On Being Public

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Waring, Head of School

Nov 1, 1986

Three Myths about Education 1990

Myth Number One

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

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

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

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

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

Myth Number Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth Number Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Philip B. Waring (Headmaster, Waring School)

Sep 20, 2000

Tom Friedman and 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 3, 2001

What is “taught” at the Waring School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth we teach a number of other “languages.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 20, 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 2, 2000

Le Parti Est Malade… Lénine, janvier, 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 2, 2000

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

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité