Democracy is the Rare Exception in World History

A note from Mr. Becker while he’s on the other side of the world watching the Presidential election from afar. 

Dear Gunnery Community,

I hope and trust that this finds you well. Today’s election has stirred a lot of thinking, discussion, and debate on our campus, throughout the United States, and around the world. It is strange for me to be away from school, home, and the U.S. on the eve of such a memorable moment. As such, I wanted to send this reflection.

Most of all, students, I want to emphasize that in this election cycle you’ve seen American democracy at its worst. It doesn’t have to be this way. But it will remain this way unless you decide to do something about it. While elections will always be a spectacle of some sort, they do not have to be blood sport. Ideally, an election should be an open discussion and debate about ideas, policy, leadership, the future, and history (I’ve included a couple of resources toward the end of this letter that relate to this). Instead, at least for this election, it’s come to look more and more like a football game or a boxing match. While that’s entertaining and good for ratings, it isn’t good. But the media will feed us whatever will keep us interested so we have no one to blame but ourselves—not even the major party candidates. I can’t recall who said this first, but democracies get the candidates they deserve. Both conservatives and liberals who are surprised that the populism and rhetoric, hate-filled and otherwise, of various candidates (not just Trump and Clinton but also Sanders and others) resonate with millions of Americans need to get over their surprise and find ways to engage them with a more positive, constructive message. Easier said than done, I know, but I think this will be an important theme of American politics for the next ten to twenty years, at least.

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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.

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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A Grit Critic

Oh no he didn’t! Alfie Kohn just criticized grit. I didn’t think that was allowed. Better someone of Kohn’s stature than I. Ultimately, however, I think I have to side with grit on this one.

I should say up front that Alfie Kohn’s writing has helped change my thinking on a number of important topics in education and parenting over the last decade. His recent critique of “grit,” Angela Duckworth’s popular term for “the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals,” however, is not his best work. I was excited when I first saw that Kohn chose to challenge this trendy topic because I’ve had vague doubts about it since it first emerged a little less than a decade ago. Kohn’s critique, however-and here the teacher in me will come out-is specious, lacking a single example and using, instead, a series of leading questions or truisms. It also takes a curious political turn that must make Angela Duckworth and other members of the UPenn positive psychology movement scratch their heads.

Kohn’s criticism appears in his newest book, in the April 6, 2014 Washington Post, and in the most recent edition of Independent School (to which I know you all subscribe…to be fair, it’s worth reading if you like thinking about schools). After reviewing the places that have popularized the idea of grit (Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, and the KIPP academies, among others), Kohn begins to sow doubt:

“not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods, and not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile”
“persistence can be counterproductive and even unhealthy”
“Gritty people sometimes exhibit what psychologists call ‘nonproductive persistence’”
“The motives for displaying grit also raise important psychological questions. What matters isn’t just how long one persists, but why one does so.”

Hard to argue with such blanket statements. Though he points to specifics that reveal some of the assumptions underlying grit apologists (Kohn observes that though Paul Tough lists “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence” early in his book as important traits for student success, he doesn’t mention curiosity or self-confidence again throughout the book.), Kohn doesn’t use a single example of a student being too gritty in the wrong direction-a student who could benefit from giving up.

I think I understand Kohn’s concern. He doesn’t want American schools to turn into the caricatures we’ve read of education systems in South Korea and Singapore. He doesn’t want students to turn into what David Brooks described as “Organization Kids” in one of my favorite Atlantic articles-so focused on success-at-all-costs that they lose sight of life’s meaning. They become obedient lemmings rather than creative leaders. It reminds me of the backlash against Amy Chua, aka “Tiger Mom.” Up to a point, I agree. But at any high school in the country, including elite boarding schools, the group of students you need to worry about on this score represents a minority of the student body. The vast majority of students could stand to be a bit grittier-and they would enjoy school more if they developed this skill because the learning part of school actually becomes more fun the harder a student works at learning. Many teachers and parents pull their hair out wondering what it will take for a given student to achieve his or her potential. Often the answer is the combination of skills reflected in the word grit.

I really do hope I will have the chance to discuss this with Kohn at some point because he’s such a thoughtful observer of education. This last point-that learning, especially at the high school level, becomes more fun the grittier a student becomes (up to a point, and then they are just grinding it out, which isn’t all bad either)-bears spelling out. It’s true in academic pursuits, in the arts, athletics, and just about anything else you can think of. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a great example-if a little dated (most of us can’t fathom getting excited about Greek)-from C.S. Lewis, Oxford and Cambridge don and author of The Chronicles of Narnia:

An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased, and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward. -C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” 1942

This quotation comes from Lewis’s discussion of different types of rewards and motivations. He’s not trying to make a case for grit. But he puts his finger on long-term learning and what often (always?) must undergird it. I’m finding this to be true right now with the piano. I never learned to play an instrument as a child. I sang a little through high school but never very well, and I never learned how to read music. Now my children are learning the piano on the one in our home. It’s been a goal for many years so each week I have the last lesson after each of my kids go. I am having to learn all over again how to be gritty-how to delay gratification, avoid distractions and other urgent calls for my time so that I can spend 30 minutes with the teacher and, at most, five minutes a day in the intervening six days. It’s certainly kind of fun to experiment, less fun to practice scales over and over. But I go back to it-or try to-because I can anticipate a time down the road when, if I just consistently put in the effort now, I’ll be able to make music, at least at a basic level. Of course, my prefrontal lobes are as developed as they are probably going to get-may even be in decline already-so I have an advantage over a six year old or sixteen year old in terms of resisting temptation, but I can say that grit is a difficult thing to exercise. Yet it’s essential if I want to achieve this goal and if I hope to realize ever-deeper satisfaction from playing the piano.

Now, that anecdote doesn’t by itself disprove Kohn, but while I agree that intrinsic motivation is the best way for learning to happen, the fact is that there are all sorts of really important things that students of all ages should learn that they are not intrinsically motivated to learn. And that’s where grit comes in. Is it like a certain version of the Protestant work ethic, as Kohn suggests? Yes, and I see that as a good thing for most students. Great schools are comprised of great teachers who discern on a student-by-student basis where students needs grit, where they simply need to fall in love with a subject or discipline, and, in some cases-and to Kohn’s point-where they need to take time to stop and consider the broader purposes that animate all of this striving.

If I have/take/make the time, I hope to write soon about the key role that a wonderful English teacher named Steve Scheifflin played in helping me A) realize what I was capable of on my own as a student and, therefore, B) begin to love learning and, therefore, C) develop grit.