Note to Joseph’s friend, Steven Strauss who is dying of cancer

In particular a brain tumor.

Talk about not knowing what to say. This is that kind of a situation. Sure you and I, Steven, are in the same boat with not a lot of years to live, the two of us, by my age and your brain tumor, but I know it’s not the same.

I do admire your calm, your ability to carry on at the NIH, and even though I know there’s really nothing else we can do, there are not too many who are able to do even that. While my mother who died in her sixties did, my father, in his nineties when he died, did not. Although from that experience one cannot conclude, of course, that women face up to things better than men, although sometimes I think they do.

But I wanted to say in this note that if you ever want to share your thoughts with someone who really wants nothing more than to be a listener, and only respond when he has, or thinks he has, something useful or valuable to say, then I’m that guy. I’ve always been a believer in dialogue because at best this form of communication is a great comforter. It could make us realize that we are together, in spite of lifetimes of going our own individual ways.

I was thinking the other day that this is really where the “Left” or those who stress our being a part of a larger community, and the “Right” or those who stress the rights and responsibilities of the individual, come together, through dialogue, while hopefully reaching by that means a shared position which enables them to go on together. When they don’t we have a President of one Party and a Congress of the other at loggerheads. Although not yet, at least in this country, is there rebellion or war or something worse.

But I don’t even know if you like to write. Do you, are you a writer? If you’re not I apologize for this intrusion into your life. I know our friend Joseph is not a writer. Nor is my own brother. Whereas I am, or at least I write. Why is this? Perhaps now, given my poor hearing writing may become a spoken dialogue, but if you, or Joseph, or my brother, and so many others don’t write with my hearing loss communication ends.

I’ve lost contact with so many of my friends of earlier times simply because of this difference. When I was young I didn’t seem to have many writers among my friends. And now that I’m old my writing, being a kind of one way street, is not enough to bring my non-writing friends back and thereby renew old friendships. Or something like that. (My wife, Josée, doesn’t agree with me about this, and tells me there are many things I could have done to have kept up those old friendships.)

Writing in my journal, and now on my Blog, even though I’ve never written a book (I told you that I wanted to write one before I died, and I don’t yet despair of doing so) has always been the source of my greatest satisfaction. Writing was what I was doing yesterday evening, New Year’s Eve, and now it’s what I’m doing this morning, the first morning of the New Year.

We know it’s of no significance, don’t we, the start of a new year. Yet we need to give it importance, just like all the other little traditions of our lives, all those things, trivial in themselves, that do add up to something important. Life is important.

Steven, as I said, I am thinking about you, and the only way I’ll know anything about what’s happening with/to you is if you, or Joseph tells me. I certainly wish you the best.

Philip

The high-school problem is nothing new.

The Adolescent Society

James Coleman’s still-prescient insights

Education Next, WINTER 2006 / VOL. 6, NO. 1

James S. Coleman
James Samuel Coleman May 12, 1926 to March 25, 1995

The high-school problem is nothing new. In one of his early writings, excerpted in the following pages, James S. Coleman, the brilliant sociologist who later wrote the famous report on the equality of opportunity for education (the “Coleman Report”) and the first study of public and private schools, identified the essential high-school problem: “our adolescents today are cut off, probably more than ever before, from the adult society.” Thus the title of his classic work, The Adolescent Society, published in 1961, the germ of which first appeared in the Harvard Education Review in 1959 as “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition.”

Writing about schools as they existed in the latter half of the 1950s, Coleman showed the ways in which the organization of school life reinforces teenage anti-learning norms. Except for some quirks of that time and place — the subordinate place of “girls” in American society (which Coleman seems to be tacitly questioning) and the use of the masculine pronoun to refer to people more generally, for example — his essay has a timeless quality, as worth reading today as when Coleman put pen to page.


From “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition,” James S. Coleman. Harvard Education Review, Volume 29, No. 4 (Fall 1959).

In secondary education … we are beset by a peculiar paradox: in our complex industrial society there is increasingly more to learn, and formal education is ever more important in shaping one’s life chances; at the same time, there is coming to be more and more an independent “society of adolescents,” an adolescent culture which shows little interest in education and focuses the attention of teenagers on cars, dates, sports, popular music, and other matters just as unrelated to school.

Are these conflicting tendencies “natural” ones, irreversible processes resulting from changes in society? Is the nonchalance of the adolescent culture toward scholastic matters, its irresponsibility and hedonism, simply because “teenagers are that way”? Is it something which must be accepted? If so, then the hope of developing students truly interested in learning lies in “rescuing” from the adolescent culture a few students who accept adult values, set their sights on long-range goals, and pay little attention to the frivolous activities of their fellows. This approach is very nearly the one we take now, in our emphasis on special programs for “the gifted child,” our concern with selecting the most intelligent and setting them apart with special tasks which will further separate them from their fellows.

Coleman calls this approach “too simple” and suggests that it would be giving in to the “hedonism and lack of interest in learning of the adolescent culture” to do so. Besides, he says, this approach “probably misses far more potential scientists and scholars than it finds.”

If we refuse to accept as inevitable the irresponsibility and educational unconcern of the adolescent culture, then this poses a serious challenge. For to change the norms, the very foci of attention, of a cultural system is a difficult task—far more complex than that of changing an individual’s attitudes and interests. Yet if the challenge can be met, if the attention of the adolescent culture can be directed toward, rather than away from, those educational goals which adults hold for children, then this provides a far more fundamental and satisfactory solution to the problem of focusing teenagers’ attention on learning.

James S. Coleman
Adolescents Don’t Like School

Coleman then describes his two-year study of the “climate of values” in nine public high schools that gave rise to his conclusions about this “adolescent society.” The schools were all in the Midwest and included those from small towns, suburbs, and cities. Varied in size and in the social classes of their students, they represented, he said, a healthy sample of American schools. Though racial and ethnic breakdowns were missing from his data, what Coleman discovered, and documents with some detail, is that students didn’t care much about scholastic things; that, in all the schools, they cared more for “good looks” and “being an athlete” than they did for “good grades” and “being smart.”

Far less important to the adolescent community are the activities which school is ostensibly designed for: scholastic achievement, leadership of academic clubs, and the like. For example, the question:

“If you could be remembered here at school for one of the three things below, which one would you want it to be: brilliant student, star athlete, or most popular?

Boys responded star athlete over 40 percent of the time, and brilliant student less than 30 percent of the time. This despite the fact that the boy is asked how he would like to be remembered in school, an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.

It is clear from all these data that the interests of teenagers are not focused around studies, and that scholastic achievement is at most of minor importance in giving status or prestige to an adolescent in the eyes of other adolescents. This is perhaps to be expected in some areas, where parents place little emphasis on education. Yet the most striking result from these questions was the fact that the values current in the well-to-do suburban school … were no more oriented to scholastic success than those in the small-town school or the working-class school.… In every school, more boys wanted to be remembered as a star athlete than as a brilliant student. And in six of the nine schools, “good looks” was first, second, or third in importance as a criterion for being in the leading crowd of girls.

Jails, Boot Camp, Factories, and Schools

Even in those instances where scholastic success was valued, Coleman reported, it came with a price: “the success must be gained without special efforts, without doing anything beyond the required work.” In effect, then, even if a school could “immunize” the academically inclined student against the unscholastic larger culture, that student remained isolated from “the crowd.” The answer to this untenable situation, said Coleman, was to change the norms of that culture within the institution, the school, that the adolescents found themselves inhabiting. Coleman offers an analysis of “institutional demands and group response” to set the stage for his suggested solutions. He specifically mentions schools, jails, the military, and factories as institutions in which “an administrative corps” makes demands and a larger group (students, prisoners, soldiers, workers) responds. The “group norms” in the response are particularly important to Coleman.

The same process which occurs among prisoners in a jail and among workers in a factory is found among students in a school. The institution is different, but the demands are there, and the students develop a collective response to these demands. This response takes a similar form to that of workers in industry —holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all. The students’ name for the rate-buster is the “curve-raiser” … and their methods of enforcing the work-restricting norms are similar to those of workers—ridicule, kidding, exclusion from the group.

Against the Grain —Against the Grade

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t “scholastically oriented subgroups,” says Coleman. The problem is that, as a subgroup, “intense effort” is required to go against the norm.

In a high school, the norms act to hold down the achievements of those who are above average, so that the school’s demands will be at a level easily maintained by the majority. Grades are almost completely relative, in effect ranking students relative to others in their class. Thus extra achievement by one student not only raises his position, but in effect lowers the position of others.

This group response, Coleman says, is “purely rational” and has many of the same characteristics as other endeavors that combine “to prevent excessive competition.” What Coleman suggests, however, is a different way of organizing the competitive instincts and incentives in a school. He points out that there is a difference in the outcomes if the competition is organized through groups rather than between individuals. While what he characterizes as “interpersonal competition in scholastic matters” generates social pressure not to excel, “interscholastic competition in athletics has quite the opposite effect.” In fact, he cites athletics, where “there is no epithet comparable to ‘curve-raiser,’ there is no ostracism for too intense effort or for outstanding achievement,” as a model for the kind of competition he believes needs to be introduced to a school’s scholastic endeavors.

One obvious solution is to substitute interscholastic (and intramural) competition in scholastic matters for the interpersonal competition for grades which presently exists. Such a substitution would require a revision of the notion that each student’s achievement must be continually evaluated or “graded” in every subject. It would instead make such evaluations infrequent, and subsidiary to the group contests and games, both within the school and between schools.

Changing Institutional Norms

Coleman knows that it will take some “considerable inventiveness” to find the best group competitions to change the cultural norms of the high school. But he nevertheless suggests some: “intellectual games, problems, group and individual science projects … debate teams, group discussion tournaments, drama contests, music contests, science fairs … math tournaments, speaking contests.…”

There are many examples in high schools which show something about the effects such competition might have. As an example, one of the schools I have been studying is too small to compete effectively in most sports, but participates with vigor each year in the state music contests. It nearly always wins a high place in the statewide contest. The striking result of this successful competition is the high status of music among the adolescents themselves. It is a thing of pride to be a trombone soloist in this school, and the leading boys in the school are also leading musicians—not, as in many schools, scornful of such an unmanly activity. This is despite the fact that the school serves a largely farming community.

Finally, Coleman believes that these shifts in the competitive structure of high schools can change the norms and values of the institution, for the better, to encourage academics. “If the activity, whether it be debate or math competition or basketball, receives no publicity, no recognition in the newspapers and by the community generally, then its winning will have brought little glory to the school, and will bring little encouragement to the participants.” So, says Coleman, change the competitive structure of the high school and we can change them from places of athletic to academic prowess.

The present structure of rewards in high schools produces a response on the part of an adolescent social system which effectively impedes the process of education. Yet the structure of rewards could be so designed that the adolescent norms themselves would reinforce educational goals.


James S. Coleman, 1926–95, American sociologist, was born in Bedford, Indiana, and taught at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University.

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.

Dec 2, 2004

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.

Nov 3, 2001

On Being Public

From the Journal of the Waring School, Le Temps Retrouvé, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 1986

We tell our students to be public people, to speak their minds, to make themselves known in the community of the school. The strength of our community, we say to them, is directly proportional to the number of them who have “gone public”. The students nod their heads in agreement (or to stay awake) but it seems to be the rule that nothing really changes as a result of our preaching. Or the change is so slow that 1 don’t see it. Either the students do not believe us, that being public is all that important, or, what is more likely, they don’t really understand what we are talking about, or, what is most likely, they are not yet ready to become public people.

This is too bad. The idea of the public man is an important one. For Josee and me, since the beginning of our school in Rockport, the notion of becoming and being a public person is what our school is all about. It is incumbent on me, therefore, to make clear my notion of what it means to be a public person. When I think about it 1 find that three principal meanings of the word public come to my mind.

First is the meaning with which all of us are most familiar being a public person means performing in public; it means going before the public with one’s accomplishments. In this sense of the word the students at our school become public people to the extent that they play on a team, act in a theater production, give a talk at a meeting, read aloud from their journals, publish in Le Temps Retrouvé, exhibit their sketches at a school function, defend their ideas in Humanities class etc. All of our students become public people in this respect because to some degree they all perform, and we encourage and expect them to do so regularly. In particular, the recently created Waring honors program is closely linked to this kind of public behavior: for one’s achievement to be given the honors designation it must become public, that is, in some way it must be shared with the community as a whole.

There are areas of our program in which public performance comes as a matter of course. For example, in sports, theater, music and art, the public is directly involved indeed, such activities necessarily demand a public for their completion. But students who make important progress in math, science, writing, language, literature and history should be no less public in respect to their achievement. For example, the student who can speak French should do so as much as possible throughout the school day thus becoming a role model and encouragement to those who don’t, the student who reads well should share his or her superior understanding with teachers and other students, the student who is good in math and science should help and influence others less gifted in their aptitude for these subjects. In this sense one’s private gifts should be shared that others may benefit from them. This, then, is the first meaning of being a public person: sharing with others, the other students and teachers and parents of the school community as well as those on the outside, what one does best, and thereby encouraging and motivating others by one’s accomplishment and example.

The second meaning of public, while perhaps readily understood, is probably only rarely embodied by students of this, or any, secondary school community. To be public in this way demands, perhaps, a coming of age, a level of maturity that our students, still in their teens do not yet have. On the other hand parents and teachers are of the proper age and readiness. Being public in this second sense of the word means to represent, defend and embody by one’s words and actions, the values and principles on which the life of the community is based. In order to be such a public person one has to know and understand these underlying values and principles. Children may know them, but they probably do not yet understand them. The role of parents and teachers is to help them reach such understanding. What are these values and principles? I think we all know what they are. In essential respects they are those of the American society at large. Like the latter they may be found expressed throughout the so-called Great Books of the Western World (they are to be found elsewhere, of course, but in their other manifestations they are less accessible). In particular they are found in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the Declaration of Independence of 1776, the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, the U.S. Constitution, in the Old and New Testaments. The values and principles directly applicable to our own school community are written down in our mission statement in the school brochure as well as in our student and parent Handbook.

Our students are not yet public people in the sense that they are not yet (although some are more than others) public spokesmen for the values and principles of our community. Indeed, this is in large part what our school is all about, bringing our students to an understanding of the values upon which Western democratic societies, including this country and this school, are based. Only then, when they have acquired such understanding, will they have the courage and good sense to become public proponents and defenders of these values within the community in which they live.

If students are not fully ready to be public in this second meaning of the word, their parents and teachers are. In our school community parents and teachers ought to be the principal proponents and defenders of our causes and values. Take the honor system. It is my experience that very few of our students understand what we mean by this. We have said what it means on page 9 of the Handbook. The public role of the parents and teachers is to help the students understand its meaning and thereby bring about a community in which the honor system is working.

The third and final meaning of being public is the most important of all. Being public in this sense of the word results when the private and public man come together as one. That is, ordinarily one opposes one’s private life to one’s life in public, as if there were a difference of kind between them, as if they should never meet. I believe that they should meet and I would defend the hypothesis that the truly happy person is one in whom private and public lives are fully merged together. Such a coming together is what one experiences in the great works of literature: the great tragic heroes are at their most gripping and compelling when they are at once public and private people; think of the exchange of words between Priam and Achilles following Hector’s death, the dialogues between a Sophoclean hero and the chorus, Lear in the arms of his daughter Cordelia in the final scene of the play, the words of Don Quixote spoken from his death bed. One sees the same thing in the great moments of history: Abraham Lincoln is our most beloved and respected president because on numerous occasions, especially during the devastating war between the states, and in particular on the battlefield at Gettysburg, the depth of the private man joined and become as one with the breadth of the public figure, statesman and president.

This meaning of the word public encompasses meaning two. The public figure such as Abraham Lincoln, who not only eloquently articulates and defends the underlying values and principles of his country and people, but who also embodies them in his own private life, is the most influential and respected of all political figures. At the time of his death Socrates in the dialogue by Plato plays the perfect public person, sense two of the word. He defends with his life the laws of the state. Meanwhile his wife, representing the private person, comes to visit him in jail, is turned away, and is meant to understand that she is interfering in the more important business of protecting the laws of Athens. Socrates (Plato) makes it clear that she is only a private person with private concerns, such as what is going to happen to her when he is dead, that she is not up to, not at the level of, not worthy of the public nature of his, Socrates’, overriding concern and respect for Athenian law. I have always believed that the Apology and Crito would have been greater works if Plato had had Socrates somehow share his final moments with his wife. Was it necessary that he separate the private from the public man on this occasion? Socrates should have recognized the legitimacy of his wife’s private claims and concerns, just as he recognized the legitimacy of the claims of the city of Athens on him, one of its citizens. As in this instance too often the private and public man do not come together. Too often in our own century we find, on the one hand, the artist celebrating the private person (this was not true of the artists of the Renaissance), and, on the other, the politician mouthing the empty platitudes of citizenship in the modem state.

In respect to this third meaning of public what happens at the Waring School? We have already said that “performance” is our students’ most frequent form of “going public” and furthermore that our students need to be helped by our parents and teachers to become public defenders of our values and principles. What about the private person? Does it merge with the public in our school? On occasion it does, and when it does the community of the school is at its strongest. When students speak up in meeting for what they really believe, when they admit publicly when they have done something wrong, when they initiate a discussion of a subject that concerns all of us and whose resolution is important to the welfare of our community and involves making some difficult personal statements, then we feel that the school is coming together, that things are working, that the state of our community is healthy. When this doesn’t happen, when students are too shy and intimidated to say in public that which they may write in their journals or say in private conversation to a few close friends, when their real concerns are never known by the body politic, by the school community, both the school and they are losers as a result.

Now there is a danger in being public in this third way. Private thoughts may be detrimental to the public good. Baring one’s dirty linen in public is not always recommended. There is a fine distinction to be made between constructive and destructive criticism, something else that we want our students to learn. It is not always clear what should be said and what should be left unsaid. Speaking up from one’s private self may very well be positive and liberating, both for the individual and the school, but it may also be negative and confining, destructive of both the individual and the community. In other words, yes, there should be a merging of the private and public person in our school community, but only in the positive and constructive sense. Negative thoughts are just that, negative, and they subtract from the good of the community. One has to judge between the private thoughts that will replenish the life of the community and those that will not.

In my experience, students will tend to keep too many things to themselves, things that would benefit from public exposure. They need to take more risks with things that are important to them. Also in my experience, students will tend to share negative thoughts with small groups of friends, thoughts that were better left unsaid or, if need be, said in the context of a school meeting where their influence would be lessened by the number of other ideas, many of which arc different from theirs. Both of these tendencies on the part of our students need to be overcome if we are to succeed as a community.

Finally, to make one’s private world public, that which the greatest men have always done by definition, because otherwise we would never have heard from or about them, one has to be almost without inhibition and without fear; one has to be at the same time supremely confident and supremely humble, qualities not often found anywhere, let alone in this small independent school community in Beverly, Massachusetts, the United states of America.

Philip Waring, Head of School

Nov 1, 1986

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)

Sep 20, 2000

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.”

Oct 3, 2001

What is “taught” at the Waring School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth we teach a number of other “languages.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 20, 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 2, 2000

Le Parti Est Malade… Lénine, janvier, 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 2, 2000

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité