A Call for Courage, Tolerance and Respect

In keeping with tradition, The Gunnery celebrated the formal start of the new school year, our 168th year, with Convocation on Friday, September 8. This event provides us with the opportunity to reflect on our past and the legacy of our founder, Frederick Gunn, as well as the chance to look forward and celebrate a new beginning.

The start of a new school year is also a time to look at the world around us and recognize that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Given the events that have recently taken place around the country and the world, I am reminded of a letter that Mr. Gunn wrote to Abigail in 1847, three years before they started The Gunnery and at a time when Gunn was living in exile as a result of his unpopular views on the question of abolition.

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Barry Schwartz on Wisdom

In his 2009 TED Talk, Professor Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College, put well something I’ve been thinking about a lot: “At TED, brilliance is rampant. It’s scary. The good news is you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough. It’s as likely to get you and other people into trouble as anything else.”

In his talk, which I recommend highly, Schwartz provides multiple examples of what he calls, quoting Aristotle, “practical wisdom.” It is, I think, what Frederick Gunn was aiming at when he said that character is the goal of education. That wasn’t an obvious claim when he made it and it isn’t obvious today, even as we try to stick to it. “‘Practical wisdom,’ Aristotle told us, ‘is the combination of moral will and moral skill.’ A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule…A wise person knows how to improvise…” It’s important to watch or listen to the talk for the examples Schwartz provides–diverse enough that they hit every walk of life.

There is an important resonance between Schwartz’s claims and those by David Brooks that I highlighted in my recent blog posts. Educational theory today, from what I can tell, focuses almost entirely on creating brilliance but very little on nurturing character or practical wisdom. Schwartz rightly points to the KIPP school movement as a terrific example of an attempt to develop character–practical wisdom–in students but, as I’ve written elsewhere, the thought leaders of KIPP, who I consider heroes, by the way, are in other ways part of an attempt to redefine character not as practical wisdom but as practical skills. This attempt to redefine character as skills captures well the thrust of educational theory today, at least as it applies to independent schools. We should celebrate it for the good it is doing–identifying the skills students need in order to succeed in the classroom and in life–without calling it character.

Instead, we should figure out what it looks like to help students develop practical wisdom in the ways in which Schwartz and Brooks describe it, alongside and amidst helping students become really good at physics, languages, history and interdisciplinary thinking. Not surprisingly, Schwartz emphasizes that if you want students to grow in practical wisdom, they “need to be mentored by wise teachers.” How do we determine that a prospective teacher is wise? Still working on that.

I do think it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t a new question. I think, among other things, it means that we should be reading as much Aristotle as we are Dewey and Dweck in graduate schools of education.

Other practical steps Schwartz recommends in developing practical wisdom:

“Celebrate moral exemplars…” and,

“perhaps most important, as teachers, we should strive to be the ordinary heroes, the moral exemplars, to the people we mentor. And there are a few things that we have to remember as teachers. One is that we are always teaching. Someone is always watching. [Ted Sizer] The camera is always on…[students] need to learn to respect learning. That’s the principle objective. If you do that, the rest is just pretty much a coast downhill. [debatable!] And the teachers: the way you teach these things to the kids is by having the teachers and all the other staff embody it every minute of every day.”

(Following Schwartz’s TED Talk, two moral exemplars he mentions, Ray Anderson and Willie Smits, are well worth the time.)

Frederick Gunn said, memorably, “we teach that which we are.” He was on to something. I don’t know how much Aristotle he’d read, but he knew how to develop practical wisdom in his students and lived it himself. He knew that the collection of character traits embodied by the person who is always learning (and not just learning in order to patent the next widget but learning in the whole-life-sense), the humility it requires, was good for students and for the world.

The focus should not be just on the individual. As Schwartz states in his conclusion:

“Wanting to do the right thing in the right way for the right reasons. This kind of wisdom is within the grasp of each and every one of us if only we start paying attention. Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, and, perhaps most importantly, to the structure of the organizations within which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom rather than having it suppressed.”

May we create schools that aspire to this.

Watch Schwartz’s talk because he puts it better than I do.

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

In the Spirit of Mr. Gunn, Thoughts on a Snowy Day

It’s dumping snow here in Washington (and many other parts of the NE). I hated to postpone the NYC Alumni event scheduled for tonight at the Century Club because I don’t like to bow to the Weather Channel gods, but now it looks like it was the right call. Those of us on campus can’t help but feel a bit lame because we know that if Fred and Abigail were here they’d be strapping on their cross country skis and heading down to Manhattan as I type. But we look forward to convening the NYC alumni and parents in the near future and wish everyone a warm, safe day. And, of courses, classes here are on as usual so we haven’t lost the spirit of Mr. Gunn entirely.

Director of College Counseling Seth Low leading a band of intrepid students (during a free period) to help shovel:

Finally, because you can never have enough F.W. Gunn in your life, here are some of his words to live by (as quoted in The Gunnery 1850-1975: A Documentary History of Private Education In America, by Adam Korpalski, p. 45): “Cultivate your religious faculties diligently. Think boldly, fearlessly; never fear where unfettered thought will lead you. If you are induced to give up many of your present notions, to become a heretic, never fear nor stop, lest by halting from the pursuit of truth you lose your soul.”