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

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?

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.

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 I 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

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité