David Brooks, Schools and Wisdom (Part 1 of 2)

David Brooks dedicated his October 16, 2015 New York Times column to the film “Most Likely to Succeed” and, implicitly, to the question of the ends of education–meaning, what are high school educations for? What are its purposes? I enjoy a lot of what Brooks writes and folks on campus have had to put up with me quoting him even more often than usual since his book The Road to Character appeared last spring. So I was particularly glad that Brooks addressed “Most Likely to Succeed.” A couple of people closely involved with the film’s conception and production I know well, and they are great, thoughtful educators. From what I can tell in the film, the school it features, High Tech High, is an impressive model of pedagogy. The students and faculty that animate the film do amazing things in the classroom–which, by the way, look nothing like traditional classrooms. I recommend the film highly, particularly if you can watch it with a group of educators.

The film reflects the latest and greatest in educational theory, and therein lies the problem. Educational theory today–and maybe always, but I don’t know it well enough to make that claim–does a great job on means–the Xs and Os of how to teach, incorporating the most recent neuroscience, findings from positive psychology, etc.–while remaining fairly silent on questions of ends and purpose. We know we need “to prepare students for a global, interconnected, 21st marketplace,” and we do. But we also have a responsibility to prepare them to identify, once they enter that world (if not before), where they want to go in it and the reasons underlying the path they choose. As most adults for whom being employed is basically a given know, setting out to be “a productive worker” will leave a person empty at precisely the moments in life when one most needs to know one’s purpose, or at least to have a sense of how to begin identifying one’s purpose.

Brooks focuses his critique not on broader questions of purpose but on important and fundamental assumptions that animate all schools and classrooms. “What matters is not how well you can collaborate in groups,” Brooks writes, “but the quality of the mind you bring to the group.” Amen. It is easier to teach and assess (easier is different from easy) the former than the latter. He goes on to point out that the film “ignores the distinction between information processing, which computers are good at, and knowledge, which they are not.” And with his next sentence, Brooks gets to the heart of the matter: “If we want to produce wise people, what are the stages that produce it?” It’s not clear to me that we, at least in independent schools, have agreed that we want to produce wise people. That would actually be a fairly interesting discussion to have. It would lead quickly and obviously to the question of how we define wisdom. That would be a really important, fun conversation to have. I think that doing so would upend so much of the momentum of educational theory today–a momentum that is increasingly good at information processing but not at wisdom.

Brooks’s suggestions for how to structure learning so that it leads to (or at least points students toward) wisdom diverge from much of the current thinking in schools and graduate schools of education today. I won’t spend as much time on each of these as they deserve but will at least try to start.

Brooks suggests that we have to begin with “basic factual acquisition.” This statement of the obvious has gotten lost within schools these days as we hear increasingly that in a world where we can pull up the latest information on any topic at a moment’s notice, it’s more important that students know how to find the right information and how to use it once they find it then that they memorize facts. (I hope I am doing at least a basic level of justice to this assertion. This is the “skills versus content” dichotomy in which skills has emerged as the clear winner even though, in my mind, it’s a false dichotomy. Certainly rote memorization with no larger purpose is not the goal.) Of course, any argument for “core knowledge” (Brooks’s phrase) leads to accusations that we privilege one culture over another in the act of choosing (the dead, white, male literary cannon with which many of us grew up as an obvious example). But Brooks is on to something in pointing out that to understand American history, for example, a student needs to know that the Civil War preceded the Progressive Era. We should not give up on this too easily and, in fact, need to make up some ground. Doing so while helping students and faculty acknowledge the cultural power plays involved in emphasizing some information over other information (an inevitable, unending process) is critically important, to be sure, but the fact that we have to make those choices shouldn’t prevent us from doing so according to the purposes and goals we identify for our schools.

More to come. In the meantime find out more about The Road to Character.

2015 Convocation Address

We held Convocation on Friday evening, September 11.  Here is a transcript of my address.  Please visit our YouTube page to view the entire ceremony.

Good Evening.  Let us start with a moment of silence for 9/11—example of history interrupting

Welcome. The start of the school year is always an exciting time, sometimes a nerve-wracking time, but always filled with hope and promise. I know it’s also filled with a lot of activity and that many of you, now that you’re dressed nicely, have had a nice meal, and are sitting still, will begin to get sleepy soon, so hang with me for a few minutes.

I want to begin with a question–I was a little chagrined that Mr. Low shared the same question with the new upperclassmen last night, but perhaps it’s a good sign that I’m not the only one asking it. The question is “Why are you here?” You can ask that a lot of different ways, with the emphasis in different places–I want to emphasize the “why”. You can ask that about life in general–why do I exist?–but for now I’d like to focus it on your time at The Gunnery.

You may have a lot of good answers in mind: to get into a good college, to learn, because my parents made me, to act, sing, paint or play a particular sport.

I suspect that few of you instinctively went to an answer that went much beyond yourself–an answer that pointed to the fact that you are joining a community, that you are becoming an important part of a larger whole. I’ll get back to this, but I know that when I arrived at boarding school, many moons ago, I didn’t have an answer to that question. Maybe I would have referred to college but not much more than that and, instead, I allowed survival instincts and pursuit of the path of least resistance to guide me, often without very promising results. I certainly didn’t give much thought to the community that I’d entered. So back to your answers–if you didn’t think about the fact you are now part of a larger whole–both this student body and a history that stretches back to 1850–there’s nothing wrong with that–to focus on ourselves is a natural human tendency–but it doesn’t change the fact that you are now “I” in the midst of “we”–what you do here, what you choose to do here, matters not just to yourself but it matters for the rest of us. So that begs the question, what kind of we–what kind of school–do you want us to be and to become? We are known as a tightly-knit, family-like environment–that only happens if you choose to contribute to it. And that means that there are certain things we do–introduce ourselves to people we don’t know, show kindness and grace and compassion and patience to the dorm mate who makes the annoying comment. I was so pleased on Wednesday night to see at least two cases of returning students inviting new students they didn’t know to join their table at dinner. This is where the idea of character comes from–character in the traditional sense. David Brooks, in his most recent book, The Road to Character, points out in his last chapter, entitled “The Big Me”, that we are in the midst of attempts to redefine character:  It is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, and self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely. It is instead used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity…” David Brooks thinks that redefining character in these terms is a bad thing–that doing so is a symptom of the self-centeredness and utilitarianism of our society. I agree. More importantly, our founder, Frederick Gunn, created this school first and foremost to the end that students would develop character.

One of The Gunnery’s earliest alumni was a man named Clarence Deming Class of 1866‘66. He wrote two chapters of Mr. Gunn’s biography, including Chapter IV, entitled “Mr. Gunn As the School-Master”. Listen to what Clarence Deming said was Mr. Gunn’s reason for all of us being here: “Mr. Gunn’s central objects were [manhood], moral courage, physique, and that grandest of human traits expressed by that word character. Without these he conceived that the [student’s] maturer life would be like a house set on a flimsy base, easy to be wrecked at the first blast of the world’s temptations.” [Repeat for emphasis.]

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REDEFINING SUCCESS: Preparing a Generation of Graduates for a Life of Meaning and Purpose

This article originally appeared in the Moffly Media 2015-2016 Independent School Guide

As tuitions rise in independent schools and in higher education, attempts to evaluate the return on investment will only increase, and rightly so. But the pressure to define and measure success leads parents and schools to rely too much on short-term, quantifiable metrics. Moreover, it risks preparing a generation of students for employment success while leaving them unprepared for life.

Great schools define success broadly. They not only equip students with the practical skills they will need to adapt to the global dynamism of the 21st-century marketplace, but also, and even more importantly, they equip students to thrive throughout life.

Amidst the steady drumbeat of concern from technology industry leaders, pundits, and politicians that American students cannot compete in a global market for jobs, it is understandable that we – parents, students, and the schools that serve them – often define success by standardized test scores, grades, college matriculation or a first job. News reports and industry leaders remind us repeatedly that American students lag behind students from other countries on the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PISA test. (Never mind the fact that Connecticut Association of Independent Schools data from 2013 demonstrates that independent school students in the Nutmeg state actually tied for first in global measures of competence in mathematics – equal with Singapore.) But in the rush to beat Finns, South Koreans and Poles to create maker spaces, purchase the latest 3D printer, and create STEAM programs, we exchange outcomes for purpose and neglect the development of character in its deepest sense.

Redefining Success

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The Gunnery Commencement – May 25, 2015

Mr. Becker delivered this address to The Gunnery community at the 2015 Commencement….

I want to welcome everyone to this great day of celebration for the class of 2015. 1

Before we continue, I want to recognize that today is Memorial Day, the day that Americans set aside to remember those men and women who have lost their lives in military service for the country. Though I know we are not all Americans here, I do ask that we join in a moment of silence to recognize this important day and the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.

Last night we had the opportunity to recognize Mrs. Baker, Mr. Hollinger, and Mrs. Lincoln, who have served the school for 87 years collectively. We celebrated them at the board meeting and will at the end of the year faculty meeting and at alumni weekend.

I also want to recognize three alumni in our midst who have a child graduating today: Bob M. ’79, whose daughter, Gabby, graduates today; Melanie K-R ’81 whose son, Ben, graduates today; David K. ’81, whose son, Rafe, graduates today and whose daughter, Jesse graduate in 2013; Frank M. ’77 whose son, Stephen, graduates today and whose other children also graduated from The Gunnery (Francis ‘03, Peter ‘05, Sarah ‘07). 2

And I know of at least two parents who cannot be here today to celebrate their child’s graduation because they are serving in the armed forces to defend our freedom. Nick’s mother, Monika, is serving in the Canadian Navy and Joe’s father, Lt. Col. John, is leading U.S. Marines in Afghanistan.

It reminds us that we are only here because of the generations who have come before us and those who serve abroad to protect and defend us at home. We should never think too highly of ourselves and the degree to which we make the present possible and we can almost never think highly enough about the people who have preceded us and who have made this present moment possible.

To that end, I would like to ask the class of 2015 to recognize two groups of people who made this moment possible. First, seniors, I would like to ask you to stand and recognize the faculty sitting behind me who have lived to serve and to teach, 24/7, over your time here. Now, remain standing, because it’s not just biologically that this moment would have been impossible without your parents and family. They have sacrificed so that we can all be here. So please thank your family members with a round of applause and locate them if you’re able. Continue reading