Category Archives: Ideas

Tom Friedman and 9/11

In a recent piece on this page Tom Friedman says that we lacked the imagination to see suicide hijackers plowing our passenger jets into the upper stories of our own skyscrapers. The idea being that if we could have imagined such an outcome we might have prevented it from happening.  But this would hardly have saved us from the terrorists because when it comes to destructive acts against the West their imaginations are absolutely unbridled, and at one time or another would inevitably outstrip our own.  In any case, no one is suggesting that what we now need most in our own defense is to cultivate our imaginations.  Rather, there are two courses of action that are proposed.  One, already well underway, is to root out and destroy the terrorists, their cells and their networks, and punish those individuals and nations that would harbor them. The other, considered by many but not by anyone in power and therefore not yet actually initiated, would be to provide humanitarian aid to all the wretched, Muslim populations of the earth thereby eliminating the supply of terrorists at the source.

Both courses of action address only the symptoms of the illness, for terrorists and terrorist acts, as repellant and horrible as they might be for the rest of us, are still only symptoms, and not the illness itself.  Neither course of action is directed against the illness, for the simple reason that neither takes into account the actual social, political, and economic conditions of mostly corrupt and authoritarian Muslim regimes, conditions which have permitted religious schools and other organizations, whose principal business it is to produce terrorists, to thrive and multiply. The first course, the one in which we are now fully engaged, seems to assume that the terrorist beast has only one head and, although it may take years, that the head can be cut off from the body, and the body thereby rendered harmless. But there is nothing to indicate that this is so, that if one head is taken that another will not spring up in its place.  Why, in Pakistan alone, we learn that there are tens of thousands of children who have been named Osama, and we would go after just one Osama thinking that we would eliminate thereby these thousands? The second course assumes that the terrorist beast stems from terrible life conditions, from poverty, hunger, hopelessness, and such, and that its elimination requires only that we eliminate these scourges from the earth. But there is no evidence that poverty or hunger or even hopelessness creates individuals who hate, let alone those whose hate is so great that they will be willing to die in order to bring about our destruction.  In fact, there is nothing in the history of man on this earth that connects the most heinous crimes to poverty or starvation.  The very worst acts of men against their fellow men have most often, if not always, been the works of men well provided for in regard to the necessities of life.  In the century just passed the most despicable acts were invariably carried out by heads of nations and not by toilers in the fields on the sides of mountains.

I believe that the problem that confronts our Western civilization and way of life is the disintegrating social, political and economic conditions of certain Muslim countries. These conditions at the very least engender terrorism.  These conditions are the source of our problem.  And for us to successfully combat terrorism we must begin to actively alter these conditions for the better, and, need I say it again, we cannot do so with armies or with sacks of wheat.  Take Pakistan as typical of them all.  For no Muslim country better illustrates the extreme fragility of Muslim states in the 21st. century.  Pakistan is not governed.  Instead, there are ruling factions that take turns enriching themselves and impoverishing the country. Be these Muslim states kingdoms, authoritarian regimes, religious states, democracies, whatever, they are not of their own invention.  The West has made them, and then gone out the door leaving them behind to fend for themselves.  Now they are being brought against their will, kicking and screaming into the modern age, and large numbers, probably majorities of their populations don’t like it, don’t like the loss of their traditional ways of life.  In Pakistan the battle between those who would stay behind and those who would join the modern world is particularly acute.  A N.Y. Times report filed from Karachi on September 30 tells us that Pakistan is two worlds, one urbane and one enraged, and it’s implied that without a lot of help there is no way these two worlds will ever come together. 

We should have seen the rage coming from the Muslim world years ago.  Why didn’t we?  If we had we might have influenced the mission of the tens of thousands of religious schools or Madrassahs, established throughout the Muslim world during the past 25 years and that now turn out hundreds of thousands of young men prepared to give their lives for the protection of their religion (not their country). The Taliban, and probably the thousands of members of Al Queda, are former students from such schools. One of these schools is that of Osama bin Laden himself.  But during the 1970s and 1980s, when we might have helped to lessen Muslim rage, we could see only our own great window of opportunity through which to mortally wound the Soviet Union. That came to pass, and it’s now history, but while thereupon actively engaged we overlooked, although unknowingly aided and abetted international terrorism, what would now seem to be an even greater enemy to our civilization than even Soviet communism.  It could very well be that these tens of thousands of religious schools (why in the Baluchistan city, Quetta, there are some 500 of them), more than anything that we might do, will determine whether the war against terrorism will be won by the West or not. 

So what to do, que faire, sto delat?  In one sentence, we should directly aid the “urbane” among these populations, help them to civilize and redirect in positive and non terrorist pursuits the energies of the “enraged.”

Three Myths about Education 1990

Myth Number One

Education is books and programs and schools and teachers. Or, in other words, education is money, for all these things cost money. Of the three myths this one is probably the most widely held. This is the  “thinking” behind the belief that yet another increase in this country’s educational budget (now in the hundreds of billions of dollars) will improve the quality of this country’s education. It follows that, where there is little or no money, as in poor, inner city neighborhoods, in entire third world countries, little or no education takes place, and illiteracy reigns. For those who hold to this myth, probably many teachers and parents, and most school administrators, the effectiveness of the schools varies directly with the amount of money spent on the schools. More education, they say, will come with more money spent for books, programs, schools and teachers.

Here, as in all myths as widely held as this one, there is an element of truth. Books and programs and schools and teachers are certainly part of education, although as we shall see, not the most important part, and do cost money.  If they have a place out of proportion to their real importance it is because these are the elements of education that are most easily quantifiable—they, and the money spent on them, are easily counted.

Just the other night on the news I encountered an instance of how widely spread is the belief that education is books. A Charleston high-school student, returning to school after a three week absence caused by the ravages of hurricane Hugo, was interviewed by a correspondent from NBC news. He was asked what had happened to his education while the schools were closed. “Why,” he said, “I lost my book the first day of the storm and I haven’t been able to do anything for three weeks.” (Josée and I looked at one another and smiled, thinking of the Charleston high school teacher who must have heard that one upon returning to his classroom after the storm break—we thought we had heard them all, but here was a new one.) If the young man had come from a real learning environment (not the institution in which he was enrolled), if he had learned something about what learning was really about, the storm and its aftermath would have been in his eyes a much more important learning experience than the book he had lost, let alone the school that was closed. He would have answered the correspondent that these three weeks in his life had been a terrific “school,” and that he hoped upon returning to “school” that the learning awakened by the storm would not come to a halt. In any case he wouldn’t have mentioned the lost book. Now in fact we know that he must have learned more during those three weeks than he would have if he had remained in school, but he didn’t know it. Life and real life experiences were in his mind separate from school and books. He believed in Myth Number One, and he gave what he thought was the correct answer to the correspondent, who, a believer himself, was sympathetic to the young man’s plight, that without a book, in this case a classroom text, one couldn’t learn.

The much more important parts of education— the students’ motivation, the teachers’ interest in their students and their own desire to go on learning themselves, the parents’ attitude toward their children’s education (do they really want their children to learn to think, to play the violin, to speak French—are they ready to make the  necessary effort to help this to happen, do they value these things themselves), the relevance of the learning experience  itself, its impact on the lives of the learners (Hugo vs., the lost book—these are the parts of education not easily  measured, and therefore not easily translated into dollars, and therefore taken for granted or neglected and put aside by  those who create and fashion this country’s learning environments. When the country was young, and when schooling was not yet for everyone, those who were in the schools were apparently richly furnished in interest and motivation; students, teachers and parents held beliefs and values in common, their attitudes, their desire to learn, not the allocation of public funds, were the real ground on which they built their educational structures. The first schools themselves were much less richly furnished in things. Supplies and equipment, classrooms and buildings were not so much neglected as relatively unimportant. But then, within a relatively short period of time, perhaps in the passage of just two generations, one at the end of the last and one at the beginning of this century, schools became compulsory for everyone; by 1940 there was no life outside of school for children aged 16 years and younger.

The impulse behind compulsory school for everyone was a good one. Thomas Jefferson had made it clear one hundred years earlier, that schooling was necessary in a democracy—an uneducated public could not wisely and properly exercise its right to choose its leaders. Consequently, it was with good will and great energy that local school districts (the seats of power in education in this country) set about to build schools for everyone. For the richest country on the earth this job was relatively straightforward, a question of money—the physical structures, programs, numbers of teachers and supplies had only to be multiplied by a factor representing the new school population. A piece of cake for the country of J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller et al. The other, much more important ingredients of an educational system, the intangibles, the shared values and attitudes, the interest and motivation of the participants, would have to be increased also, but since there were no wealthy individuals or a government that could bring this about, no money that could be spent that would effect this end, these ingredients were overlooked. Instead, the educators did what they could, they spent money for spanking new classrooms in massive red brick buildings, believing, or wanting to believe, that the rich learning atmosphere of the old one room school house would somehow  come along of itself. Of course it didn’t. The schools eventually became a blown-up shell of their former selves, and the debacle that is now our system of public education, most apparent in our largest cities, is the direct result of a whole, country holding to Myth Number One.

Myth Number Two

Education is the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Probably many of you still believe in this. ‘Teach my kid how to read and write,” you say, “see that his math skills are up to par, make sure he knows something about the history of his own country, about world geography and the natural sciences, have him read the great works of literature.” This is what you want for your children, and probably what, in your eyes, school should be all about. For who could be against the acquisition of skills and knowledge as being the principal business of at the schools—indeed, this is how I spend most of my own time. But the knowledge that I as acquire is the result of my learning, not the reason for my learning. For as I learn I am following up an interest, often a desire, sometimes, even, a passion to know. What I know, as soon as I know it, is put aside as being as unimportant; when I’ve learned something I immediately go on to something else. The usually friendly arguments, between myself and individual parents, especially those who are engineers and whose profession is, par excellence, knowledge based, stem from their believing Myth Number Two, and myself holding an entirely different new of education. (MythNumber 4  See below)

This myth, the confusion between education and the acquisition of knowledge, stems from the fact that, whereas good education will always result in the acquisition of knowledge, the converse is not true—being knowledgeable, doesn’t mean that one is well-educated. (If this were so computers would be the best educated individuals in our society, and robots would gradually replace all of us in all of our tasks—perhaps some of you believe this will happen.) The Japanese public school system is based on the converse, believing that if kids know a lot of information they are well-educated. Therefore, in Japan the principal business of the schools is to see to it that the students know a lot. Not a bad end at first glance. Things go wrong because one can obviously learn a lot more in a given amount of time if one uses the faculty of memory exclusively. As a result in Japan and in other similar school systems memorization takes up most of the students’ time both in and out of school.

Not only in Japan but to a large extent in the elite independent schools and in the top, academic tracks of the best public schools in this country the college preparatory programs including Advanced Placement are by and large based on the student’s memorizing large amounts of material. Since the other mental faculties do not lead as directly to the end of greater knowledge acquisition, these school systems are subliminally encouraging their students not to question, not to interpret, not to evaluate, in short, not to think. Indeed, in a highly competitive social structure such as Japan, or in the elite college preparatory programs in this country, where kids compete with other kids for the same few positions, first in school for places in the prestigious colleges, and then in society for jobs, positions are awarded based on grades, which are based on test scores, which in turn are based far too often on how much material one has memorized.

Learning to think may, for a time anyway, slow down one’s acquisition of knowledge, diminish one’s performance on examinations and thereby interfere with one’s success in the competition for places and jobs. In Japan there are now critics of the system, people who are beginning to point out that the exclusive use of knowledge based examinations is not the best way to arouse the creative faculties in their young men and women, and that, in the long run, it is the latter faculties that will insure their country’s continued prosperity. In this country there have always been critics of the dominance of the faculty of memory in the schooling of the young, but, so far at least, the little respect that the public accords the schools, the little the public expects from the education of its children, the little impetus for change there is among the leaders of the schools, all these factors have not allowed any significant reforms to come about.

Americans, who continually compare their students’ scores with those, say, of the Japanese and Korean students (on the same examination) are showing their adherence to Myth Number Two. When the scores show, as they invariably do, that the Americans know less than students, not only from Japan and Korea, but from most other developed countries as well, the test-watchers conclude that our students are less well-educated than those of these other countries. These comparisons will set off another heavy session of self-criticism. Americans will cry out that we are a nation at risk, that we ought immediately to make the education of our young our top priority, and, if we have not just recently done so, that we ought to thoroughly revise our curriculum and increase our expenditures on education. All to no avail, however, and we continue to slip when measured against the achievement of students from other countries. (At the same time almost no one points out that when American high school students compete in a non-knowledge or non-information based area, such as during the International Mathematics Olympiad, they do extremely well, usually coming out among the top two or three teams. This suggests that there are other, more important ingredients to a good education than the acquisition of knowledge and skills.)

I believe that knowledge is incidental to real education. Let me say again, if one is learning one is becoming more knowledgeable, but one can become more knowledgeable without learning anything at all. Wise men never talk about what they have learned—if that’s what you want to talk to them about they’ll refer you to what they have written, or to a library. They want to talk about what they don’t yet know, what they still have to learn, for the learned man in them is over and done with, history, whereas a man learning, that which they still want to be, is the present moment, alive and exciting.

The lesson for the schools, and for Waring, is the following: The school should concern itself most of all with arousing the student’s desire to learn, then with strengthening that desire, and seeing to it that the student’s desire to learn has a life of its own, away from the teacher and away from the class-room. For if the student’s desire to learn is only in response to the teacher, no important learning will ever take place. Can one seriously doubt that what one learns in a lifetime follows directly from any thing other than the strength of one’s desire to learn? It certainly doesn’t follow from one’s success or lack of success on knowledge based examinations in school. Witness the number of students with top grades in a given subject who just a year out of school “know” little or nothing about that subject.

The real learning, which goes on throughout one’s lifetime, and for which school is only a preparation, must come from within, from the learner’s internal motivation. Other than the learning by rote, that which has a very short lifetime, in some instances only the time it takes to complete the examination, learning cannot be imposed from without. The lesson for the schools is to create an atmosphere in which children will want to learn, for then the children themselves will acquire naturally (incidentally) all the skills and knowledge they need in order to lead successful and happy lives.

Myth Number Three

Education is self- expression, or the freeing of the individual from the inevitable inhibitions and restrictions of family, school and society. A slightly different version of this same myth says that the role of education is to enable each child to realize his or her own uniqueness. This myth is probably less widely held than the other two. Most adults probably do not believe it—they’ve lived too long, (that is, while they believe in the uniqueness of the child, they do not believe that catering to this uniqueness should be the principal business of education and of the schools) but many children and teachers, and too many parents, probably still do. This myth, unlike Myths One and Two, has some basis in biological science, in the theory of organic or natural growth. Unique genetic codes in the cell nuclei (except in the case of identical twins) do “contain” all that an individual is meant to be in his or her lifetime. The process of education may be seen as enabling the unique set of instructions in the nuclei to be realized first in the life of the child, then in the student, and finally in the man or woman. In its extreme form this myth says that each child is a unique individual and must be allowed, during its growth stages, more or less complete freedom in order to realize its uniqueness. Furthermore, since that which each child is meant to be comes from within the child, it obviously cannot be fashioned from without. Each child’s freedom to grow in his or her own, unique way must remain untrammeled by the environment, must take precedence over the inevitable restrictions of the surrounding traditional structures. In other words, don’t put an oak sapling with its own set of instructions in a flower pot and then expect it to thrive and respond favorably to its environment. It won’t, nor, says this theory, will the child flourish whose education is expected to come about within externally imposed structures—the flower pots of family, school and society.

What we are describing is often called the negative theory of education, negative in the sense that all those things that might cramp the child’s growth are to be subtracted from the child’s environment. Whereas not many of us will admit believing in this myth most of us act as if we did. This may be seen in respect to how we monitor our children’s homework assignments, in respect to how much pressure we put on them to do their work. How many of us even know what the teachers expect of our children, let alone see to it that our children live up to those expectations?  How many of us insist that our children keep a sketch book and journal in the way that the art and writing teachers recommend? How many of us insist that our kids practice their instruments daily, that on which the success of the Waring music program most depends? How many of us ask to see our child’s natural science journal, supposedly containing his or her observations of the natural world? How many of us seriously restrict or limit what our children may see at the movies or on the television, may listen to on the radio? How many of us place any severe behavioral restrictions on our children at all? From our answers to these questions it is probably true that most of us do subscribe to some extent to the negative theory of education. Aren’t we obviously afraid of placing restrictions on our children, thinking, perhaps, that such will boomerang—for example, by limiting our child’s music listening at home to the Bach and Mozart they are listening to at school won’t they be apt to become secret, but avid devotees of hard rock? Aren’t we a bit afraid of our children, of what’s in them, of what we may unknowingly be bottling up? In short aren’t we afraid of our child’s very uniqueness? We don’t know how best our child’s uniqueness might be realized, but we do know that we don’t want to get in the way.

I would suggest that a child’s uniqueness, just like the acquisition of skills and knowledge, is incidental to learning and school. Just as knowledge will follow from learning, from the child’s active pursuit of those skills and knowledge important to him, so will a child’s uniqueness be best realized if the child studies the liberal arts along with everyone else, thereby acquiring not those things that are unique to him or her, but those very things that he or she has  in common with everyone else. A school has no business tending primarily to that which is unique in a student. In any case, because it is unique, the school would probably not even recognize it when it did appear. But what about the bottling up of the child’s uniqueness? Inhibiting or overly restricting the child’s freedom to be himself? Need we be afraid of that? No, not if what we are teaching are the liberal arts. For by definition, these arts—literature and history, music, foreign language, mathematics, science and art—are ultimately the dress, the clothes that will enable the child’s uniqueness to appear at all, not necessarily in a school context, but certainly later in the grown child’s, and in the man’s  or woman’s lifetime. By definition these arts are the freedom-giving arts. We need not be afraid of any apparent restrictions that they may be placing on the child, at home or in school.

What, then, is the real business of education, if it’s not the acquisition of skills and knowledge, if it’s not programs and teachers and books and classrooms, if it’s not the uniqueness, the specialness of each child?

Here’s Myth Number 4, the one in which I believe:

Education is the uncovering, the developing, me strengthening within the child of that which he or she shares with everyone else. The goal of education in this sense is the realization, not of the student’s unique nature, but of his or her common humanity. All children and all people have the same nature; they reason, they laugh, they feel joy and sorrow, they communicate with words and other symbols, they have bodies and minds, they have some knowledge, some direct experience of good and evil, they have religious experiences, they sense the reality of truth and beauty. Education should concern itself with developing and communicating and understanding these kinds of awarenesses in children. In other words the schools ought to be helping children to understand their own human nature, to recognize that most of what they are they share with other men and women, and thereby to become more comfortable with themselves and their own experiences. For ultimately the learner’s skills and knowledge, ultimately his very uniqueness, will be less important than his closeness to his fellows. Ultimately one might even say that learning to work together, not just for the individual, but for the common good, is what education is most about.

—Philip B. Waring (Headmaster, Waring School)

What is “taught” at the Waring School

The Waring School brochure contains no listing of course offerings. This is purposeful on our part. Lists of course offerings, course catalogues as they are commonly called, are primarily lists of subject matters. Perhaps such are appropriate for colleges where one elects ones course of study, where one decides to become familiar with certain subject matters, such as computer programming and art history. We believe strongly that the business of schools, all educational institutions prior to college, is something quite different.

We feel that we are not primarily in the business of teaching subject matters, and therefore the course catalogue is of decidedly secondary importance. Indeed, to be primarily concerned with teaching subject matter, with continually augmenting one’s lists of course offerings, is to put aside the real business of all elementary and secondary education which is on the one hand to awaken children to their own limitless possibilities as human beings on this earth, and on the other, to awaken them to their own primary responsibility for their education.

First on our list of “course offerings” are values. By this we do not mean courses in ethics, or moral philosophy, or how to make the difficult choices, resist peer pressures etc. Rather we mean those beliefs and ideals that we would live by, and rather than teach them in a course, we would structure our learning environment and our activities in order that they incorporate these values with the result that the environment itself becomes the teacher.

For example, one value we would have our students acquire is that of good citizenship, that they become public spirited. To this end we have frequent all school meetings at which students and teachers are encouraged to go “public,” to speak their minds before the community; only in this sense are we “teaching” this value.

Secondly, there is “cultural literacy,” not the same thing as values. We certainly intend that our students become familiar with the great achievements of science, with the great periods of history, with the great men and women of the past, with the geography of countries and peoples, with the history of art and music. However, we would not have them memorize, and then forget, dates, names and places.

Nor can course offerings bring this about the desired cultural literacy. Witness the endless papers that prove our high school graduates, and even the freshmen at our most prestigious colleges, to be culturally illiterate. There is simply too much to learn and retain in the traditional manner, and traditional high school courses in history and science are woefully inadequate to the task. Indeed, the proliferation of such courses implies that the ground can never be covered in this way. Cultural literacy, just as the acquisition of shared values, can only come about by the entire environment becoming the teacher.

Learning in this way is analogous to properly learning a foreign language by immersion. Language learning rarely happens in the classroom, but it happens every time that the student is immersed in the country, or other environment where the language is spoken. Thus we try to create a “culturally literate” environment, and immerse our students therein. For example, the entire student body has just recently immersed itself, participated in a simulation of the constitutional convention.

Then earlier this year we devoted an all school meeting to the pros and cons of the Bork nomination. And on a regular basis such things as the history of life on earth, the geography of the middle east how we know about the life and death of stars, become the focus of attention of all of us. Also, to the end of arousing our students’ interest in the world in which they live, we support a very successful college bowl team.

Ultimately cultural literacy will only come about from the students’ own efforts to acquire the same. Therefore, our job is not to have the student memorize facts, but to arouse his interest in acquiring such knowledge for himself.

Third, in addition to values and cultural literacy, we teach language skills. English to begin with. Reading, writing and speaking. These, also, should not be thought of as course offerings. Rather they are activities that go on constantly throughout the six years that a student may spend at the Waring School. In this context subject matters, such as history and literature, become means to the ends of reading and writing and speaking more effectively.

In particular, at this school, because one of the school founders was French, we teach the French language, using as much as possible while not being in a French language country an immersion method. In any case nearly all of our students become fluent in this usually second language, and often will spend some time, perhaps as long as one semester, in France while a student at Waring.

Fourth we teach a number of other “languages.”

There is Mathematics, or the language of science. Like reading and writing English, learning mathematics goes on year after year. Our mathematics “course,” the School Mathematics Project, is a spiraling sequence of essential ideas from traditional courses in algebra, geometry, and the calculus, combined with a range of “new math” topics including transformational geometry, vectors and networks, matrices, probablility, and statistics.

There is Music. Every student at Waring studies a musical instrument, plays in jazz, string, or wind ensembles, sings in a chorus, listens to great works from the classical repertoire, and may or may not study music theory and composition. Once again music is an activity in which we would immerse our students, not a series of unrelated course offerings.

And there is Art. All students learn to draw. All students are asked to keep a sketch book. Drawing, like mathematics and music, is an international language. Learning to draw is learning to see, and like all real educative processes there is no end to this activity. Once again, we have only succeeded, when, after we stop, the students continue on their own.

Finally there are the all important intellectual skills. We would help the student to think clearly and to understand more. To do this we draw on all the traditional subject matters, but perhaps most of all on the great works of literature, art, and music. Such works become through our efforts the common experiences of us all.

We attend closely to these works, study them, listen to them, and, in weekly Great Books seminars and frequent Humanities classes, we discuss them among ourselves. The goal of such activities is that we learn to think more clearly, that through their help we grow in our understanding of ideas and values.

Public schools: a compromise between the ideals of democracy and the ideals of education

Critics of the public schools do not understand the original nature of public school education, that which was at its beginnings a compromise between the ideals of democracy and the ideals of education. And that this compromise was always heavily weighted in favor of democracy, that which is evidenced by the large place in our public schools given to “democratic” activities, such as sports, band, the lunch room and locker corridor, the student assemblies.

Classrooms, the places of education, were clearly elitest. The best roles here were always given to the best and the brightest. Student majorities in the subject matter classrooms were always left out, always took second place to the work or a small and talented few. The so-called failure of the schools is just that, the failure of learning to ever be democratic. It couln’t be otherwise. Activities such as problem solving, essay writing, reading history and science, and foreign language learning had to be for a few.

The critics of the schools don’t seem to recognize that public education was necessarily flawed by the fact that it was meant to be for literally everyone. That of course couldn’t be.

Probably the original limitations of a truly democratic school were never properly spelled out. Probably because of the enthusiasm of the originators, those who would create, for the very first time, free public education for all. Indeed, why would those innovators want to accompany the magnificent thing they were doing with a serious question as to its actual possibilities? No more than the freeing of the slaves or the serfs needed to be accompanied by a statement that in fact their new freedom was not without serious flaws.

The result is that the schools were and are still not seen as what they always were, an attempt to educate all the citizens of the commonweath with the inevitable watering down of the quality of education that resulted.  Perhaps if the limitations of our public schools were fully understood we would then be closer than ever before to realizing the real possiblities that do remain in the original compromise.

Le Parti Est Malade… Lénine, janvier, 1920

“Le parti est malade, le parti tremble de fièvre.  A moins qu’il ne soit capable de guérir rapidement et radicalement, la scission est inévitable.”  L’analyse date de janvier 1920.  Elle est de la plume de Lénine, et on connaît la suite.

Or, malgré les bouleversements qui s’annoncent, jugeait hier la Nezavissimaïa Gazeta, le projet de Mikhaïl Gorbachev recule devant l’essentiel: “Il refuse de reconnaître le péché historique du parti, la désolation du pays, l’extermination de la population, et d’en payer le prix.”  Un prix qui serait la disparition du parti communiste, ni plus ni moins.

Lenin was an intellectual, a man of words.  He believed that words had the power to change reality, a kind of verbal Lamarkism: by saying what he thought, and getting people around him who would say the same thing he thought he could transform society—Soviet citizens would acquire the words, the ideology, and this would be passed on to future generations, thus creating homo sovieticus.

The tragedy of the Soviet Union might have been avoided if its leaders had read Darwin and not Marx.  This is particularly true of Stalin whose admiration for Lysenko, the mad biologist, removed him even further from the the truth, or at least from our present and best guess as to what is the nature of man.

Societies ought to be run by recipes, not blueprints: the best we can do is make a cake, not determine the microscopic nature of each piece.  Recipes allow freedom, blueprints don’t (although they can be changed as much as you want the one adopted, for its lifetime at least, becomes a stifling, deterministic influence in the life of society).  (cf. Richard Dawkin’s discussion of DNA as a recipe and not as a blueprint in Chapt. 10 of The Blind Watchmaker.)  The Party’s mistake was to write a blueprint for Soviet society.

Historians seem clear as to what went wrong: Lenin rejected pluralism in favor of the Party.  This was the original sin.  Why doesn’t Gorbachev recognize it?  He seems to want to allow pluralism without admitting the Party’s responsability for its being outlawed for over 70 years.

The Soviet Union is a disaster, and the Party, more even than Lenin and Stalin, is at fault.  Dictatorship of the proletariat was really dictatorship of the Party and this most of all prevented improvement in the lives of the citizens, not to mention bringing about untold suffering and tens of millions of deaths in the name of a dogma, Marxist-Leninism, more a religion or belief than a scientific truth.

Waring School, June 1992

I.  Two days ago I was in Harvard Square.  Harvard University employees were holding a protest rally in the street next to Au Bon pain.  One of the posters read, Many faces, one voice.  Good luck, I thought.  That’s not the situation in the world today, where there are many faces, 5 billion of them, and almost as many voices.  Do people anywhere speak anymore with just one voice?

Here’s a few examples of what’s happening in the world:  And you all know there are thousands more:

The civil war in Yugoslavia which has already cost 10,000 lives, countless maimed and wounded, an estimated 1.5 million left homeless, let alone the material damage to cities and towns, and to the jewel of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik.

In Sri Lanka last month it was the start of a week of festivities celebrating the new year.  The two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, were celebrated with family gatherings and exchange of gifts, as they have done on this occasion for centuries.  On the very eve of the celebration 20 soldiers were killed in ambushes.  On the first day, a bus was blown up and 25 people died.  On the same day a bomb went off in a bazaar in the outskirts of the capital, Colombo, killing another 15 people.  It is assumed that the attacks were the work of the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla group fighting for a separate Tamil state in northeastern Sri Lanka.

In present day Somalia on the horn of Africa a number of clan-based guerrilla groups are engaged in internecine warfare. There is no legitimate government.  The following conditions are typcal: An idle pharmaceuticals factory built by the Soviets is now a “refuge” for thousands of refuges from wars; they are waiting for help and they are watching their children die from the lack of proper nourishment.  Around the capital, Magadishu, alone there are over 100 such sites, rude havens for unarmed civilians forced to flee their homes.

For nearly six months the refugee camps, like the city itself, have been cut off from food as warfare and chaos have stymied all international relief efforts.  Uncounted hundreds, perhaps thousands, have already starved to death.  Tens of thousands of others have been killed or wounded.  Central Mogadishu, once a gracious district of shaded streets, pastel villas and modest office towers, is now a tense and deserted no-man’s land of buildings defaced by shellfire and laden with rubble.  A Somali, who is now professor of history at Rutgers University has described the situation there as follows:  Modern Somali politics is nothing but traditional clan politics writ large, with the difference that the clan members are now armed with modern, mass-destructive weapons.”

In Peru, a black woman, Maria Elena Moyano, helped to create in the suburbs of that city a haven for the poor, called Villa.  Now Villa is home to over 300,000 people.  They have their own local government, schools, health clinics and industrial park.  They have become a model for other Third World city planners.  Last September, 20 years after the creation of Villa, Moyano was murdered by Shining Path guerrillas.  The guerrillas also blew up the warehouse that supplied 92 Villa soup kitchens.

A man who tried to stop them with a loudspeaker in hand was shot in the head, a friend who tried to help was stoned to death.  Shining Path spokesmen say that they are engaged in a “people’s war.”  Rather than feed, educate or heal people, which was Moyano’s vision, they want to “deepen the contradictions”—that is, create more hunger, disease and death.  Then, the theory goes, people will feel compelled to fight on the guerrillas’ side.  That’s why they murdered Moyano.

Much closer to home there is Los Angeles.  Admittedly not the same thing, but also with a large part of ethnic strife and grinding, inner city poverty.
First of all there was the white jury’s verdict flying in the face of everyone’s idea of justice, if not of justice itself, acquitting the four Los Angeles policemen accused of excessive brutality in the arrest of a young black man.
Then there was the white man being dragged from the cab of his truck and being brutally beaten by four black men while down on the pavement.

Then a mob of rioters storming shops and business, looting and setting fires,  mostly in the absence of any police protection. We are told that it was the most violent American civil disturbance since the Irish poor burned Manhattan in 1863.
Two days of rioting left thousands of burned out buildings, including nearly 2000 business owned or operated by Korean Americans,  more than 60 fatalities, thousands wounded, nearly 17 thousand jailed, an estimated 1 billion dollars in damages.

The blame fell everywhere: Legitimate black anger over the King decision, the devastating poverty of all those weak in skills and resources, the flight of a stable and responsible middle class to the suburbs, the loss of manufacturing jobs,  a 40 to 50 % unemployment rate for minority youth, the Kennedy and Johnson social policies of the 60s, the Reagan and Bush neglect of the 80s, a conspiracy on the part of the Crips and the Bloods, Black vengeance taken on the Korean community for the death of 15 year old Latasha Harlins, shot to death last year by a Korean grocer in a dispute over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, the marginal types, the riff-raff, the havenots all just spoiling for a chance to pillage and burn the haves, the heat and the boredom as in Watts in 1965. But it’s not so much the number of causes as the lack of solutions that is appalling.

A good part of the problem is that America is still the land of opportunity.  There are countless immigrants at the gate.  Many of them are in the country  many of them are in Los Angeles.

The outburst of minority assertiveness in Los Angeles may be seen  against the background of similar explosions within nation-states around the globe.  The outbursts abroad are often marked by old hatreds, such as in Yougoslavia, and deeply entrenched linguistic and religious differences, such as in the former republics of the Soviet Union. These outbursts take separatist forms, and use organized violence, such as in the Basque region in Spain and in Northern Ireland, threatening the very existence of the nation or region in which they occur.  With many variations there are other examples in South Africa, Canada, Lebanon, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Myanmar (or until the summer of1989, Burma), Indonesia, and even the most recently liberated generation of nation-states, such as Czechoslovakia.

Has the whole world gone the way of India, with its large population of “untouchables,” that is, those at the  bottom of the social and economic pyramid, those who, if they do get work, do the dirty work of society.  Mahatma Ghandi called them Harijan, or children of God, a term we haven’t heard used in referring to the rioters in Los Angeles.  We call them, or we used to, the underclass.  They really are becoming the new untouchables.  Does anybody care?

Someone has said that history is no longer made primarily by what nations do to each other, but by what is done to nations by divisive ethnic feuds within.

Has the world always been like this?  In the underdeveloped countries civil wars and guerrilla movements seem to be the norm.  In the developed countries, there is terrorism, but most often a kind of insurgency, or low intensity conflict, LIC in army language.  This may flare up into something more, as in Los Angeles.

When I was in France two weeks ago the French were asking themselves could or would it happen there.  They were no more secure than we are.  And I’m sure citizens of London and Berlin were asking themselves the same question.
There is no center, there are only many voices, and these  voices are worlds apart.  Do you remember the first stanza of Yeats poem, The Second Coming, written during the first world war, or in its aftermath, but perhaps even more topical now than then:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere [pure] anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Should we now expect the world revolution that Marx and Lenin talked about in the concluding years of the past century?  As has been often said the end of the Cold War has released a thousand demons from the box.

What’s going on?  On the most human level people want to be heard.  They want to be recognized.  On another level they want a larger share of the pie.  Given the constant pressure of a growing world population on the world’s limited resources can we not expect a growing pressure from those without upon those within, a constant knocking at the gates with the everpresent threat that the gates will be knocked down.  The lid is always about to be blown off.  Is our only recourse to find additional safety values (enterprise zones, weed and seed programs—an expression I couldn’t believe when I first heard it) and keep on muddling through, postponing a day of reckoning?

Some people feel that this is the 11th. hour, that by these and other signs we are being told that civilization is in great danger—other signs are global warming, holes in the ozone layer, mass extinctions in the tropical rain forests, the AIDS epidemic, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the depletion of the mineral resources of the planet.  Man seems to be aware of what’s happening, but unable, so far, to change the way he lives.

II.  Just one week prior to the riots in L.A. when I was still in France, George Smoot of the University of California at Berkeley announced the findings of the COBE satellite, in orbit since November 18,  and and in possession of some 300 million measurements taken over sky arcs of no less than 7 degrees.  (The full moon measures one half of a degree across.)   We all saw the pictures of the early universe, on our television screens, of a time somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million years after the Big Bang.  This was the moment of the possible birth of stars and galaxies.

The COBE satellite findings are the last piece of the puzzle, or if you prefer the the third of three important discoveries confirming the Big Bang theory.
1)  The first in 1929 was Edwin Hubble’s announcement of a relationship between the redshift in the spectra of galaxies and their distances.   The only known consistent explanation for the red shift of the light of the distant galaxies is that the redshifts are produced by the recession velocity of galaxies in an expanding universe.  The furthest galaxies were moving further away and, the further away they were, the faster they were moving.  Now one can reverse directions so to speak and extrapolate a point in time when the expansion must have begun.  This turns out to be sometime  between 10 and 20 billion years ago.  (This fits with the age of the oldest stars, some 12-16 billion years.)

The astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle, coined the term, Big Bang.  Lemaître, a Belgian mathematician, had seized on Hubble’s findings, and theorized that in the beginning all matter was concentrated into an infinitely small point, the “singularity,” and that there was an initial explosion which must have made a big noise (although, in this case, not only was there no one to hear, as in the case of the tree falling in the forest, but there was no atmosphere to carry the sound).  Hoyle, disliked the Belgian mathematician’s, theory that all matter in the beginning was concentrated into an infinitely small point and coined the intentionally ugly expression,  Big Bang, for the event.

Next came a truly extraordinary prediction by the Russian expatriot mathematician, George Gamov.  He reasoned that there must be now in space a cosmic background radiation, a ubiquitous, simmering energy left over from the big bang.  Gamov’s notion was that, if the universe began hot and has been expanding and cooling ever since, its temperature today, though cold, would not be absolutely cold.  There should be some residual heat remaining from the big bang.

The prediction was verified in 1964.  This was the second discovery.  The so-called background radiation, a kind of fossil remnant of the Big Bang, was detected by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, by accident—at the time they were working at Bell laboratories in New Jersey and trying to measure the faint radio waves coming from the outer parts of our own Milky Way galaxy.

The discovery showed that, fairly early on you remember, between 100,000 and 1 million years after the beginning, the universe was a uniformly hot cloud of gas not unlike the sun. As space expands it stretches the wavelength of the radiation, making it appear that the radiation has come from a correspondingly cooler body.  By the time we detect the radiation it should correspond to a temperature of a few degrees above absolute zero.  The cosmic background radiation found by P. and W. fitted this idea perfectly.  It was the right temperature, and the radiation had the same temperature all over the sky, because every direction points back towards the big bang.

But this discovery raised a conumdrum.  The background radiation indicated that the gas 100,000 years after the big bang was extremely smooth:  if there had been any large lumps or holes in the gas these would have showed up as hot and cold spots in the distribution of radiation over the sky.  In the data of Penzias and Wilson they didn’t.  Now the Universe today is very clumpy.  It consists of individual galaxies (100 billion of them) that are bunched together into clusters and long filaments, with empty voids in between.  These large structures must have grown from lumps in the original gas, like milk curdling into lumps of cheese.

Cosmologists believed that if they looked hard enough at the background radiation, they ought to be able to find some evidence of lumps or holes, some fluctuations in its temperature that would indicate such irregularities.
Now to the most recent of the three discoveries, that of the COBE satellite.

On board the Cosmic Background Explorer satellite were three instruments, one to measure the average temperature of the background radiation (2.735 K), one to map the sky at long infrared wavelengths, and the third to look for the fluctuations in brightness in the background radiation.  By last December over 300 million measurements had been made and they were analyzed.  Three weeks ago, just prior to the riots in South Central Los Angeles, the results were announced.  (Evidently this had no influence on the riots, although we don’t know what it would have been like without.)

In terms of temperature,  there were fluctuations, bright spots on the computer screen, that were 30 millionths of a Kelvin warmer than the average temperature, with an error of 5 millionths of a kelvin, enough to allow for the creation of the galaxies.

Cosmolgists everywhere were, in the words of the writer for the Economist, cock-a-hoop.  They had had trouble reconciling the picture of early smoothness painted by the microwaves with today’s lumpy, galaxy-filled universe.  A little youthful acne was just what they had been looking for.

Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge theoretician, calls the COBE discovery “the discovery of this century, perhaps of all time.”
Perhaps this is because observations like COBE’s mark the limit of astronomy.  Before the time pictured the universe was opaque, no light was omitted—photons, the carriers of light, were tied up by freely moving electrons.  Nothing earlier than this can be seen by our instruments.   Therefore, everything before the release of the microwave background radiation—which means almost all the most significant developments in the history of the universe—can only be inferred.

Does this story represent the very best that man can achieve?  Well, maybe not, but almost?  Is it a new Genesis story?  Yes, that it certainly is.
But what about Somalia, Peru, Sri Lanka, south-central Los Angeles? Do they represent something else, perhaps, man at his very worst?

Isn’t this the great irony of the present time, at the very moment when we seem to be most threatened by dissolution, by the dismemberment of our cities and nations, the last pieces of the great puzzle that is the universe seem to be falling into place.

III.  We might ask what is the place of science in our lives?  Does it help us to live better lives?  If not, what does it do that is necessary and beneficial?
Scientists themselves are fond of using the expression, the Holy Grail.  Both the COBE launch and sky search, and the $3 billion Human Genome Project are referred to as quests for the respective cosmic and biological Holy-Grails.  Scientists talk as if science was the new religion.  And in many ways it is.

Of the COBE discovery, a Berkeley astrophysicist has said:  “This is an enormously important discovery.  If you are a believer, it’s like seeing the work of God up close.”
But what is the relevance of science to the “real worlds” described above?  Is there any? I keep returning to this question.

Is science like education and many forms of organized religion, like most schools and churches, with apparently little or no power to bring those who most are in need of help, who are in general excluded from the wealth that is yours and mine, back into the local, national and world communities?

In fact, for over 500 years science is telling us some amazing things about ourselves, but who is listening.  For example, the elements of which we are made were themselves made in the bodies of dying stars.  Therefore, it’s true that we are made of star dust.

Science is also saying that life began, or at least appeared on this earth, some 3.5 billion years ago in the form of single celled bacteria-like creatures, and that we and every living thing on this earth are their descendants, and that we share with these first life forms, and with all life since, a single genetic code that makes us what we are.  Science is saying that the species homo sapiens is unique, and that all races of men are in fact 100% men, that is, none of us is less of a man than anyone else.  Racial differences are only skin deep, and are easily explained by long periods of geographical separation and isolation.  Racial prejudice has absolutely no basis in fact.  It ought to disappear from the face of the earth.

Science is also telling us that man, for the very first time in 90,000 years, has it within his power to poison and even destroy the earth, at least the biosphere, certainly to render it uninhabitable for his descendants.  Science is telling us this by making us aware of just how dirty an animal we are.  Science is measuring all that we throw away and telling us that either we stop or at least cut back, or, if we don’t, in a relatively short period of time homo sapiens also will become extinct.  In other words if civilization is to persist, the physical scale of human activities must be diminished.

But we don’t seem to listen.  We go on acting as if the world’s resources were inexhaustible, and as if some people were better, or at least deserved more than others.  We go on tolerating incredible discrepancies of wealth between the rich and the poor, nations as well as individuals.  We continue to pray at the altar of  perpetual economic growth without regard for its consequences.

And on a more ugly note we continue to shoot people in the back of the head, and to pommel people while they are lying on the ground.
What science has taught us about ourselves and about our truly extraordinary position in the universe ought to have much more influence than it does on how we live our lives.  Is knowledge, like religion in the early years of this country when, in some respects, it was most abundant, destined to be almost powerless in making us better people?

Will science be like religion that for nearly 2000 years has given us many products, cathedrals and temples, works of music and art, habits of prayer etc., but otherwise has failed to halt the growing discrepancy between the rich and the poor?  The irony is that the words of the Prophet Micah, “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God,” would have been enough to save us if we had listened and heard.

I think of the Catholic priests who accompanied the early Spanish settlers to the New World in the 16th. century and were witness to the slaughter and death by disease of nearly 50 million native Americans in 50 years time and were unable to stop it, although one among their number, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who tried, in a public debate in 1550 in Valladolid, Spain, before the King, on the intellectual and religious capacity of the American Indian defended the Indian and is now a hero to the Latin American landless peasants.

I think also of the destruction of the Powhattan and Pequod Indian tribes by the protestant English settlers in the Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay colonies.  And I think of the Russian Orthodox Church fathers, powerless to stop the murder of 10s of millions of Russian peasants victims of the cruel and mistaken agricultural and industrial policies of Lenin and Stalin in the 1920s and 30s.

Perhaps in part because of its failures in these three instances religion is no longer the dominant factor in our public lives.  Science, for better or worse, has replaced it.  Now we, we of the North Shore of Boston, and they of the Crips and the Bloods youth gangs of south-central Los Angeles, are dominated by the products of science—automobiles, televisions, telephones, stereos, computers, and, soon to come, robots.  (At least we have this in common.)  But again, the same question, will science be no more capable than religion to combat the evil that men do to one another?  to bring together the family, the neighborhood, and the larger community of multivaried races and ethnic groups.

Again, this is the great irony of the present day.  South Central Los Angeles and the COBE satellite’s verification of the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe.
The coming together of what we know about the universe, and the coming apart of how we live together (the statistics of the family).

IV.  Just this past Monday I was in my car going from one place to another, spewing out carbon dioxide into the already overloaded atmosphere, and I happened to tune into WBUR just as President Silber of Boston University was introducing the commencement speaker, the renowned Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa.  Great, I said to myself, not yet having a speech of my own, (I didn’t have one at the time) I’ll get some ideas.

But as it turned out, they were ideas as to what not to say.  If you’ve been to other graduations you’re probably familiar with the kind of things he said.  For example:  “this great [school], your alma mater, is an example of the best that our culture has to offer.  It has equipped you to face great obstacles in many areas.  Now it is your opportunity to stand up to the occasion and make the world a better place.”  And this coming from a writer!  What would our teachers have told him if they had had a chance to look at his speech before Monday?  Why, as if this wasn’t enough, he concluded his talk with such things as “Liberty ought to be cherished with the fierceness of those who have lost it [alluding here to his own country, Peru where the democratic government has just been dissolved] and of those who have just regained it [alluding here to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union].  Liberty, still in his words, is the driving force of progress.  and finally, “Cruelty must be condemned wherever we find it.”

But then I remembered that Llosa was also a politician.  He had lost the 1990 presidential election to Fujimori, but he hadn’t yet lost the rhetoric.
You know, if there is one thing that I’ve learned by being a teacher for nearly 35 years, it’s that my words, no matter how impressive sounding they might be, have done little or nothing to change my students values, the way they think, the way they act.  Students, in spite of appearances are not by and large in the power of their teachers.  That’s why at Waring discussion rather than lectures are the heart of the program, the exchange of ideas.

Another “graduation speaker” was Mikhail S. Gorbachev recently at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, who urged such gripping things as “a global alliance against common problems that would involve the whole of humanity.”  In the same town where Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 warned of “an Iron Curtain that had descended across Europe, trapping Eastern European nations in the Communist sphere,” Gorbachev said such catchy things as. “the  problems that the whole world faces today include terrorism, crime, abuse of drugs and alcohol, environmental damage and hunger.”  (Blah, blah, blah…)

Now,  Vargas Llosa, I’m sure is better than most graduation speakers.  But while he was talking I remembered a line I had read in Esquire magazine on the plane just two weeks earlier.  It was an article about James Dean.  James Dean, the writer said, is what’s going on inside you, underneath, while old men in suits are up there [here] on the podium telling lies.  And I hoped I wouldn’t be such an old man.

V. What rules the world.
Science and religion are not enough.   What is necessary is liberal democracy (which, since the break-up of the Soviet Union is, we are told, although I don’t believe it, is sweeping the world), and more specifically the free exchange of ideas in the market place.  Such an exchange is probably what brought about the demise of the Soviet Union.   Andrei Sakharov understood this.  Gorbachev and Soljenitsyne did, do not.  I believe that the quality of our religious and spiritual lives, the growth of our scientific knowledge, and our ability to find solutions to some of the social and environmental problems that we face depend on it.

My conclusion is that neither science (which may rule our minds), nor religion (which may our hearts and souls) but rather ideas rule the world.  In fact, if I had the time I believe I could trace all progress to them.

You all aware that this year, 1992, is the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America.  However, have you wondered why there’s not much talk about celebration?  In fact, as far as I know there will be no celebrations.  The United States does intend to switch on a 15 acre extraterrestrial listening post in Puerto Rico on October 12.  In celebration?  Some  sort of antenna like that Columbus should have had with him when he went to the new world—he might have heard the people of the new world speaking.

Why is it that in Seville, Spain, that city from where the Spanish ships that went to the new world set out, and where today there is a world’s fair, —why is it that there is no mention of Columbus’ voyages, or even his name?  The Seville world’s fair will end on October 12.  The celebration is over on the same day that Columbus’s arrived in the Bahamas.  Is this because on that date 500 years ago, for the American Indians, grim reality set in?

In 1492 300 million people were alive on the earth.  More than half lived in Asia, most of these in China and India, which were by general agreement the most civilized countries of the world at that time.  About one quarter, 80 million people, lived in the new world, and a fifth, or 60 million in Europe, 17 million in France, the most populous European country of the time.  Only 2 million Europeans knew how to read their name, probably about 500,000 could read a book.

The discovery of the new world brought about the greatest genocide in the history of man.  Of 80 million American Indians, three out of five died in a very short time, probably less than one generation.
The island of Hispaniola, where Columbus established the first colony in the new world, counted 7 or 8 million people in 1492 (by the way, many of these numbers come from the writings of Las Casas who was a Dominican monk and an eye witness).  Four years later half of these people were dead.  Eighty years later there remained only 125 members of the original Arawak natives whom Columbus first encountered.  Celebration? Survivors of the Indian races are demanding memorial services.

Quatre ans après que Christophe Colomb eut foulé, pour la première fois, les plages de l’Amérique son frère Bartolomé alluma le premier bûcher de Haïti.  Six Indiens, condamnés, pour sacrilège, y furent brûlés vifs.  Ils avaient commis le péché d’enterrer des images de Jésus-Christ et de la Vierge.  Mais ils les avaient enterrées pour que ces nouveaux dieux rendent plus fertiles les semences de maïs, et ils ne se sentaient donc pas coupables d’une offense méritant la mort.

A Salvadorean priest, Father Ignacio Ellacuria, a few months before his assassination in 1989, wrote:
“That which was really discovered in 1492 was the true nature of Spain, the nature of western civilization at that moment.  Another world wasn’t discovered, rather it was covered up.  What we have to do today is now, at long last, discover that other world, the one that was not discovered in 1492, in order that a truly new world may come into being, not one that is simply a repeat of the old.  Is it possible?”

Scientific discovery is one kind.  What father Ellacuria is talking about is another and much more important kind of discovery.  This is the discovery by human beings of one another.  In this sense 1492 was a tremendous opportunity, but this discovery never took place.

The Europeans had much to learn from the Arawaks in Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), from the Aztecs in Mexico, from the Incas in Peru, to mention just the most well-know pre-Columbian peoples, but we (by we I mean Western, European man, and I say we because we, you and I, are still by and large the descendants of the conquerors and not of the conquered, although this is changing, in Los Angeles, for example, where over half the population is now Hispanic) gave them our diseases, put them to work in our mines, and took from them their agricultural products.

Nor have we yet listened to the Rain Forest.  Although we are beginning to.  Columbus came close to “discovering” the Venezuelan Amazon rain forest when on his third voyage he passed very close to the mouth of the Orinoco River.  Later in his journal because of the enormous quantity of fresh water he encountered near the river’s mouth he wrote that the land drained by the Orinoco must have been the original garden of Eden!
In a world where ideas rule, listening to the ideas of others is essential.

Talk about Darwin and biological evolution and then about Dawkins and memes and cultural evolution.
Three  premises:
Each individual member of any given species is different—each has a distinct genetic makeup.
All living creatures tend to produce more offspring than the environment can support.
By natural selection the fittest survive, not because they are in some sense superior to their colleagues, but because they better “fit” their environment.
His conclusion:  the process of natural selection leads to the formation, the origin of new  species.  The degree of individual variations found within a given species tends to increase with the passage of time, until some groups have become so different from others that they can no longer mate and produce fertile offspring.

Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene goes so far as to describe units of information—ideas expressed in words, a song or a book or a play—as “the new replicators,”dubbing them “memes” (rhyme with genes):
“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves i the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain…if a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. .”  [Dawkins also says:
Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.
Not only does our understanding of the universe change as the centuries go by: it improves.

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.… mimeme or meme. …when you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. …  Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators will tend to take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own.  Once this evolution begins it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old. … As in the case of genes , fecundity is much more important than longevity of particular copies. …

Qualities that make for the high survival value among memes must be the same as those discussed for genes:  longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. The meme seems to have greater longevity, greater fecundity but less copying-fidelity, hence the heightened speed of cultural evolution.  It looks even as though meme transmission is subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending. … An idea-meme might be defined as an entity that is capable of being  transmitted rom one brain to another. …Is there a general principle which is true of all life?  If I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle.  This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.  The gene, the DNA molicule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet.]

Dawkins even goes on to consider competition between memes for available space in books, computer systems, or even in human memories.  The analogy is imperfect when pushed to extremes.  But it does clearly show the emergence of something different in our culture which, barring overwhelming catastrophe, may make the culture, or its information content, more durable than the genes of, say, the large dinosaurs.  However we may change, or even if we are “superseded” by computers and robots as in some science fiction scenarios, the memes of human culture—and of human individuals such as Einstein or Shakespeare—may persist.  And if we ever establish communication with other intelligent species on other planets circling other stars, then human memes may spread across the Universe even if physical interstellar travel remains impossible.

Our school is founded, not on religion (some of you have questioned us about the place of religion in our school—it has a place, and an important one), nor is it based on scientific knowledge, rather our school, like the world, is ruled by ideas. (In the school and in the world there are good ideas and bad ideas, and sometimes, unfortunately their power is inversely proportional to their goodness.)

In regard to our school, there are many of our founding ideas with which you are probably familiar, since you and your children have chosen to come here to school.  Most of these ideas (actually most of the ideas in every thing that I write and say today did not originate with Josée and myself—remember they are memes, like genes passed on from one to another, but with the speed of light).

A few examples of Waring’s founding ideas to let you know what I mean:
You cannot teach a child anything important, you can only help her and him to learn by themelves.
Extrinsic motivation, such as grades and competition, is never as effective as self-motivation, or the spark that comes from within the child.
Different children learn in different ways.
Self-confidence and self respect are essential preconditions to learning.
Teachers are also learners, and they teach best when they are learning themselves.
Now if our school is changing, evolving, it is because our ideas are constantly changing and evolving, and, I trust, getting better.

Finally, I want to talk about two ideas that may be more important than all the others, at least in respect to their being primarily responsible for man’s improving his lot, for making progress.  Whatever we do in Los Angeles to relieve that terrible situation we must start with them.  Whatever we do in the world to relieve the interethnic feuding, we must start with them.

The first is the idea that man, in Hamlet’s words, is quite a piece of work, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving!  How express and admirable in action!  How like an angel in apprehension!  How like a god! This is the man (men) who put the COBE satellite into orbit and then read from the data the story it told.  This is the man (men) who in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, wrote the constitution of the United States.  You know and recognize this man, but you have to believe it’s you also.  This needs to be said, because many of those who are of the have not party, perhaps the majority of the people on the earth today, let alone the majority of the residents of Los Angeles, probably do not believe this about themselves.  Without this belief it’s probably impossible to improve one’s own lot.

The pictures of the beatings and shootings in Los Angeles do not necessarily tell us something different, that we are creatures of little or no intrinsic worth,  but they do make us aware of how far we have fallen from being that wondrous being.  (This, by the way is what religion has always told us.)

Some 2000 years before Shakespeare the Greek playwright, Sophocles, made the same discovery.  The passage that follows is from the Antigone.  It is one of the choral songs in which we seem to surprise the first amazed meditation of man when he realizes how strange it is that he should be what he is, that he should have wrought all that he has wrought:

Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none
More wonderful than man;  the storm grey sea
Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year after year, the timeless labour of stallions.

The lightboned birds and beasts that cling to cover,
The lithe fish lighting their reaches of dim water,
All are taken, tamed in the  net of his mind;
The lion on the hill, the wild horse windy-maned,
Resign to him; and his blunt yoke has broken
The sultry shoulders of the mountain bull.

Words also, and thought as rapid as air,
He fashions to his good use;  statecraft is his,
And the skill that deflects the arrows of snow,
The spears of winter rain:  from every wind
He has made himself secure—from all but one:
In the late wind of death he cannot stand.

Of course, in this quotation and in the other from Hamlet, I have omitted what the characters go on to say, that there is another side, a dark side to man also.  For obvious reasons, we  may neglect the dark side.  Nobody needs reminding.  Of the light side, however, they do.

The second idea, no less important to man’s improving his lot is this:  it is incumbent on this wondrous creature, man, to make the world a better place, that he not rest on his laurel’s so to speak.  This is the theory of the “red queen” theory, do you remember, in Alice in Wonderland.  Wasn’t it the red queen who had to keep moving in order to stay in the same place.  Well man has to keep working.  He can’t sit still.

This is the germ of the idea of progress.  It is never enough just to stand still, as my father would say, just to exist; we have to go on until everyone’s life, not just our own, is, if not fulfilled, made better.  Now, this, of course, is an unending process.  The very idea of fulfillment will change as conditions change, as those ideas that rule the world change also.  For they will, I hope for the better.

At the end I find myself sounding a bit like the commencement speaker, Mario Vargas Losa.
You can be proud of what you are and what you have accomplished, and you should be ready to go on, because you’ve only begun, and there’s no end in sight.


The wealth of op-ed, television and other commentary on the taking of Elian from the home of his relatives in a Miami suburb convinces us of the extraordinary symbolic richness of the situation itself.  Who hasn’t told us what they think?  The commentators have all weighed in: George, Michael, Thomas, Charles, Gary, William, Tim and Peggy, to mention just a few by name.  Not since the O.J. jury decision have we heard and read so much passionate but not unreasonable and mostly interesting and sometimes fascinating commentary on what by itself seems a relatively minor incident in the flow of American and world history in the 21st century.  Why is this so?  The answer is not hard to find.  It’s present in the situation itself, and it’s present in the commentary.  On the one hand there is a young boy who has lost his mother in a tragic drowning at sea, and who thereby finds himself separated from his father.  For some of us this is enough:  we say put the boy back with the father.  On the other hand, the mother who drowned was bringing her son from a closed, totalitarian dictatorship to a free, open, and democratic society.  For others of us this is enough:  we say allow the boy to remain in freedom.  Without even entering into the battle of means, in particular the taking of Elian by force in the night by armed men, the battle of ends wages on because both ends touch us to the quick.  Fatherhood and freedom, are not usually opposed, especially in our free and democratic society, but when they are, well, get out of the way, the sparks will fly.

So is this just one of those situations from our high school literature class when the teacher makes us feel our inability to decide with certainty between, say, beauty, truth and goodness?  There are those of us who may have felt at one time that the greatest of them all was…  But, persuaded as we may have been during English class that goodness did outdo truth and beauty, we probably haven’t held that conviction throughout our years, if not a lifetime, of real life experiences.  If nothing else living does, or should, because so many believe what they have been told rather than what they have learned through their own efforts, convince us of our inability to place our highest values on the steps of a ladder, and more and more as we mature we place them all on the same, high shelf, most of them probably well out of our reach.  Fatherhood and freedom are certainly up there together, and if we favor the one over the other, as apparently so many do in the present instance, it’s only because we don’t recognize in this instance the one or the other as being a legitimate example of the thing valued.  Fatherhood?  Well some say he’s not a good father, why look how long it took him to get to our shores. Four months!  "How long would it have taken you to retrieve your shipwrecked son?"  Then how often did he see his son when he and his son’s mother were no longer living together? How well does he know his son?  Others will say a six year old can’t yet know what freedom means.  Furthermore, freedom is about something other than living in Miami or living in a small town in Cuba.  Freedom is something that will gain importance as the boy comes into his own over many years.  Freedom is probably not all that important when one is still very much a child.  In fact, it may even be abused, as some will thus characterize the behavior of the Miami relatives.  But the boy, every boy, does need a father, and the boy, and especially the child in the boy, probably understands exactly what this means.  This is always the way, isn’t it, in order to decide between two things of equal worth we have to take away the worth of one of them.  Look again at the commentary, that’s what’s really going on.

So, where do I stand in all this?  It’s probably apparent that I do believe that the values of fatherhood and freedom are real and are here present, and that both sides have rightness on their side.  The real opposition of the two allows for the richness of the commentary, assures an on-going discussion, one that will not end,  as many would like to see it end, in just a matter of days and weeks.  We’ll hear about this for months to come, certainly through the presidential election in November of this year.  Where do I stand?  I believe that so far the proponents of the rights of the father have made the better case.  Perhaps an easier case to make than that for freedom in the example of a six year old boy who has lost his mother.

from the Headmaster’s Journal

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?

Tuesday, evening:
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.

Wednesday morning:
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.”

Saturday morning:
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.

Sunday morning:
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 Pete 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).

Sunday night:
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?

Headmaster’s Journal: How did you get to be the way you are?

My brother visited last week with Joe Carroll, the superintendent of the Masconomet Public Schools. This year under Joe’s leadership Masconomet High School has adopted modular scheduling for one half the freshman class, about 90 students.
This means that instead of taking 5 courses 5 days a week, ninth graders take only two courses, but for long double periods each day, for twelve weeks. For example, a student might, during the first twelve weeks, take math and science, then in the winter a foreign language and English, and finally in the spring, social studies and an elective. There are several other pieces to the program including something called seminar, that which Joe Carroll came to talk about. Their seminar is a discussion class that meets in the afternoon. In the first meeting the teacher will introduce an issue such as abortion or gun control, and, then, during subsequent meetings (perhaps 5 or 6 on a given topic) the students and teacher are supposed to carry on a discussion on the subject. The seminar was meant to provide for and promote a learning style that was pretty much absent from the morning teacher-directed subject matter classes. During the seminar students are expected to speak up themselves and share their ideas with others, listen to and respect what others have to say, and by means of this process, grow in their own understanding of an important issue. They are expected to learn that discussion, if entered into candidly and honestly, will not only be enjoyable in itself, but also considerably strengthen and clarify their own thinking upon any given subject. The seminar was different from the morning classes in other respects, also: No homework was required, and no grades were given. Joe said that whereas the new modular schedule seemed to be working just fine, the seminar was not. The students were not taking it seriously, making little effort to come to grips with whatever issue had been introduced, perhaps because there were no grades. He didn’t know why it wasn’t working. He had come to ask our advice. My brother had told him that Waring knew all about the seminar. (Actually the “seminar” at Waring was a Great Books seminar, not the issues “seminar” introduced at Masconomet, but many of our humanities classes and tutorials, not to mention the all-school meeting, would qualify as “seminar” like classes of the sort that interested Joe.) My brother had told him that we were the experts, and that he ought to come and pick our brains and find out all he could from our experience. Following a tour of the school buildings we returned to my office and talked for an hour or more, about Waring and about the new program at Masconomet. Joe described the frustration among the Masconomet teachers whose seminar students didn’t talk. The much desired discussions were just not taking place. If there was a discussion it was over in a few minutes, and then the teacher would do all the talking. Joe asked if some of his teachers might come and visit Waring and learn from us. I told him, of course, and we arranged that they would come on Friday.

Three of them, David Donavel, an English teacher. Jack Paarlberg, a math teacher, and Vija Skudra, a German and French teacher, arrived about 10:30 on Friday morning. It was raining and there were big puddles everywhere, so I didn’t give them the usual tour of the buildings and grounds. Instead, they met first with Peter Smick who was an old friend and Peter told them about Waring. (Peter’s wife, Allegra, is also a teacher at Masconomet.) Then they had lunch with Josée and myself in the French library. I suggested that they “take” the all-school meeting coming up right after lunch and go directly before our students and teachers assembled in la grande salle, 100 strong, with their “problem.” From experience I thought that our students would like nothing better than to talk about those factors which had motivated them to talk. Dave and Vija and Jack looked at one another for only a moment and then agreed that this might be a good way to begin.
By 12:25 we were all assembled in the Grande Salle. Josée and myself, and our three guests at one end of the room on the long, wooden bench behind one of the folding tables, and everyone else facing us, on chairs, benches and on the floor. There was a little room at the end of the bench and Claire Sullivan came up and sat down next to Josee. This was a good sign—a year ago Claire would have been off in a corner, well out of sight I felt that Claire, and all of our students, more and more want to take an active role in these meetings. “Are there any announcements?” I asked. Little by little people began to stop talking among themselves and quiet down and listen. Someone said it was Lisa Glossman’s birthday and we sang her a very loud Happy Birthday. I could feel an unusual amount of excitement and electricity in the air. The kids were really up for this meeting, in part because it was Friday, but in part also because we had guests. I know our students love to show off in front of strangers. Other announcements followed. Angela Jernigan got up from her seat on the floor and asked the students why they hadn’t turned in their donations for the French Trip Auction. She sharply admonished them and gave them until Monday to do so. Emily O’Brien, seated to one side of the room, right next to a list of overdue library books tacked to the wall, stood up, pointed to the list, and made some remarks like, “if you don’t return these books…” We all love Emily, but we don’t take what she says about the overdue books very seriously. If we owe the library a book we want to confess to Emily and leave it at that. By returning the book we might break a tie between Emily and ourselves, a tie that we enjoy and don’t want to give up. Then Jon Bannon stood up, not an easy thing to do with crutches and an ankle in a plaster cast, and asked, “Who here has ever stolen a lunch, or anything else?” I thought to myself, this was the right way to ask the question, not “Who stole my lunch?” that to which no one has ever in my experience confessed. Jon had the right question, for at least 20 kids raised their hands, saying yes they had stolen someone’s lunch at one time or the other. In this case it wasn’t Jon’s lunch, but his orange that had been taken. He wanted it back. There followed other announcements, including Ben Richardson who proudly related that this time the J.V. basketball team had beaten Landmark by two points—(they had lost their first game by 14). We also heard that the Girls’ varsity had beaten Brimmer and May, for the second time.
I looked at our guests. They were taking everything in with obvious enjoyment and great interest. They were clearly impressed by the ease with which our students would stand up and speak in front of 100 people. I said to myself that it was time to cut off the announcements. I got everyone’s attention, turned to our guests and introduced them. Immediately Dave Donavel spoke up. He told everybody what he had already told me—he described the new modular schedule, and, in more detail, the seminar and how it didn’t seem to be working. He said it was now evident why they had come to Waring. “You,” and he addressed our students, “obviously know how to speak up in a group. We want to know how you learned to do this. When we conduct a seminar, it doesn’t go anywhere; we’re frustrated because our students seem to have so little to say about the subject, no matter what it is. How do we get our students to talk? How did you learn to do it? You have that reputation. Your reputation is certainly confirmed by what I’ve seen just now. Where did you get all that self-assurance? Why even your announcements make our discussions pale in comparison.”
I don’t remember who was the first one to answer. I don’t think it was Ben Dahl. But well-considered responses from all parts of the room came on fast and furious. It was almost as if our kids had been waiting for this moment. The actual question was probably not even that important. They were ready. They wanted to talk, probably, in part, they wanted to show off. I’11 try to put down the things they said, helter skelter, and without attributing particular words to individual speakers. There are many details of phraseology I can’t recall. It’s the ideas that I remember most. The quotes that follow are meant to represent the substance, usually not the actual words, of what was said. The order and particular choice of words is, in most instances, my own.
“Why speaking-up is easy here. At Waring we’re free, free to say what we want to say.” • “We don’t have to raise our hands. If we’ve got something to say we just open our mouths and say it” • “I began my talking in the Seminar two years ago. There were small groups of us, we were asked a question about the story. We could talk, say anything at all, and we’d know we’d be listened to, not put down by the other students.” • “Here you don’t have to worry about being wrong. There are no right and wrong answers.” • “The teachers at Waring care about what you say. They encourage you to speak. You know they are always listening.” • “In order to talk you’ve know something about the subject. You can’t and won’t talk if you don’t.” • “The seminar shouldn’t be for just one period during the day. The kind of speaking up and taking part that you envision has to be reinforced all day long, in many other classes besides. That’s what happens here.” • “You first have to learn to listen. Talking is easy if you first listen to what the others are saying. It took me a long time to learn this.” • “Here we call each other by the first name, students and teachers. That may not be important in itself, but it does create a certain informality that helps one to relax, to loosen-up, and open one’s mouth and start talking.” • “Ask the kids in your classes what they want to talk about, don’t give them your subjects. They’re probably not interested in such things as gun control and abortion. Have you asked them to talk about the seminar itself?” • “Maybe you shouldn’t have any teachers. We don’t. Here there are only students.”
• “Look, you’ve got to start with something that they know something about” • “We learned in Seminar that there are three kinds of questions, those of fact those of opinion, and those of interpretation. You can’t discuss factual questions. You shouldn’t discuss opinions. Good discussions result when there are different interpretations possible.” • “I know how I learned to talk. For three years I just watched others who would open their mouths and do it. Then, not too long ago, I started to do it myself.” • “First you have to talk about things that are not close to you. That’s right, things that don’t touch you personally. Here we talk about books and stories, about the characters and plots. We can talk about them and remain pretty much hidden ourselves. In this way we learn to talk without risk to ourselves, without exposing things we don’t want to expose. Then, much later, we can talk about something that is important to us, something we really care about. But you can’t begin that way.” • “Take Philip and Josée back to Masconomet with you, that will do it” • “In public school there were long corridors. I had to walk down them everyday. I felt as though they had me on a leash. If I talked at all, it was to perform, to do and say what they wanted. At Waring there are no long corridors, there are no seats in rows, there is no leash. I can say what’s on my mind. And if I don’t want to perform I don’t have to.” • “I didn’t say any thing for a very long time. It’s really a question of having enough confidence in oneself. What are you doing to build up their self-confidence? You’ve got to. When you do that they’ll talk, and talk a lot. You’ll not be able to keep them quiet Look at us.” • “I learned first from my friends, friends I’ve made since coming here to school. They were here last year, and they told me what to do. Already I’m starting to do it myself.” • “Maybe a group of us could go to Masconomet, Talk with the kids, do a seminar. We’d like that.” •”By being with the older kids in classes and in meetings, I learned from their example. They encouraged me, made me think that what I had to say was important.” • “Don’t think that you can do it in 60 days. It takes a long time to learn to speak up, to take part in discussions. Change your thinking in respect to the time table. Look for results over the long term. Don’t expect to see results from one day to the next, especially if there is only one period given to this sort of thing.”
These are just some of the responses. Perhaps you can remember more. Perhaps you’ve thought of others since Friday’s meeting. Put them in a letter to the Editor. Needless to say, we who watched this mini-event were overwhelmed by the students’ responses, and by the number of them who talked—later, with the roster before me, I made a quick count of who and how many had spoken up. There were 38 altogether, 15 of the 19 juniors and seniors, 6 from the seventh and eighth grades!
Finally, how would I answer the question, “How does one get kids to talk in seminar?” Actually, the problem does exist at Waring. We haven’t by any means won the war. On Friday we only stormed the fort and captured it. How to help our own kids speak up in class and in meeting is still very much on our minds. After all, during Friday’s meeting there were 47 students who didn’t say a word (I hope they were listening!). Three years ago when I was directing a great books seminar I remember feeling some of the frustration that Dave Donavel describes. I know from long experience that there’s no guarantee that this or that series of steps will lead to the desired result of kids participating in a class discussion. The students’ wonderful suggestions related above are necessary, but probably not sufficient conditions, for creating good class discussions. What for me is, perhaps, the most important element in bringing such about was not even mentioned on Friday—although on Friday this element was present and contributed substantially to the success of the meeting. This element is a condition, and the condition is that, for at least one person in the room or about the table, the subject of the discussion must be real, as real as a hand or an eye. This person provides the link between the words and the thing, between what is said and, to begin with, at least a particular person’s real world. This is the rope that holds the discussion balloon, always in danger of bursting and becoming only warm air, firmly in shape and tied to the ground underneath. On Friday the teachers came with their problem, with their frustration, with their link to the ground, to something real. We responded well because we knew we were talking about something important, that our words could have an effect The discussion topic must allow one to feel that one’s words do relate to possible future actions, to actual results. It is for this reason that the best discussions seem to arise when there is a real problem, such as how to recycle the school trash, how to help the homeless, how to care for the school in the absence of Diane and Pavel. Good discussions may also occur about something less real, about an abstraction, about a book or an idea, but the result in this case, real as it may be—a growth in one’s understanding, a change in one’s values—is not as readily perceived as being real, and hence the difficulty in getting this kind of a discussion off the ground. For a discussion to be successful there must be at least the perception that the issues are real and that real outcomes are possible. This was clearly the case on Friday afternoon.
Philip B. Waring

Where have all the fathers gone?

I’ve only recently seen the results of the MCAS examinations for the Boston public schools.  And it took awhile for them to sink in.  Why, because they’re quite simply unbelievable.  Sure, we’ve all heard that our inner city public schools are in trouble.  But these results, well, why, I asked myself, are the schools still open?  Shouldn’t the schools where these results were obtained have been shut down while the city fathers decided what was to be done?  Didn’t the results of these tests demand some other way of doing things, nothing less than a complete course correction?  Instead, the exam results seem to have had no more lasting effect than the lines written below the fold in yesterday’s Globe.  Kids, teachers, and school administrators continue to go about their business as if nothing had happened. 
There are, if we exclude the students in the exam and special needs schools, some ten thousand students, mostly African-American and Hispanic, with White and Asian minorities of less than 10% overall, who attend Boston’s ten largest public high schools.  The MCAS test results tell us that not a single one of these students scored at the advanced Level, or Level 1, in any one of the three subject areas tested, English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science and Technology.  There were just a few who reached Level 2, or proficiency, — 260 out of 10,000, in English, 80 out of 10,000 in Mathematics and 20 out of 10,000 in Science.  But the results that I found most unbelievable, and that ought now to be making us behave differently, are the numbers of students who fell into the lowest Level, 4, failure — some 9500 students in Science and Technology, 8700 in Mathematics and 8100 in English Language!  What other organization could continue to operate with these kinds of outcomes.  One thinks of some of the collective farms and heavy industries of the former Soviet Union that continue to turn out products that have little or no value to the Russian economy.
My next reaction was to blame the tests.  These tests were obviously not testing what the students knew.  Perhaps also they were irrelevant to the students’ lives.  I’d have to see about that.  I’d have to get copies of the tests and see for myself.  For that I went on-line, to the MCAS web site, and proceeded to download some 265 pages of text.  (This is a long down-load.  Using a 56k modem it took nearly 45 minutes to download and print the tests.)  I looked particularly at the English, Mathematics and Science exams for grade 10, the same ones that so many of our 10,000 senior high school students had failed.  I took the exams myself (with the benefit of the answers that came with all the multiple choice and short-answer questions) and was struck by how much I had to think.  There was hardly a question that depended on my having memorized a response, in my case having remembered a piece of information from years ago.  Sure, within each subject area there were words and concepts whose meaning I had to understand in order to answer the question, but the answer was not just the meaning of these words and concepts.  The answers would only come from my having carefully read and then understood a text in English, a problem in Math, or a theory in Science, and then by actual thinking, or making the proper juxtapositions within my mind that would lead to the correct answer.  In terms of content and difficulty and the kinds of skills, and aptitudes tested they struck me as being not unlike the SATs and the Achievement Tests, tests that these same students would have to take within a year or two if they wanted to go on to college. 
In sum, I thought they were good tests because they were asking the students to show their understanding.
I remember two questions in particular, two that I liked because the words and concepts used were not particularly specialized, and as a result one could come to a understanding of these words and concepts by thinking, and that therefore one wasn’t dependent on having encountered them before in class (as was the case with another question I remember on matrix algebra).  One question, a problem in mathematics, depended on an understanding of the concept, steepness.  That steepness has as much to do with horizontal movement, the "run," as it does with vertical movement, the height, or the "rise" is intuitively obvious and therefore one can come to this realization by thinking.   One doesn’t have to remember the class work concerning this topic, but one is going to come to the correct answer to the problem much more quickly and easily if one has done similar thinking in class throughout the school year.  The other question in the English exam was based on a close reading of a text of instructions for following a hiking trail on Pleasant Mountain.  The question asked the student to give her own directions for going back down the mountain.   I had trouble with it, but I was able to do it, because previous experiences had pushed my mind to be active in this way.  That’s the sort of thing that these kids should have been doing in class, thinking, or learning for understanding.
So, one, it’s a good test and, two, the kids in the Boston public high schools are failing.  What conclusions might we draw?  First, although a good test, it may be the wrong test for these kids.  Perhaps we should find out what these kids are learning, because these kids cannot not be learning, it’s their nature, and then let’s test them in that.  I’m an adherent of the theory of multiple intelligences, and these tests are testing primarily just two of Howard Gardner’s eight intelligences, the linguistic and the logical mathematical.  Given tests of musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalist, inter- and intrapersonal intelligences I’m sure that these kids would score much higher, and we would probably see much higher failure rates in the suburbs.  So the first conclusion might be to scrap the MCAS examination and create tests of musical and spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences.  But although desirable this is not possible, given the pervasive dominance of our linguistic and logical mathematical meritocracy.  Afterall, this is the society into which even these kids will have to enter.  We are left with a second conclusion — to do everything differently, since, in view of the failure rate, there doesn’t seem to be much that we would want to protect and preserve.  I have no doubt that these kids can learn the kinds of things that are being tested on the MCAS exams.  They are not now doing so.  We need to do things differently, really differently.  And for that, where are the city fathers?  Where have all the fathers gone?