What is the meaning of a place like Buxton? And how do you preserve it?
For almost 100 years, Buxton has been taking a unique approach to education. Purposefully small and modest, the school is designed to be a living classroom in community, accountability, creativity, and growth. Since Buxton became a high school in 1945, it has carved out a unique place in the high-school educational landscape by emphasizing responsibility, shared common goals, relationship-building, creativity, and citizenship through a small, egalitarian, in-person lived experience on 144 acres of beautiful Berkshire landscape.
Over those years, Buxton has changed, grown, evolved. During one period, Buxton decided not to change its clocks back or forward during the year and conducted itself on “Buxton time.” The All-School Trip that now takes place in the spring used to take place in the fall—and went to Washington, D.C. every other year. The Barn used to always be the boys’ dorm, until it wasn’t. Founder Ellen Sangster’s “Contemporary Civ” course was required of all students until something else came along and took its place. The faculty used to smoke in the Billiard Room after meals, and tea was served to them on a tray.
Even though things changed, the feel, the functioning, the ethos of the place has stayed remarkably the same. Alums from decades ago still come to campus and remark on how much it continues to be like “their” Buxton. Faculty who have worked here for 20- or 30-plus years talk about how Buxton kids have remained essentially, fundamentally the same curious, enthusiastic, energetic, idiosyncratic, chaotic, experimental, intellectual people they have always been.
Until recently. While Buxton has always had a healthy skepticism about jumping on the technology bandwagon, we are not luddites. We have embraced the ways that the internet allows our students to research and understand so much more than our small library would allow. We have found cell phones to be incredibly helpful when on the All-School Trip or when taking a bunch of students to go skiing. We have seen how adaptive technologies have served students with alternative learning styles well. We have experienced the relief parents have felt when they could actually reach their children on the phone instead of calling an endlessly ringing or endlessly busy pay phone on the second floor of the Main House.
But this creeping technological presence has not served us well in other ways. The old days of having Kitchen Krew choose a VHS from the local video store to show in the student lounge on Saturday nights—a sweet but coveted privilege, and a pretty homey way to come together as a group—quietly gave way to streaming Netflix in one’s dorm room with a friend. The home-grown fun of Rec. Committee lost audience to the flashier pleasures of videogames and YouTube.
Finally: the smartphone came to Buxton. And with it has come a cascade of consequences we could not have foreseen when it first arrived. The smartphone is uniquely designed to have all connectivity available to all people at all times and in all places. And, most importantly, the social media apps that have been brilliantly designed to make the best use of smartphone technology have become more than an attractive nuisance, they have begun to pose a fundamental threat to adolescent mental health and to the Buxton educational model.
While this may seem like a melodramatic statement, we have seen the change. Long-time teachers who used to say that Buxton students have been fundamentally the same for decades now see something very different. The pillars of what makes Buxton unique are no match for the all-consuming nature of smartphone life. Conversations that used to take place in person are now group chats that end up in hurt feelings and feuds. Two kids in conflict become opposing camps as misinformation wings from phone to phone, room to room, dorm to dorm. Instead of encountering each other in real time and space—the fundamental tool of a Buxton education—students are attached to others in the ersatz of the internet, where there’s always something new, something “better,” some other allies, some other way of “belonging” that isn’t belonging at all, but a simulacrum that doesn’t teach the very things that adolescents are here to learn: How to know oneself and others empathetically and well, how to define yourself through your service to others, how to bend and expand your intellectual and artistic life through genuine encounters with people and ideas, how to be an actual citizen in the community of people you live, eat, learn, and work with every day.
Having seen its effect, and feeling strongly that young people deserve to have the education that Buxton was designed to provide, starting with the 2022-23 school year, Buxton will not allow our students to have smartphones. While we are not the first or only progressive school to make this policy, we want to be the loudest and proudest. We want to take this stand on behalf of our students because it is clear that smartphones are not serving them well. They deserve to speak with their own voices to caring and committed adults whose job it is to hear and understand them. They deserve to be more than data for Google to mine. They deserve to be more than Apple’s customers. They deserve an education that will take them seriously, will allow them to make beauty with their own hands and minds and hearts. They deserve a Buxton that is about them in the fullness of their complicated selves, not a Buxton lived through the lens of an app.