A Father’s Letter to his Daughter, and much else besides

Dear Natacha,

I’ve just finished reading your Egyptian Notebooks. They’re terrific, and I’ll tell you why I think so in this letter. Your mother and I being about to set out on some travels of our own your account comes at just the right moment. Already we feel a bit like we were about to get on something like the Jerusalem-Cairo bus that you describe, although in our case it will be a plane ride to Moscow.

I imagine it will be much as you tell it, “In the [plane], going at long last with the night coming, with the dirt [reality?] hidden, . . . all so mysterious and also, real.” Then at arrival, I expect we’ll also be switching to a cab to get to our hotel for the night, and experiencing again, as you describe it (although your particular impressions of the Cairo taxi ride will have been translated into impressions appropriate to the very different Moscow streets):  “. . . squashed in the back seat, practically running over everybody, … music blasting, … amazing,” and that just as you did we will have to repeat to ourselves that we are in our “Cairo,” a completely new place in our lives.

Once there, wherever it is that we go, we will have left far behind the hundreds of duties and responsibilities that nearly overwhelmed us at the Waring School, our school, the one that your parents founded and the only school that you have ever known, and the one that for 18 years has dominated our lives.

We have always imagined (doesn’t everybody?) leaving, getting out from under in this way, boarding a bus or plane headed for an entirely new land, where the all too familiar will have been radically transformed into the new and the strange and wonderful, or in your words, into the “mysterious and amazing.”

But most of us never take that step, and for good reason. In our case we had our children and our school, neither of which, at least up until now, we were never before about to leave for such a long time. Life, both the circumstances into which we are born for no apparent reason, and those which we will have more or less freely chosen, mightily constrains us to remain where we are.

Other species would have it no other way. The starfish at the bottom of the tide pool, even the wolf recently introduced into the forests of Yellowstone National Park, the white tiger in a remote corner of the Indian jungle, are all content to remain just where they are.

But for man to act as if for him, too, there was but one niche available where he was to live out his life, is to act against his nature.

Natacha, from the time you went to California in Rocinante when you were just four years old, and to Berlin all by yourself a few years later when you were just ten, right up until now when you are traveling in the Middle-East and in Europe, still a college, or at least college age student, you will have never mistaken your own nature in this respect. You seemed to have always known that the whole earth and the earth’s peoples were yours to discover and experience.

The bus rides that you describe in your notebooks symbolize the breaking with the past as they run up great distances between ourselves and the prior circumstances of our lives. That’s the sort of thing I’ve felt so many times on the transatlantic flight to London or Paris, certainly every spring with our juniors, and when I can share their even stronger sense of going on into the new and the wonderful. And perhaps even more so in July when I travel by myself to France, a country that is for me no less new and strange even though in many respects now familiar, to join Josée in Provence in Forcalquier.

Flying to New York or to Washington, even to California, is not the same thing as these ocean crossings. For here what lies ahead is the same as what I’ve left behind. But, as you make clear in your journal, traveling, even ocean crossing, is not romance. Once in Egypt you bumped hard against reality. The romance was all over, if it had ever begun, when the taxi turned you out into the Cairo street.

Only when we reach our destination, perhaps, does traveling take on its most important dimensions. This is when we begin to experience a totally new and different reality. This is what happened to you when you stepped out of the taxi and found yourself, “in the streets, without the protection of the bus or car, not knowing where our hotel was, not knowing a word of Arabic, and being stared at by everyone, that’s when it felt different.”

Clearly while in Egypt you had left the comfortable and familiar behind and you confronted daily the new and the strange, and, yes, the wonderful. Otherwise you could never have written that in Egypt, “They walk barefoot, men spit on the ground, and lies sit on people as if they [the flies] were sacred insects.”

No romance here, just a new and powerful reality that you are encountering for the first time. This is what real traveling is about.

Your mother and I are talking about what we will do with our year off. As you know I want to travel to Russia (the Soviet Union). Your mother is not so sure. Having read about the food shortages, the pollution, the general hardships, the continuing presence of elevated levels of radioactivity following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, she now reels that the Russia of Pushkin and Tolstoy, with which she first fell in love, is no more.

I’m not so sure. Gorbachev’s Russia is, to say the least, once again a Russia in flux. There are, I believe, as many different views, as many different and interesting ways of living and being as there were in the 19th. century of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.

Once again, now in Gorbachev’s Russia, the philosophical speculation, the delight in ideas has been unleashed. The current intellectual climate is known as Glasnost. There is also of course the hard economic reality, the unfilled, dissatisfied people, who still wait quietly in line but with less and less patience, and probably no hope that things will ever get any better.

A situation that Gorbachev himself, as they say more and more, may not survive. In any case I have all kinds of reasons of my own for going to Russia and am more than ready to take my chances.

Natacha, do you remember Andrea Lee’s Russian Journal? I remember you bought it nearly three years ago during one of our trips together to Cambridge to the bookstores. (Other than for international food, Chinese, Mexican, and Italian, did we ever go to Cambridge for anything other than books?) Even then travel writing was one of your great loves. Anyway, I found Lee’s book the other day when I was looking for a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (which I didn’t find).

I opened the book to the first chapter and read, “My earliest visions of Russia were of an infinite forest, dark as any forest that stretches through a child’s imagination, and peopled by swan maidens, hunter princes, fabulous bears, and witches who lived in huts set on chicken legs. Tied to Russia by no claims or blood or tradition, I still felt, while very young, an obscure attraction to this country that I knew only from its violent, highly colored folklore; its music, through which ran a similar vein of extravagance; and the dark political comments of adults. It seemed to me to be a mysterious counterweight to the known world of America—a country, like the land at the back of the north wind, in which life ran backward and the fantastic was commonplace.”

This passage made me look carefully at my own reasons for wanting to go to Russia; —to learn the language, that which for years has been unfinished business in my life; —to experience and write about the great things that are happening in Russia right now, perhaps best described as the final throes of the October Revolution; to read Tolstoy and become familiar with his ideas on education for a book that I intend to write on the educational ideas of both Tolstoy and Rousseau.

Now I’m beginning to think that these may not be my real reasons at all, but that I, like Andrea Lee, am much more influenced by what is still a romantic notion, by the Soviet Union’s “violent, highly colored folk-lore, its music,… [it being] a mysterious counterweight to the known America… where life runs backward and the fantastic is commonplace.”

(Lee’s Russia, by the way, was that of Leonid Brezhnev, about as far from the Russia of Tolstoy as one can get.) Natacha, do you remember this passage? You had singled it out with a dark pen line in the margin. I remember at the time that you said you would like to travel to Russia, and I remember saying to myself, “Great, we’ll learn Russian together.” But when I broached this subject with you, of learning Russian, you were less than enthusiastic. You were, to say the least, not particularly interested in having me teach you Russian grammar.

Now your Egyptian Notebooks, and the passage from Lee’s journal help me to understand why. While traveling in Egypt it’s not the language probably that’s on you mind,  it isn’t Arabic, it’s the people you meet,  the new and different sights, sounds, and smells that you encounter everywhere you go, and I’m sure that you wouldn’t think of putting all these things aside and first immersing yourself in a grammar of Arabic or even a history of Egypt.

You made it clear to me that for you to travel means to do something quite different than go back to school. So I can well understand why traveling to Russia doesn’t necessarily mean first of all opening a Russian grammar, but rather “getting on the bus,” that which you always somehow sensed was most important.

When I think now about going to Russia in this way, just getting on the plane and leaving everything behind, naked so to speak, that’s when I begin to feel my age, unsure or myself, no longer confident, as I was, for example, thirty years ago when I got on the boat and went to France and met your mother. I do wonder a bit if my strength is still up to the task. This would mean going to Russia without a security blanket, that which I’m probably no longer able to do. So I surround myself with the kinds of security, the kind of reasons I mention above, with the comfortable things of my past, with language texts and literature and history books, with Russia, but a Russia bound in volumes.

I realize now that you knew then, three years ago, that travel to Russia meant something other than this, that it was the new and the strange and the wonderful, not Russian grammar, that you wanted to encounter and experience. I regret now that I didn’t then understand what you had in mind.

All young people should be helped and encouraged to travel as you have done so far in your life. Your mother and I have been trying to make travel and living in other lands a part of every Waring student’s experience by establishing a branch of the Waring School in France. So far, however, we haven’t succeeded.

What if instead of going to college all our graduates took their college money and, as Tamora did ten years ago, and as you’re doing now, traveled and wrote? Wouldn’t it be, for all of them, much more beneficial than the freshman year in college following directly on the senior year of high school?

Do you remember that girl a few years ago whose father took her college money and bought her a boat and then she sailed around the world?

[In May 1985, when Tania Aebi was only 18 years old, she cast off from the docks of South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan and sailed 27,000 miles around the world, alone, on her 26-foot sloop, Varuna.]

She did have her cat, Tarzoon, for company.

Wasn’t that experience worth at least as much as a college education? (Actually, she is now, I believe, in college. In her case what was to have taken the place of college, became just the prologue to it.)

It is surprising to me that this sort or thing doesn’t happen more often, and on the contrary that most kids never think of doing anything after high school other than going on to college. We who would teach our kids to be self-movers find that most of them upon leaving us move docilely onto college moved by social forces outside of themselves. I’ve always felt that one should not go to college without being ready, yet most everyone does.

There are two passages in your Notebooks that show me, in particular, just how important a learning experience travel can be. Clearly you learned important things traveling that you might never have learned at home or in school. One example is when you describe the place of women in Egypt,

and how by experiencing what they experienced, in the stores and streets and in the post office, you became one of them, and how, like them you became something less than a woman, less than a person, just an object, an object of men’s insults and in your own case, being a woman and a tourist, the constanttarget of gangs of children demanding “backsheesh.”

You made us feel the same thing you felt when you say, “After a while I wished I could just shut my eyes and ears when I walked in the streets. I never felt more humiliated in all my life just being a person, than I did in Egypt. I think that is what bothered me the most,…”

This, I believe, is an essential learning experience (much more so, even, than the geography of the United states, or the Linnaean classification of plants and animals). Essential, because one of the greatest problems that confronts our present civilization, one that will have a lot to do with whether we survive as a species, is how peoples, pretty much confined to their own separate living spaces, can gain an understanding and a respect for all those other peoples in different spaces on the earth whose lives and life experiences are essentially different from their own. It’s clear that you are well along in the learning of this important lesson.

The other example comes at the very end of your journal. Here, in a longer passage you show us that you have learned an even more profound lesson than even that being able to put yourself in the place of another.

Actually, how you have learned both lessons, somehow from traveling and meeting people and encountering new things, I won’t attempt to explain. In fact, I don’t really understand how anyone learns anything really important. Learning for me, after over thirty years of teaching, is still a thoroughly mysterious process, certainly proceeding more from the learner than the teacher.

In any case, in this second example from your notebooks you show that you have learned the very best answer to the question “why.” And it’s not one of Aristotle’s four causes from his Physics. The best answer to the question “why?” is not an answer beginning with “because,” but rather a straightforward description or telling of the way things are. Your grandfather who is currently traveling in Wales, searching not very seriously at age 87 for his own roots in that land, doesn’t yet know this, or doesn’t want to admit it. For he’s always asking me why we are even on the earth, if we are mortal and one day have to die. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he says, “if everything we do will, in the end, come to nothing.”

He terribly wants me to answer him with a “because,” even though he knows that one “because” only leads to another “why” and another because and that there can be no ultimate satisfaction obtained in this way, which, incidentally, is the way of science.

The real answer to his question why we are on the earth is simply the truth and beauty which we can experience everywhere, dwelling in all things. That is always the best answer to the question why we are here. At least I know of no other as convincing and compelling.

Getting back to my second example of what you have shown you have learned, coming in that passage at the end of your journal, when you answered that girl on the Haifa bus who asked you why not being Jewish you had come to Israel. You seemed to understand that to answer her with a “because” would be totally deficient, totally unsatisfactory.

And instead you answered her by describing some of the beauty (and truth?) you obviously experienced while living and working on the Kibbutz at Gvat. You told her there were the friends you made on the Kibbutz, the climbing in the trees and picking the grapefruit, the folding and ironing the clothes in warm and comfortable rooms while talking with the mothers, the times when you listened to people speaking Hebrew and would recognize and even understand a word or two, and all the other experiences about which you felt deeply and strongly. That was why you were there.

I liked particularly what you said about being all by yourself, working in a factory where irrigation pipes and sprinklers were made to be sold all over the world, and those times when people would explain to you about the meaning of Purim and Passover, and your own participation in the holidays just like the Israeli Jews themselves, dressing-up and decorating the dining-room and gymnasium, and feeling right along with the others the excitement of the coming evening, the music and dancing, and you being asked to play the fiddle. I agree with you, that the girl on the Haifa bus must have liked your answer to her question.

Now on to your mother and me. The school year is coming to an end. The news of our leaving is now all about. Over and over again, at the various school events, the games, the Soirées, the Teas and Openings, members of our community come up to us and want to talk about our decision to leave the school.

The fact of our leaving gives these brief encounters more than the usual significance. Many people, being naturally generous, will put themselves in our place, and say, “You must be so proud. Your school is wonderful. You must be so proud of what you have done.”

Usually I don’t know what to say in response. It’s the same sort of thing when people tell us what wonderful children we have. In fact we spend very little time being proud of the school, of the students, or even of our own children. Pride is just not something we spend a lot of time feeling. Usually it’s a thing of the moment, hence my awkwardness in responding to those who tell me I should be proud.

In my experience pride is most often confined to particular happenings in the life of the school and in the lives of my children, just as its opposites, shame and disappointment. Although we don’t often admit it failure and disappointment are no less a part of our lives together than the feeling of pride in our successes. Pride is never a permanent condition, except, perhaps, when the subject of one’s pride is permanently removed from one’s contact, becoming then idealized at some great distance. This is certainly not the case of our relationship to the school.

When one is close to something there are always the ups and downs. One’s pride in what one is doing needs to he renewed continually — it’s never something that outlasts the particular event or happening from which it springs. Furthermore, episodes of pride always alternate with disappointments. We shouldn’t he proud of schools and children, rather of particular things that they have, or more important, are accomplishing.

Schools and children are complex structures and organisms. They are certainly never “finished,” and if we start being proud of them as if they were over and done with, we are doing them no favor —rather we are relegating them to the realm of the perfect, a realm in which no one really believes, and certainly in which no one wants to live.

On the other hand there are always particular things that are happening in the school that make me proud: an all-school meeting, for example, when the kids are speaking up and saying what’s on their mind, responding sensitively and intelligently to the question up for discussion, that which happens more and more frequently, as when the visitors were here from Masconomet High School, or just last week when Daniel Greenberg from the Sudbury Valley School was our guest; or a class with Matthew or Jim or one of our other humanities teachers when the kids are listening carefully to one another and thereby learning something they would never have known otherwise; or when the jazz ensemble is playing, Miranda singing, and Ron quietly but skillfully directing in the background; or Eric Lutz or Seth Prouty who, after being bowled over by clean body checks on the lacrosse field, then get right back up, almost as quickly as they went down, happily returning into the fray.

And I’m proud of you and Khaya in Forcalquier, thinking of Rokhaya struggling to render the cherry blossoms onto a rough, canvas surface, and of you at the computer, diligently compiling your Israeli and Egyptian observations and memories into your Egyptian Notebooks. When someone tells me I must be proud, these are the kinds of things I think about. And I like to think that with all of them I’ve had something to do.

The conventional wisdom has it that our leaving is a good thing for the school, that the people we leave behind will inevitably rise to the occasion, and they and the school become stronger for it. In this scenario one envisions a healthy sorting out of all the things that Josée and I did, about to be among the new Headmaster, students, faculty and staff.

People, who up until now have been afraid to step in and assume particular responsibilities, because, perhaps, of what seemed to be our intimidating presence, will now do so, taking on, for example, the editing and publication of Le Temps Retrouvé, the planning of the various school functions, the running of the school meetings, the preparing and monitoring of the various school programs and activities. In this scenario the school will go on pretty much as it did before, being still our school, perhaps even looking to us still for approval, even though others in our stead will have assumed all the responsibilities.

Do you believe it, that all this will happen? I don’t think I do myself. I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. Most of the things that Josée and I did probably won’t get done, and it won’t even matter to the life of the school. Instead, the school without us will go its own and different way.

I see Josée’s and my future relationship with the school much the same as our relationship with you and your brother and sisters. We love you, and we certainly don’t want to lose you, but the very last thing we would want or expect is that you go on living your life as you lived it while you were with us. We rather expect and hope that you will find a life of your own, for we know only in that way will you be happy.

The same is true for the school. A sorting out will take place, but where things will fall is, at this time, anyone’s guess. I’m excited, because I know things will be different, and newness and change, brought about in this way, by our leaving, can be, like traveling to a new land, a wonderfully enriching experience for all of us.

I would love to propel myself into the future and see the shape of things to come. I can do it for myself, but not yet for the school. I do know that just as you no longer look to your parents for the structure of your life, so the school will no longer look to us for its size and shape and many other important features.

There is a tie, a bond that remains, in spite of your leaving, between you and your mother and father, although we might be hard put to describe exactly what it is. So there will always be a tie between us and the school, although equally hard to describe and define.

Of course there are things that will remain the same. I feel certain that Josée’s and my values will go on being the values of the school even when we are no longer present. I feel certain of this because these are the values of any school worthy of the name:— the study of liberal arts, — the active cultivation of virtue, —the avoidance of vice, — the belief in the worth of the individual and of the community of which he is a contributing part.

If there is something else, a spirit, something that makes the Waring School a special and unique place —and I think there is— it’s probably not in anyone’s power to insure its survival. But on the other hand, the uniqueness, the spirit is probably not something that we could take away with us even if we wanted to. It’s now much more an integral part of the school, than our own private possession.

Natacha, we thank you for sending us your Egyptian Notebooks. Your mother and I wanted to reply, both to you, and to the Waring community, and together we have written this letter. It’s really from both of us. I hope we have convinced you of the worth of your own travel writing, and I in particular hope that you will stay right there in front of your computer and go on writing.

I must have convinced you of the value of communication, of sharing your thoughts and observations with others, in this case with your family and with the other members of the Waring School community. Also, you must now be convinced that you did just the right thing to take the year off —if this is the proper way to refer to living and working on a kibbutz in Gvat, Irsael. I don’t think it is. Rather your year has been a “year on.” Finally, are you convinced that your mother and I are proud of you? We are! We are also proud of our school, and, yes, us/ we with it.




Mar 14, 2000

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?

Feb 1, 2000

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 got.to 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

Jan 28, 2000

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?

Jan 16, 2000

Waring School Science Program, 1988

Kids seem to understand from a very early age that they can ‘make’ music; usually, however, they have not understood, even by the time they get to the Waring School, that they can just as easily “do” science.

Perhaps this is because young rock musicians are everywhere, on the tube and on the pages of the newspapers and magazines they read, whereas successful young scientists, such as the recent group of Westinghouse Science Prize winners, pass by pretty much unnoticed by the kids, as by the general public.

It’s probably a fact, that, of all the subject matters and activities that we would have students become familiar with while in school, music and science are the two most readily accessible to them at their age.

For one cannot be an historian, nor can one have much to say about literature, without having read an awful lot of books (thus limiting these activities by and large to graduate school and beyond).

Then, to write and to draw well take years of practice; at Waring only those students who keep sketch books and journals (those who practice) achieve anything significant in one or both areas.

Finally, both mathematics and French require years of study before one is able to think in either language.

If then science, like music, is indeed accessible to kids at an early age why is it that so few of them seem to be doing it? (Whereas so many of them, if not making, are certainly listening to music.)

In part the fault lies with the media as I mention above, and the attention given the one activity and the neglect of the other. But also to blame is the fact that teachers, students and parents are probably not of one mind as to what it should mean to “do” science in the schools.

There is no reason why the Waring School’s science program could not be just as strong as the programs in math, music and French, but teachers, parents and students would have to reach agreement among themselves as to what it is they (we) would achieve in this area of the school program.

Probably science for most Waring parents means lerning (memorizing) the elementary content of one or more subject areas such as biology, physics and chemistry, the content being presented both through chapters in a textbook and exercises in a laboratory manual. In other words, for many of you, having a science program means having the students both reading science texts and spending some time in the science laboratory.

Doing science in this way generally means memorizing information and learning laboratory techniques, that which obedient kids, especially those with good memories, do well, whether or not there is anything of the scientist within them.

But this is only one kind of science, probably the kind that turns so many kids off to doing any science at all while in school — it’s a fact that fewer than 10% of American high school students choose to take courses in physics or chemistry.

But doing science need not be primarily reading textbooks. In this science differs from history and literature. Doing science may include reading some books, but the books need not and should not come first (as they do now in most science programs in most schools).

Science should be first and foremost a unique way of looking at the world (different, say, from that of the poet, or the business man), and in so doing the looker acquiring a certain kind of (scientific) knowledge of that world. Indeed, to confine the activity of science to the acquisition of information from textbooks is bad science for a number of reasons.

First, one doesn’t learn to took for oneself, one accepts usually uncritically what others have said and discovered; second, there is just too much available information and no school science program can cover more than a small portion of this tremendous body of knowledge; and third, the state of our knowledge of the world is never at rest, and any given textbook description will, almost immediately following publication, be out-of-date.

Perhaps in its most fundamental form doing science means being curious about something, something you have noticed and which has struck your imagination. Richard Feynman’s life (as depicted in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman) is an endless succession of instances of his following up his own curiosity. I don’t think he would even bother to distinguish in kind between those instances which led to his Nobel Prize in Physics, and those which enabled him to pick the lock of one of the filing cabinets in a Los Alamos office.

Mr. Feynman’s curiosity leads him to such things as investigating a house painter’s claim that by mixing red and white paint he will get yellow, finding out just how much of the bloodhound’s gift he has within his own nose, discovering how the mindreader reads minds, how the ant returns to the hill, and comparing “human” cyclotrons at Princeton with “inhuman” ones at MIT.

Feynman shows us that absolutely everything and anything may become the object of scientific inquiry, that everything can be looked at scientifically. On the other hand this is why, perhaps, for many people, science is so frightening, — for it’s probably true that everything may be made subject to observations and experiments in order to discover patterns, trends, theories and laws.

To do science in this way, investigating methodically the object of one’s interest, was the intent behind our 7th. and 8th. grade science program this current school year. Each student was asked to choose a subject of interest to him or her and then follow up that interest in every possible way in order to gain thereby and then communicate to the rest of the class a greater understanding of the subject.

Some students have enjoyed this approach, choosing subjects such as pregnancy and birth (to which the student in question happened to be a recent witness), sketching ducks and observing their social behavior in a backyard pond, the workings of logic gates and gasoline engines. These students have kept science journals, the principal focus of their work, recording therein their observations, measurements, notes, questions, ideas, and sketches.

Other students who seemed uncomfortable with this approach would, at best, go to encyclopedias and texts and take information and the transfer that information to their science journals. And in fact it has been these latter students have since opted to study basic science in the more traditional manner.

Finally, here are my own ideas on what might be (ought to be) the six elements of science education at Waring. Do they meet with your agreement? We want to know.

1) First of all I would place mathematics within the science program because, besides being a science in its own right, it is, after all, the language of physics, of much of chemistry, and much of molecular biology.  Calculus (taught at Waring in AP form) did grow out of physics. It was invented, by Newton and Leibnitz, in order to better describe motion, being therefore in important respects the language of physics as much as a discipline in its own right.

2) Second, there are the familiar basic science courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, the kind of thing I describe above. But it is not often acknowledged that these, in spite of parents’ wishes, just like Harvard and Yale, are not for everyone.

Indeed, it is the experience of the Waring School that only a few students in any one of these classes are interested in and/or prepared or ready to begin their serious study. Those who are ready may do so at Waring, in addition, we make it possible for them to enroll as juniors or seniors (prior to that time they won’t have had enough mathematics) in one of the basic science courses offered to highschool students through the Extension School at Harvard.

The Harvard classes open to our students are the very same ones given to Harvard undergraduates and they therefore represent a tremendous opportunity to find out, while still in highschool, what a college course is like, as well as to receive a course credit that can be used later on in college.

3) There are the independent science projects, the kind of things that go on at science fairs and that may be presented in competition for Westinghouse Science awards. This is the sort of thing that comes closest, in my view, to “doing science” while in school.

The independent projects represent on the part of the student scientist an investigation into something for which there are not yet clear and thorough answers in the books. And while doing the investigation the student will inevitably learn a lot of traditional science, in addition to illuminating and acquiring an improved understanding of the particular problem that he or she has chosen to address.

The beauty of this approach to science is that the student may very well discover something new, see something for the first time, make clear a relationship that no one else had noticed, and therefore experience a bit of what it’s like to be a scientist. There are no prerequisites for doing science in this way, except the ability to clearly state what it is you’re doing, then to carefully observe, measure and record, and finally to correctly interpret.

Most of all the student must be able to think clearly about whatever it is he or she is investigating. And this ability is, I would like to believe, more or less within the capacities of all of all of our students, accessible to all of them.

4) Work in the laboratory is the fourth element in the Waring science program. Accompanying the basic science courses described above are any number of laboratory techniques and experiments with which the student must become familiar. But it is not expected that every Waring student do laboratory science. the time commitment is considerable and the student must be ready and willing to make it. Not all are.

For those who are it will be their responsibility to come to the laboratory with a particular goal in mind, such as learning a basic lab procedure, carrying out an experiment that illustrates this or that physical or chemical law, or one in support of his or her independent science project.

Laboratory science is a costly and often tedious activity and only makes sense if there is considerable interest on the part of the student to thoroughly prepare and meticulously carry out the proposed experiment.

5) The fifth element in the Waring science program is the history of science. (This also happens to be where my own greatest interest lies.) Also, and in important respects this is the school’s interest, because science considered in this way fits right in with the Humanities (history and literature), the discussions of the Great Books, the history of Art and Music.

Those high school students who have little interest, or who are without the necessary math skills, to study the basic sciences in the traditional manner described above might with considerable satisfaction and profit study science in this way. In any case, the great scientists, and the ideas and laws with which they are associated should, no less than Beethoven’s music or Monet’s art, become the possession of all of us.

6) Finally, there is science literacy. This comes about, just like literacy in any other area, through reading not only science texts, but also science newsletters, newspapers, and magazines. Waring offers no course in this area, but encourages students to be curious about what is going on right now on the frontiers of each one of the sciences.

In this regard the daily all school meetings will take up such subjects as mapping the human genome, theories of the K-T extinction, particle accelerators, and super conductors, all these and other exciting ideas and happenings that are currently taking place among scientists throughout the entire world.

Jan 1, 2000

About Our Schools

In the article from Commentary Magazine (11/2004) Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom refer to findings by Gary Orfield et al. “that the level of “segregation” in the nation’s schools has returned to that of 1968. For America’s minorities, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of equality has become, it would seem, a “nightmare” from our racist past.”
The Thernstroms point out that, “Today, a third of all American students are black or Latino, and they are concentrated in our big cities. To call schools “segregated” because they reflect these demographic facts, thereby suggesting no difference between New York in 2004 and Mississippi in 1960, is an egregious misuse of the term.”
Furthermore the Thernstroms say, “it is only natural that people should sort themselves out in urban space along lines of race as well as of religion and social class.”
Also, lest we believe that the Blacks are still confined to urban Ghettoes, “as a proportion of the total suburban population, the black share has nearly doubled over these years, and now stands at almost 9 percent—surprisingly close to proportionality for a group that constitutes only 12 percent of the American population.”
The Thernstroms insist that, “there is nothing wrong with racial and ethnic enclaves— indeed, there is much that is right with them—so long as blacks are no longer barred from neighborhoods in which they would prefer to live,” and that labeling schools with few whites as ‘segregated’ is not helpful in that it implies that learning in such schools is likely to be compromised, which is not necessarily true, although “it hardly needs saying that all is not well in the schools that black and Hispanic children attend, whether in inner cities or in affluent suburbs.”
So if it is not segregation that is most at fault for the failure of our large public schools in our largest cities, in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Miami,et al. whose student bodies are in fact 17% or less white, what is at fault, and what should we be looking at in order to improve the education of our inner city, largely minority students? It seems to me that the answer is obvious. Poverty is the culprit, but poverty not only in the sense of low family income, but a general poverty of resources, a lack of emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical support systems, as well as a paucity of positive relationships and role models. We need to increase the numbers of these resources in the lives of these children in our inner cities if we would improve their learning, and stop many of them, which is now the case, from dropping out of school before graduation. (See, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby K. Payne, 2003) The Thernstroms have, not satisfactorily I believe, addressed this problem in their book, No Excuses.


Many have noted the President’s proposal to add some $48 billion to next year’s defense budget. Not many have objected to this proposal because it comes right after 9/11 and in particular right after the President’s decision to wage a new War on Terrorism. For it is readily thought that this War, like the earlier War on Communism, will not come cheap.  Just how much should we be spending on defense? Are there any rational limits? At the present time, even before the proposed increase, the U.S. spends more each year on the military than the next nine largest national defence budgets combined. Although spectacular this fact is not surprising when we realize that the U.S. navy alone outfits and maintains 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. Rational limits? Not in regard to our presence on the seas.
We should be asking ourselves whether we really need the additional $48 billion in defense expenditures. Furthermore we ought to ask ourselves, might we not wage an even more effective war on terrorism by redirecting some of our current defense spending? By changing our defense posture before the new enemy? How many terrorists, for example, will be stopped and brought to justice by any one of our 12 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers? It’s the other way around. The carriers become targets of the terrorists and we have to invest even more in their defense.
And there are better ways for us to defend ourselves. In an article in the current Nation magazine former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern says the following about the President’s proposal: "Instead of adding $48 billion to the Pentagon budget,…  wouldn’t we make the world a more stable, secure place if we invested half of that sum in reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world?" McGovern is right to question how we might most effectively use an additional $24 billion. Also it may very well be that by reducing poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease in the world we would thereby do more to reduce the threat of terrorism than by increasing our spending for the military, let alone the good in itself that would result.  However, there’s no way that the Congress of the United States is going to allow that amount of money to go overseas, into the hands of people who will do nothing to assure that the current members of Congress be returned to office at the time of the next election. If ever it were taken from the defense budget that amount of money would have to be redirected to projects within the congressmen’s own districts. It was probably this kind of extravagant thinking that accounted more than anything else for McGovern’s loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. Then he proposed a guaranteed annual income for each American family.
So what should we do with the money from the President’s proposed increase in defense spending if it could be redirected?  In a word, education. Why, even our politicians would become "education presidents," "education congressmen." Whether or not they understand what this means, they know that it’s what they need after their name, along with health care sponsorships and job protection programs, if they would get reelected. For who would deny that there is any one attribute more important than the educational attainment of its citizenry among those attributes and qualities that make up the strength of a nation? Furthermore, who would deny that the most important education of all is that which occurs during the first five years of life? Therefore, for the very best defense of our nation, shouldn’t that $24 or $48 billion that we are ready to release, be directed to the end of high quality preschool care for all children in order that, as Marian Wright Edelman has been advocating for years, no child be left behind?
Now only a fraction of the preschool children in this country are being fully served by day care providers, most of all for the reason that child care is expensive. Full day care easily costs from $4,000 to $10,000 per child per year.  Currently the United States is spending some $6 billion for child care, mostly in the form of Head Start programs. (Compare this with the current Defense budget of $330 billion.)The Head Start programs reach nearly 1 million children, up from a few hundred thousand during the presidency of Richard Nixon, and they serve a little more than half of the eligible children. And there are many more families, working families not eligible for Head Start, who still need help with child care. In addition to the million and one half children who are eligible for Head Start programs there are probably twice as many more whose parents need help with the costs of child care. That makes some 4.5 million children. Head Start costs are about $6,000 per child, and in many instances Head Start is not doing the job. Put the cost per child at the upper end, some $10,000 per child, and then what would it cost our government to fund this "child care for all?" Do the math. It comes to some $45 billion, not even the amount that the President is asking for the military. If our President were really interested in defending our country, why wouldn’t he propose to spend the additional funds, that evidently are available, for child care? I’m reminded of President Eisenhower’s admonition to his fellow Americans at the end of his presidency in 1961, "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Well, we’ve let our guard down and aircraft carriers have usurped the special place that our children ought to have in our lives and in the life of our country.

Letter to the Editor of the Atlantic

Response to Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic Article
on Samuel Huntington, “Looking the World in the Eye.”

I have great liking and respect for Robert Kaplan’s travel writing, for The Ends of the Earth, Eastward to Tartary, for his travels in history, his Balkan Ghosts, but in regard to his most recent work he seems to be out of his element.  In particular I find his commentary in December’s Atlantic on Samuel Huntington’s inadvisedly conceived, Clash of Civilizations, sophomoric, at best the fun stuff of dinner table conversation.  To show what I mean I look only at Kaplan’s listing of “some of the main points” of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.”  Whether or not these “points” are main points in Huntington’s argument I leave to others to determine.  I would be surprised, however, if Huntington himself were to agree with Kaplan’s summation.  Let’s look at each of his five “points” in turn.  To say the least they don’t bear up under scrutiny.

1. “The fact that the world is modernizing does not mean that it is Westernizing. The impact of urbanization and mass communications, coupled with poverty and ethnic divisions, will not lead to peoples’ everywhere thinking as we do.”
Well, who says this, that ‘modernizing’ and ‘Westernizing’ are the same thing? I don’t, and in fact they’re not.  Instead, don’t most people say that the world is coming together, evolving into something new, and don’t they use the term, globalization to describe this process, not Westernization?  Furthermore, the implication that we Westerners think the same, ever have thought the same, is simply incredible.  Of all the things we might say about the West this, that we think alike, or ever have thought alike, seems totally removed from the reality of our history.

2.  “Asia, despite its ups and downs, is expanding militarily and economically.  Islam is exploding demographically.  The West may be declining in relative influence.”
Is there any substance in these three statements? Are they anything other than common places?  That the underdeveloped Asian countries are now developing, that Muslim countries have high birth rates, that the West’s influence on the rest of the world is declining as compared to, say, colonial times in the early 20th. Century, when the West did in fact rule much the world?  But are they main points in Huntington’s argument?  Perhaps Kaplan meant to imply that a decline in relative influence is an absolute decline.  If so this is patently false. On the contrary, as Western science and technology become more and more the driving force between the entire world’s development, not to mention the hope for the millions still living in poverty, one might say that the heritage, if not the influence, of the West, is exploding worldwide.  Even Islam’s demographic explosion stems from the discoveries and applications of Western science and technology.  Without the benefits of modern science a demographic explosion, if it were able to come about, would bring only further hardship and greater poverty to the lands and peoples of Islam.

3. “Culture-consciousness is getting stronger, not weaker, and states or peoples may band together because of cultural similarities rather than because of ideological ones, as in the past.”
One might say exactly the opposite and probably find as much, or as little agreement.  What is the evidence for “culture-consciousness,” whatever that may be, getting stronger?  I hear most often that we are losing our traditional cultures, this being the common complaint of the anti-globalization armies, not to mention the dwindling French peasant (farmer) population.  Isn’t it much more apparent that peoples world-wide are experiencing things they have in common, and not just music, life styles, and entertainment, but the rights to, yes, life and liberty, if not yet property.  It is the things we share, the commonalities (the importance of which Huntington seems to recognize in the last chapter of his book) such things as science and technology, and yes markets, and government regulation of those markets, and concerns for the environment, it is these things that bind us together and it is these things that completely disregard the boundaries of civilizations that Kaplan’s Huntington would draw.

4. “The Western belief that parliamentary democracy and free markets are suitable for everyone will bring the West into conflict with civilizations — notably, Islam and the Chinese — that think differently.”
Well, the West certainly does not believe in free markets, so why bring out this old straw man? Hasn’t the case been made definitively that our markets are not free?  In any case, if there is a free market in the world today, it is probably the drug market in such places as Afghanistan or Columbia. Furthermore, the Chinese, perhaps even more than we ourselves, profit from the “freedom” of our markets.  One need only to look at our balance of payments situation with that country to be convinced of this. Why on earth, for China, would free markets, or at least the push towards them, because they can’t ever be absolutely free, be a source of conflict between us and them?  Rivalry and competition for markets are no less with us today than at earlier times in our history, but such rivalries have been as much entrenched within the world’s civilizations as between them. Also, in regard to parliamentary democracy and the West, isn’t the world’s largest parliamentary democracy, and one of the most stable and successful, in an Eastern country, in India?  When, as in a few Muslim countries, Islam is the government there needs to be no conflict between that government and Western parliamentary democracies.  Rather the conflicts that we see today, those that Robert Kaplan became well acquainted with during this travels, are, such as we see in Iran, and up until a few weeks ago, Afghanistan, between the country’s Islamic leaders and their own people.

5.  “In a multi-polar world based loosely on civilizations rather than on ideologies, Americans must reaffirm their Western identity.”
There are a couple of things terribly wrong with this statement.  First of all our multi-polar world, again whatever that expression may mean, is no more based on civilizations than on any number of other criteria, such as the possession of the bomb, the size of a country’s gross national product, the educational level of its citizens etc.  Secondly, Americans would be much better off, not to mention much less the object of acts of terrorism carried out by any number of “losers,” these the products of most, if not all civilizations, if they were to reaffirm, or affirm for the very first time, their identity with, their belonging to, all those fundamental values that they share with the members of other civilizations. Being a man will always be more than being an Afghan or an American.

Finally, one wonders why, how this sort of thinking represented by the “main points” is still with us.  I don’t believe that Samuel Huntington would claim the main points for his own.
In regard to 9/11, of course there are extremists appearing throughout the world in all civilizations who despise our country.  And there are certainly plenty of these extremists appearing in our own country/civilization.  It most behooves us now, not to promote only our own identity in isolation, but rather to join with others in other civilizations and promote all those things we have in common.  The war on terrorism is one of these, for in this regard all civilizations are faced with the same threat.  Globalization, not Islamic fundamentalism, not Westernization, is what is happening in the world today and it’s probably true that terrorism and the war against terrorism are helping to bring this about even more rapidly than would otherwise be the case.

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)

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité