Written during READING WEEK at the Waring School, February, 1987.
The first period on Monday morning always seems to come around too fast. Somehow Josée and I never seem to be prepared for that time when teachers and students are back together after the weekend. It seems to me that it should be a special time, that half hour between 8 and 8:30, that we should have special things prepared for morning meeting.
We are all together in the Victor Hugo Room, the week’s classes and activities lie before us. Whatever does happen during the thirty minutes should somehow turn us all from our private concern of the past two days and in toward the community of the school, get us working together, back to caring about one another.
Because it seems to me such an important occasion I spend a considerable amount of my own time during the weekend thinking about 8 o’clock Monday morning. I toy with the idea of a series of Headmaster’s talks, but for this the circumstances are too highly stacked against me. First of all the Victor Hugo Room, as much as I love it at lunch time, and when the Jazz Ensemble is playing, is not conducive to intimacy and discussion and talks by Headmasters. Secondly, no one seems to ever be on time on Monday morning and if I were talking at 8’clock I would inevitably be interrupted during the first ten or fifteen minutes by the latecomers.
(Why don’t you do something about it, this being late to school? Why aren’t there consequences for the latecomers? Get it together, Waring!) But more importantly Headmaster’s talks, sermons, didacticism of all sorts, preaching, these things are out of fashion. I don’t really believe in them myself, anyway. And in any case, I know very well that two or three Monday mornings of any kind of talking would probably lose most of our student and teacher audience.
It’s a fact, probably, that after a weekend one should come to school and find quiet and calm. I agree and on Monday mornings during the past few months we have begun the day with music and writing note cards. For the most part everyone seems to like it. The result is that in the minds of both students and teachers the real beginning of school is the first class at 8:30.
But I’m not really satisfied with this arrangement. I would like to do better. Today is Monday and there is no school. We have, therefore, a whole week to prepare ourselves for next Monday when the students will be returning, not just from a weekend at home, but from an entire week of freedom from school and teachers. How will I turn them back, wrench them away from themselves, towards not only their work and their classes but also towards the community of the school?
Open School and Open House are coming up on March 1. People will be coming to see our school. What will I say to them when I meet them? The other day someone asked me to describe in as few words as possible the Waring School. I responded without hesitation, we are, I said, a school that would not be a school. What did I mean by that? I probably should explain what I meant.
Later on the same day:
Education is something we all have been through, and therefore something we should all know something about. Education is, perhaps, the most important experience that we all share. Education ought to be something that we, as a community of students, parents, and teachers, struggle with together in the attempt to create the very best learning environment possible. Education ought to benefit like nothing else from our collective wisdom (there is probably nothing else that is so widely shared – education like birth and death touches all of us).
However, instead of a collective endeavor on the part of parents, students and teachers education has been taken over by the schools, more often by school administrators than by teachers. Now, instead of talking about education (certainly as much the property of parents as of schools and teachers) we talk about the schools.
We are often asked who should apply to the Waring School? This is how I would answer the question: Those who want to learn and those who want to learn within a caring community. Motivation and community awareness are both essential. I know that here too Josée agrees with me as we have often talked about it. High I.Q.s, special gifts and talents, a lot of money, these are not.
What has happened in this country where students are so rarely motivated and so disregardful of their community responsibilities? The Waring School is certainly not perfect in these respects. But we’re working at it and we realize that to become a good citizen is at least as important as the acquisition of knowledge and skills.
Many have written about the crisis in the schools, about how the schools no longer educate. I believe that what has brought the present unsatisfactory situation about is that parents and students have turned the primary responsibility for learning over to the teachers and the schools. The schools, of course, should not have allowed them to do so. (In fact, by doing so they have given themselves an impossible task. On their own they cannot educate.)
Parents should have known better, even if their children didn’t. For parents must have learned for themselves that learning depends first on the learner, second on the environment for learning, or the community – which includes the home at least as much as the school – and only third on the school and the teacher. By turning the primary responsibility for education over to the schools, parents and society as a whole have made their biggest mistake.
The so-called “Crisis in the Classroom” stems most of all from this abrogation of responsibility and explains why there are now so many educators and so many politicians talking and writing about the crisis. It is my idea that the “Crisis in the Classroom” is no more in the classroom than is the crisis of religion in the church. Both education and religion belong first of all in the minds and hearts of men and women, and if there are any solutions to the problems that both the one and the other are currently experiencing that is also where they must be sought.
As long as people feel that education is primarily the business of the schools, the schools will be blamed when things go wrong. They will be blamed when test scores are down, they will be blamed for the high dropout rates, for the declining literacy. They will be blamed as well for the “rising tide of mediocrity throughout the land.”
Furthermore, if there happens to be an election taking place, or, as now, if candidates for the presidency in 1988 are begining to make themselves known to the public, the question of education will be on every politician’s and every candidate’s list of vital issues about which he must have something to say. In fact, we will hear over and over again the politicians’ diagnoses and treatments for the ills of the schools, ranging from the ultraconservative, “bring back the paddle,” to the neoprogressive, “take away the requirments, restore freedom in the classroom.”
Yesterday evening I went with my father to the Vittori-Rocci Hall right here in Beverly, to hear the only declared Republican candidate for president, Pete Dupont, a former governor of Delaware (the first state to ratify the Constitution as he reminded us) give us his diagnosis and prescription for the ills of our schools. He cited the test scores that placed the Russians, Germans, and Japanese high above our own students, and said that this was because in our country education was a state monopoly, worse, a form of state socialism.
(I can’t believe he was ignorant of ‘the fact that the educational systems of the three mentioned countries were even more centralized and staterun than ours; he must have been simplifying issues for the Beverly audience). Under such a system it was no wonder, he said, that education was failing to live up to its promise.
The treatment according to Pete Dupont? Simple. He would have us break up the monopoly, deregulate, restore competitiveness to the classroom. In particular, he would support the establishment of a system by which educational vouchers placed in the hands of the parents would pay the tuition costs at the schools of their own choosing, thus forcing schools to compete among themselves for students and thereby – if one believes in the free market analogy – raising the quality of the product.
In some respects the analogy does hold. For example, under such a system poor schools turning out poor educational products would probably fail, or just quietly disappear after their guaranteed funding had been taken away. Also, on the other hand, such a system would provide funding and therefore opportunity for good schools (companies) to take root and grow and prosper.
We still don’t know what we are going to do tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. But I’m not going to think about it now. From long experience I’ve found that there is absolutely no correlation between the success of a class or meeting and the amount of preparation on my part that has gone into it. I’ve probably had more success when I haven’t been prepared, so I’ll try this system on Monday. Josée tells me that she feels that she is stronger when she, at the same time, is ready and is happy.
I’ve been thinking more about Pete Dupont and the other night at the Vittori- Rocci Hall. Actually what he proposes might be a good thing for schools – by this I mean the school part of education because, as I hope I’ve made clear by now, education is much more than school, and school should certainly not bear the principal burden of educating children, for when it does it will inevitably fail.
Furthermore, being a co- founder of a private college preparatory school I stand only to benefit from a voucher system in that more parents would have more money to spend on education and consequently probably more of them would come, say, to an Open House to check out the Waring School.
In any case his proposal is consistent with his overal political philosophy which is that the principal role of government should be to create opportunity for the people, in this case both for those people who have good ideas and would start a school of their own, and for those who have good ideas and are looking for good schools for their children.
It’s interesting to compare Fete Dupont’s principal role of government with that of Mario Cuomo, who has just announced his non-candidacy for the presidential election of 1988. Governor Cuomo maintains that the principal role of government should be to provide aid for those who, in a highly competitive environment cannot help themselves.
The contrast between them is beautiful! Pete Dupont would render the environment even more competitive than it already is and Mario Cuomo would protect us from it! It’s a pity that they won’t be running against one another in 1999. This would be a choice! Mr. Cuomo’s policy, if extended to the public school system, would result in new and massive government funded programs to provide for special needs schools and children, both probably being in the majority in their respective populations.
I happen to believe that both Dupont’s and Cuomo’s positions are valid, but in respect to what ails the schools they are both beside the main point (for the problem, Dear Pete and Dear Mario, is not in the schools but in ourselves).
What am I going to do tomorrow morning? Josée is encouraging me to go on writing, to get these journal entries ready for the Le Temps Retrouvé that we are preparing for the OPEN SCHOOL one week from today, on March 1.
Haven’t most of us noticed at one time or another in our lives that when we hear someone speak about a subject we know something about, as I did on Friday evening, or when we read a newspaper article similarly on a subject with which we are familiar, we are most often dissatisfied with what the speaker or writer has to say?
Usually we tend to feel he has grossly over simplified the subject. I noticed that I listened with greater respect to Pete Dupont while he was talking about the social security system (today I read an article in the New Republic showing that even here he didn’t really know what he was talking about, or if he did he was deceiving the public in respect to his solutions), farm subsidies, unmarried mothers on welfare, even disarmament and the drug problem.
I wonder now, however, if what the candidate was saying about these topics was just as naive and superficial as what he had to say about education and that only my own ignorance prevented me from being aware of this.
I suspect that candidates for public office feel that they must have clearly articulated positions on any number of current issues and problems, such as nuclear disarmament, the deficit, terrorism, young mothers on welfare, and education, to mention only a few of those currently in fashion. Then I suppose they feel that they must convince others of the validity of their positions and proposed solutions to the problems and critical issues of the day, and therby bring others over to their own persuasion and in so doing capture the large numbers of uncommitted voters who, by finally choosing sides on election day, determine who wins and who loses in the great American game of politics.
Such a strategy of formulating and defending positions on any number of current issues may be the proper way to win an election. It’s not, I’m convinced, the proper way to solve some of our problems. To formulate and then defend one’s positions in the public arena inevitably means that one must oversimsplify, that one must adopt slogans such as supply side economics and strategic defense systems which may or may not correspond to the underlying reality but that certainly interfer with one’s perception of that reality.
We are a nation that believes in public debate as being the best means to decide between the candidates and their solutions to the issues. This is what our American democracy is all about, open debate leading to the knowledgeable selection of the best candidate for the job. This is our American democracy at work.
We point with pride to our democracy in action, to the Lincoln-Douglas and Nixon-Kennedy debates, even to the League of Women Voters who have been responsible for the most recent squarings-off between the presidential candidates. Such a system of public debate is probably an anachronism, a relic of our past, like the myths surrounding the founding fathers and no longer very apropos to the problems of the eighties.
But perhaps public debate is a valid method for addressing and solving many crucial problems such as the deficit, farm subsidies, the social security system, all of which problems, by the way, were created by earlier administrations trying to solve earlier problems.
Education, however, is something else. No amount of restructuring of the schools can solve this problem. Indeed, the schools may even be the problem as those writers such as Ivan Illich who would “deschool” society believe.
Very late, Sunday night:
So what is to be done, not about Monday morning, but about education? First we must take the principal burden for educating our children away from the schools and place it back where it belongs within the family and within the community. Only real structures educate. The family and the community are real structures. The school is not.
At the very best the school will reflect the values of the community; when these values are admirable, the schools will be admirable, when they are not, as is so often the case within our inner cities, the schools will not be either. Show us a successful school and we will show you a successful community behind it.
Anyone who has spent much time close to children knows how they learn. Anyone who has spent much time in the schools knows that there is very little learning going on. Why is this so? Learning comes about because the learner wants to know what and how and why.
For four vears in the lower grades most children do. Then, for some reason, most don’t. I think I know why. Imagine a primitive society where children are taught in the “schools” to fish and to hunt. Children learn, not because they are taught in the schools, but because adults in the society do a lot of fishing and hunting. Imagine that same society when people no longer fish and hunt. The schools would fail overnight.
This is our society. The schools are trying to teach the very things that most adults no longer do, reading and writing to name just two of the most conspicuous ones. What chance do the schools have to succeed?