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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