandfather, great-uncle, and great-grandfather all worked at the Nevada Atomic Test Site while the site was regularly deploying continental atomic bombs. So what? My grandfather died from the cancer he got while working at that site. I spent months diving deep into old Atomic Energy Commission reports, oral histories collected by UNLV, and grappled with my own family’s legacy in the proliferation of the deadliest weapon to ever touch humanity. Mr. Burby’s question fueled that research almost a decade later. And from that project, I became Duke’s youngest winner of the Koonz Prize for research and writing on human rights
That last question, the “so what” of it all, is what elevates a great school to a life-course-setting school, one that does not merely teach so that its students know, but rather teaches so that its students care. Facts can be memorized. But caring about something and evaluating why that really matters can come only from a spark inside. And teachers like Mr. Burby, and independent schools like Alexander Dawson, carry with them the flint to make that spark possible.