Josée, my wife and companion of some 50 years, showed me a text I had written over 20 years ago, in the final years of our tenure as co-founders and co-directors of the Waring School. If I were to write about the same topic today, our school’s mission, I wouldn’t change a word of what I wrote then.
What does that mean? That I stopped growing, say at that point in my life? Or rather, and what I’d like to think, that we do reach in our lives some degree of constancy in our thinking. The result being that within us not everything changes, while without and all about us things are changing radically.
Here is that text from June 19, 1989:
Today we met with the new students and their parents. A mother asked me to state the school’s mission. You couldn’t say I wasn’t prepared for that request. There is probably no single subject that I’ve talked or written more about during the past twenty years. But familiarity breeds contempt and this time I responded a bit too quickly: “It is our mission,” I said, “that our students become self-learners.” The mother shot back, “What if my kid is already a self-learner? Should he come to your school?” Not to be undone I said, “No.” But my answer didn’t satisfy me, and the audience, in particular a Waring student in the audience, helped me out by stating that this school was rich in learning resources, especially people, which even the self-learner would be in need of.
This school mission can probably not be reduced to a single statement, but if I were asked to do so again I would say the following: “It’s our mission to create an environment which contains at least an inkling of life’s possibilities for each and every student in the school.” What does this mean? Well, for one, that the environment for learning is all important. If repeated public school curriculum reforms have not significantly changed the quality of public school education, it is because throughout them all the learning environment—chairs in rows, in teacher-directed classes, long sterile corridors that oblige everyone to be part of the main stream, closed cliques of students, memorization and obedience valued over thought and originality—has remained pretty much the same. The ennvironment, I believe, is more important than the teacher, more important than the program, more important—although as I say this it strikes me as heresy—than the student’s own efforts. Brilliant teachers can work miracles, but they probably don’t change kids’ habits; the environment does.
The school environment should contain things that are more of less instrumental in helping children to discover who they are, what they are good at, what will ultimately be their greatest sources of satisfaction. Good parents understand this instinctively and create a home environment rich in life’s possibilities. Imagine environements without some life’s essential possibilities—the young Mozart growing up in an environment without music, Newton or Einstein as young boys having no introduction, in school or out, to the language of mathematics, Renoir somehow cut off from a knowledge of the possibilities of paints and canvas. In all three instances these men would probably not have been heard from. In each case the environment contained those things—music, symbolic language, art—that were essential to the growth and self-realization of these three not ordinary people.
A deprived up-bringing means not an absence of schools and teachers, but an environment poor in life’s possibilities. That there simply be art, math, and music classes in school is, of course, not enough. That the environment “contain” these things means rather that the direct experience of each one of them be realized by one or more students in the school. What the students are doing and saying, in the school and in their lives, not just in classroom, is the best measure of what the environment contains. A rich learning environment—and to provide such is our principal mission—means that all students, of widely varying abilities and interests, find ample opportunities and means whitin that environment to realize their individual learning potentials