New Links and Random Thoughts on Education

I've recently added a new link to I Speak of Dreams, the blog of Liz Ditz. Lynnie and I have really enjoyed exploring her page and strongly encourage everyone to pay her a visit. Liz has a varied and interesting background, including working for the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies at various times. She is, like us, a big advocate of independent education and has many interesting thoughts on that subject.

Another very interesting page on that same subject is Erin O'Connor's blog, Critical Mass. Erin is an English professor from Penn who recently, along with her partner, decided to leave the halls of higher education and the safety of her tenured position to teach at an independent high school. Part of her reason for doing so really leaps out at me:

I've been teaching college since 1991. Along the line, I've stopped feeling that I can do the sort of teaching I want to do in a university setting. Too many people arrive at college--even a place like Penn--without solid reading and writing skills. And once they are there, it's almost guaranteed that they won't acquire them. Their educations are too unstructured, there is too little continuity with individual professors and too little coordination among professors, there are too few professors who will take the time to work closely with students to help them develop and improve their skills. I noticed that the best students were ones who brought their skills with them to college, while the weaker ones were those who had been done a disservice in K-12. I noticed, too, that most people turned a blind eye on this realization, and taught their classes as if their students were far more prepared than they were. I noticed that they inflated grades to cover this up, and that they groused among one another--utterly unselfconscious about the fact that as teachers they have a responsibility to, you know, teach--about how students these days just aren't very smart. I realized that there was not much I could do in such a setting to change things, and that if I wanted to make a difference in kids' lives, I needed to encounter them when they were younger. My leaving academe is certainly in part a gesture of disgust at the corruption I've documented endlessly on Critical Mass. But, far more elementally, it is an attempt to put myself in an educational setting where I can actually do some solid, lasting good.

I have enormous respect for what she's doing and I hope others follow her example. No doubt she is taking a substantial pay cut to do this, but she also fully understands the positive trade-offs:

My partner and I will be teaching at a small boarding school in the Berkshires next year. It's a remarkable place--the atmosphere is at once intimate, playful, and intellectually serious; instead of laundry lists of arbitrary rules, the school is oriented--very successfully--around the principles of mutual trust and respect; it's non-hierarchical, but it also has strong leadership; it's a place where kids who are struggling in the public schools can and do find their emotional and intellectual footing; it's a place where significant financial aid enables kids who are not from wealthy families to come there; it's a place where students and faculty all do physical work--from hauling and chopping wood to working in the kitchens to scrubbing floors to landscaping--to maintain the school and to make that essential, often-ignored connection between the life of the body and that of the mind. There are sports at the school, but it's not a mandatory activity as it is at many independent schools, and the attitude toward the playing of games is refreshingly non-cutthroat (I speak as a former athlete of the cutthroat persuasion). It's a genuine community of people who learn and live together, free of bureaucratic bloat and ideological cant, and rich in the much more essential things--respect, trust, close and supportive relationships, intellectual and creative freedom--that make genuine schooling possible.

What will I do there? I'll teach English, I'll live in the girls' dorm and function as a "dorm parent," I'll do some administrative work. My partner and I will most likely take over the creative writing program and will certainly do a lot of one-on-one work with kids on their general writing skills. I'll probably start a yoga club (one that does not emphasize the head stands that messed up my aforementioned neck). I'll have the option of initiating anything else that I want to initiate. And I'll spend a lot of down time with kids. The summers will be my own to read and write and read and write and read and write some more.

There is no doubt in my mind that Erin's choice will be rewarded in a thousand ways that won't show up on a spreadsheet or on her tax returns. She is giving up a prestigious and well-paying position and all she is gaining in the process is a greater humanity and an opportunity to touch the lives of young people and be touched by them. One can only hope that there are others who will follow her example.

Reading Erin's description of the high school she'll be teaching at reminds me of some incredible young people I was lucky enough to know many years ago. When I was in college, I coached a high school debate team in Okemos, Michigan. In addition to the small group of kids on my team, I also got to form friendships and mentor relationships with a few kids on other debate teams with whom we would travel to tournaments. Because of close friendships among the coaches, my team was particularly close with the team from East Grand Rapids High School, which was much larger than my team. They had a truly remarkable group of kids that mine meshed with perfectly, and the most interesting of the group was a young man by the name of Stokes Young. Stokes was a year or two younger than everyone else, presumably from having been skipped ahead of his age group, but he was wise far beyond his years. He and my best student, Robin Wall, were good friends and for obvious reasons. Both were far more mature than your average high school student and both had astonishing intellects combined with an impish sense of humor and a depth of character and personality that is incredibly rare in anyone, but especially someone so young.

When Stokes graduated from high school, he went to one of the most unique colleges in the world, Deep Springs College. Deep Springs is an all-male 2-year college located in a mountain valley in the High Sierra Mountains near the Nevada/California border, offering only an associate's degree in liberal arts. Every student who is accepted is on a full scholarship covering tuition, room and board, but they have a total of 26 students. The average SAT score is over 1400, but it's more than just an elite academic school. Deep Springs is also a working farm and cattle ranch, providing most of the beef and dairy for those who attend and teach there, as well as a lot of other types of food. All students work on the farm in addition to their studies, as do the teachers. Deep Springs is also self-governing, meaning the students have unprecedented input into administrative decisions, including even hiring of faculty and discipline over other students. If you want to know what it's all about, read this statement put out by the student body there in 2002:

The purpose of Deep Springs College is to prepare its students for a life of service. As students of Deep Springs College we dedicate ourselves to this responsibility through our three pillars. We engage in academics not merely to learn, but to learn how to learn, to hone our intellects, to learn intellectual humility from each other. We undertake labor not merely to accomplish specific tasks, but to learn how to work, to instill in ourselves dedication and self-discipline, to be reminded that lofty ideals can only be realized through concrete efforts. We participate in self-governance not merely to rule ourselves, but to learn how to govern both ourselves and others, to understand democracy and compromise, to become more responsible by taking on more responsibility. Furthermore, we fulfill these pillars in order to find the innate beauty in learning, in laboring and in leading. Each year, we come together to redefine our ideals anew, and to begin the process of merging them with practical necessities. During our time here, we draw from one another an abundance of heart, an optimistic enthusiasm in undertaking our responsibility of service and we draw from the desert a profound tranquility of spirit. Finally, at the end of our time here, we turn outwards from Deep Springs towards the world at large, prepared to take our places in it.

That is education at its very best, and it's something that is simply impossible in a large and bureaucratic institution. This is the essence of why I support independent education in all its varied forms, and at all levels. This is how you raise someone to be a strong, independent, thinking adult and it exists in stark contrast to our bureaucratic public schools, which so often function only as assembly lines for churning out what Mencken called "good citizens, meaning citizens that differ as little from one another as possible." Schools are not factories and children are not products to be mass produced.

Anyway, I do wonder what happened to Stokes. Last I spoke to Robin, he had finished his bachelor's degree at Stanford and went to Lithuania for a couple years to teach English to the people there. He had also just gotten engaged. I treasure the time I had with that whole group of incredible kids and I really should track them all down and see how they've turned out. I envy Erin and her partner, for they will soon be enjoying that same type of interaction. And I applaud them for their dedication and their decision. With a few thousand more like them, our society would be a far different animal than it is now.


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