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

Waring School, June 1992

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 25, 2000

Elian

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

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

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

Apr 25, 2000

HEAD START & AIRCRAFT CARRIERS

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

Apr 12, 2002

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

Dear Natacha,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She did have her cat, Tarzoon, for company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godspeed.

Dad

 

Mar 14, 2000

from the Headmaster’s Journal

Written during READING WEEK at the Waring School, February, 1987.

The first period on Monday morning always seems to come around too fast. Somehow Josée and I never seem to be prepared for that time when teachers and students are back together after the weekend.  It seems to me that it should be a special time, that half hour between 8 and 8:30, that we should have special things prepared for morning meeting.

We are all together in the Victor Hugo Room, the week’s classes and activities lie before us.  Whatever does happen during the thirty minutes should somehow turn us all from our private concern of the past two days and in toward the community of the school, get us working together, back to caring about one another.

Because it seems to me such an important occasion I spend a considerable amount of my own time during the weekend thinking about 8 o’clock Monday morning. I toy with the idea of a series of Headmaster’s talks, but for this the circumstances are too highly stacked against me. First of all the Victor Hugo Room, as much as I love it at lunch time, and when the Jazz Ensemble is playing, is not conducive to intimacy and discussion and talks by Headmasters. Secondly, no one seems to ever be on time on Monday morning and if I were talking at 8’clock I would inevitably be interrupted during the first ten or fifteen minutes by the latecomers.

(Why don’t you do something about it, this being late to school? Why aren’t there consequences for the latecomers? Get it together, Waring!) But more importantly Headmaster’s talks, sermons, didacticism of all sorts, preaching, these things are out of fashion. I don’t really believe in them myself, anyway. And in any case, I know very well that two or three Monday mornings of any kind of talking would probably lose most of our student and teacher audience.

It’s a fact, probably, that after a weekend  one should come to school and find quiet and calm. I agree and    on Monday mornings during the past few months we have begun the day with music and writing note cards. For the most part everyone seems to like it. The result is that in the minds of both students and teachers the real beginning of school is the first class at 8:30.

But I’m not really satisfied with this arrangement. I would like to do better. Today is Monday and there is no school. We have, therefore, a whole week to prepare ourselves for next Monday when the students will be returning, not just from a weekend at home, but from an entire week of freedom from school and teachers. How will I turn them back, wrench them away from themselves, towards not only their work and their classes but also towards the community of the school?

Tuesday, evening:
Open School and Open House are coming up on March 1. People will be coming to see our school. What will I say to them when I meet them? The other day someone asked me to describe in as few words as possible the Waring School. I responded without hesitation, we are, I said, a school that would not be a school. What did I mean by that? I probably should explain what I meant.

Later on the same day:
Education is something we all have been through, and therefore something we should all know something about. Education is, perhaps, the most important experience that we all share. Education ought to be something that we, as a community of students, parents, and teachers, struggle with together in the attempt to create the very best learning environment possible. Education ought to benefit like nothing else from our collective wisdom (there is probably nothing else that is so widely shared – education like birth and death touches all of us).

However, instead of a collective endeavor on the part of parents, students and teachers education has been taken over by the schools, more often by school administrators than by teachers. Now, instead of talking about education (certainly as much the property of parents as of schools and teachers) we talk about the schools.

Wednesday morning:
We are often asked who should apply to the Waring School? This is how I would answer the question: Those who want to learn and those who want to learn within a caring community. Motivation and community awareness are both essential. I know that here too Josée agrees with me as we have often talked about it. High I.Q.s, special gifts and talents, a lot of money, these are not.

What has happened in this country where students are so rarely motivated and so disregardful of their community responsibilities? The Waring School is certainly  not perfect in these respects. But we’re working at it and we realize that to become a good citizen is at least as important as the acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Thursday:
Many have written about the crisis in the schools, about how the schools no longer educate. I believe that what has brought the present unsatisfactory situation about is that parents and students have turned the primary responsibility for learning over to the teachers and the schools. The schools, of course, should not have allowed them to do so. (In fact, by doing so they have given themselves an impossible task. On their own they cannot educate.)

Parents should have known better, even if their children didn’t. For parents must have learned for themselves that learning depends first on the learner, second on the environment for learning, or the community – which includes the home at least as much as the school – and only third on the school and the teacher. By turning the primary responsibility for education over to the schools, parents and society as a whole have made their biggest mistake.

The so-called “Crisis in the Classroom” stems most of all from this abrogation of responsibility and explains why there are now so many educators and so many  politicians talking and writing about the crisis. It is my idea that the “Crisis in the Classroom” is no more in the classroom than is the crisis of religion in the church. Both education and religion belong first of all in the minds and hearts of men and women, and if there are any solutions to the problems that both the one and the other are currently experiencing that is also where they must be sought.

As long as people feel that education is primarily the business of the schools, the schools will be blamed when things go wrong. They will be blamed when test scores are down, they will be blamed for the high dropout rates, for the declining literacy. They will be blamed as well for the “rising tide of mediocrity throughout the land.”

Furthermore, if there happens to be an election taking place, or, as now, if candidates for the presidency in 1988 are begining to make themselves known to the public, the question of education will be on every politician’s and every candidate’s list of vital issues about which he must have something to say. In fact, we will hear over and over again the politicians’ diagnoses and treatments for the ills of the schools, ranging from the ultraconservative, “bring back the paddle,” to the neoprogressive, “take away the requirments, restore freedom in the classroom.”

Saturday morning:
Yesterday evening I went with my father to the Vittori-Rocci Hall right here in Beverly, to hear the only declared Republican candidate for president, Pete Dupont, a former governor of Delaware (the first state to ratify the Constitution as he reminded us) give us his diagnosis and prescription for the ills of our schools. He cited the test scores that placed the Russians, Germans, and Japanese high above our own students, and said that this was because in our country education was a state monopoly, worse, a form of state socialism.

(I can’t believe he was ignorant of ‘the fact that the educational systems of the three mentioned countries were even more centralized and staterun than ours; he must have been simplifying issues for the Beverly audience). Under such a system it was no wonder, he said, that education was failing to live up to its promise.

The treatment according to Pete Dupont? Simple. He would have us break up the monopoly, deregulate, restore competitiveness to the classroom. In particular, he would support the establishment of a system by which educational vouchers placed in the hands of the parents would pay the tuition costs at the schools of their own choosing, thus forcing schools to compete among themselves for  students and thereby – if one believes in the free market analogy – raising the quality of the product.

In some respects the analogy does hold. For example, under such a system poor schools turning out poor educational products would probably fail, or just quietly disappear after their guaranteed funding had been taken away. Also, on the other hand, such a system would provide funding and therefore opportunity for good schools (companies) to take root and grow and prosper.

Sunday morning:
We still don’t know what we are going to do tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. But I’m not going to think about it now. From long experience I’ve found that there is absolutely no correlation between the success of a class or meeting and the amount of preparation on my part that has gone into it. I’ve probably had more success when I haven’t been prepared, so I’ll try this system on Monday. Josée tells me that she feels that she is stronger when she, at the same time, is ready and is happy.

I’ve been thinking more about Pete Dupont and the other night at the Vittori- Rocci Hall. Actually what he proposes might be a good thing for schools – by this I mean the school part of education because, as I hope I’ve made clear by now, education is much more than school, and school should certainly not bear the principal burden of educating children, for when it does it will inevitably fail.

Furthermore, being a co- founder of a private college preparatory school I stand only to benefit from a voucher system in that more parents would have more money to spend on education and consequently probably more of them would come, say, to an Open House to check out the Waring School.

In any case his proposal is consistent with his overal political philosophy which is that the principal role of government should be to create opportunity for the people, in this case both for those people who have good ideas and would start a school of their own, and for those who have good ideas and are looking for good schools for their children.

It’s interesting to compare Pete Dupont’s principal role of government with that of Mario Cuomo, who has just announced his non-candidacy for the presidential election of 1988. Governor Cuomo maintains that the principal role of government should be to provide aid for those who, in a highly competitive environment cannot help themselves.

The contrast between them is beautiful! Pete Dupont would render the environment even more competitive than it already is and Mario Cuomo would protect us from it! It’s a pity that they won’t be running against one another in 1999. This would be a choice! Mr. Cuomo’s policy, if extended to the public school system, would result in new and massive government funded programs to provide for special needs schools and children, both probably being in the majority in their respective populations.

I happen to believe that both Dupont’s and Cuomo’s positions are valid, but in respect to what ails the schools they are both beside the main point (for the problem, Dear Pete and Dear Mario, is not in the schools but in ourselves).

Sunday night:
What am I going to do tomorrow morning? Josée is encouraging me to go on writing, to get these journal entries ready for the Le Temps Retrouvé that we are preparing for the OPEN SCHOOL one week from today, on March 1.

Haven’t most of us noticed at one time or another in our lives that when we hear someone speak about a subject we know something about, as I did on Friday evening, or when we read a newspaper article similarly on a subject with which we are familiar, we are most often dissatisfied with what the speaker or writer has to say?

Usually we tend to feel he has grossly over simplified the subject. I noticed that I listened with greater respect to Pete Dupont while he was talking about the social security system (today I read an article in the New Republic showing that even here he didn’t really know what he was talking about, or if he did he was deceiving the public in respect to his solutions), farm subsidies, unmarried mothers on welfare, even disarmament and the drug problem.

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I wonder now, however, if what the candidate was saying about these topics was just as naive and superficial as what he had to say about education and that only my own ignorance prevented me from being aware of this.

I suspect that candidates for public office feel that they must have clearly articulated positions on any number of current issues and problems, such as nuclear disarmament, the deficit, terrorism, young mothers on welfare, and education, to mention only a few of those currently in fashion. Then I suppose they feel that they must convince others of the validity of their positions and proposed solutions to the problems and critical issues of the day, and therby bring others over to their own persuasion and in so doing capture the large numbers of uncommitted voters who, by finally choosing sides on election day, determine who wins and who loses in the great American game of politics.

Such a strategy of formulating and defending positions on any number of current issues may be the proper way to win an election. It’s not, I’m convinced, the proper way to solve some of our problems. To formulate and then defend one’s positions in the public arena inevitably means that one must oversimsplify, that one must adopt slogans such as supply side economics and strategic defense systems which may or may not correspond to the underlying reality but that certainly interfer with one’s perception of that reality.

We are a nation that believes in public debate as being the best means to decide between the candidates and their solutions to the issues. This is what our American democracy is all about, open debate leading to the knowledgeable selection of the best candidate for the job. This is our American democracy at work.

We point with pride to our democracy in action, to the Lincoln-Douglas and Nixon-Kennedy debates, even to the League of Women Voters who have been responsible for the most recent squarings-off between the presidential candidates. Such a system of public debate is probably an anachronism, a relic of our past, like the myths surrounding the founding fathers and no longer very apropos to the problems of the eighties.

But perhaps public debate is a valid method for addressing and solving many crucial problems such as the deficit, farm subsidies, the social security system, all of which problems, by the way, were created by earlier administrations trying to solve earlier problems.

Education, however, is something else. No amount of restructuring of the schools can solve this problem. Indeed, the schools may even be the problem as those writers such as Ivan Illich who would “deschool” society believe.

Very late, Sunday night:
So what is to be done, not about Monday morning, but about education? First we must take the principal burden for educating our children away from the schools and place it back where it belongs within the family and within the community. Only real structures educate. The family and the community are real structures. The school is not.

At the very best the school will reflect the values of the community; when these values are admirable, the schools will be admirable, when they are not, as is so often the case within our inner cities, the schools will not be either. Show us a successful school and we will show you a successful community behind it.

Anyone who has spent much time close to children knows how they learn. Anyone who has spent much time in the schools knows that there is very little learning going on. Why is this so? Learning comes about because the learner wants to know what and how and why.

For four vears in the lower grades most children do. Then, for some reason, most don’t. I think I know why. Imagine a primitive society where children are taught in the “schools” to fish and to hunt. Children learn, not because they are taught in the schools, but because adults in the society do a lot of fishing and hunting. Imagine that same society when people no longer fish and hunt. The schools would fail overnight.

This is our society. The schools are trying to teach the very things that most adults no longer do, reading and writing to name just two of the most conspicuous ones.  What chance do the schools have to succeed?
PBW

Feb 1, 2000

Where have all the fathers gone?

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

Jan 16, 2000

Waring School Science Program, 1988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 1, 2000

About Our Schools

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

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité