1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wanted: school with a positive hypothesis

I came across this interesting paragraph in Giussani's The Religious Sense:
The position of doubt makes us incapable of action. I remember reading in a newspaper one time about a certain school established in the United States. Its purpose was to form a special capacity for invention of super-intelligent children. In other words, it was a school for educating geniuses, became coming up with new inventions is an act of genius. The entire school was designed to teach children to approach problems with a positive hypothesis. The worst thing in the world is to place oneself in front of reality with a hypothesis, not necessarily negative, but simply suspended. In such a situation, one no longer advances (p. 127).
Anyone out there in cyberspace know what school Giussani was referring to? Did it ever get up and running? Does it still exist?

Friday, December 09, 2011

Horace's Compromise

Like Shirer's Rise and Fall, Theodore Sizer's Horace's Compromise was on my "to read" list for some time. I admit that I approached it expecting progressive claptrap about the problem of education being "the man" and how if we can all just learn to get along, education will (some day!) save us from ourselves or other hooey.

On the contrary

This is an amazing book on at least two counts. First, Sizer is able to take his experience of visiting hundreds of schools and distill what are undoubtedly dozens of teachers and students and create composite characters that ring true. Second, Sizer is profoundly realistic about the prospects of meaningful education reform and what that would really mean (versus the babble ABOUT reform coming from all sides).

The prologue alone is worth the price of the book (but it can be found for free at the above link) and I couldn't put it down after reading the prologue. What struck me is how Sizer is able to point out the obvious without condescension or undue criticism: he sees peoples' humanity throughout.

Sizer may not be my new BFF (well, he died two years ago, so that would make it impossible!) but he has given me a lot to chew on. I disagree with him on some things (such as his apparent willingness to equate a secular education with a complete education) but agree whole-heartedly with him on others: teachers must be treated as professionals and as human beings; students must be held accountable and told to figure out more on their own; primacy must be given to the school as a place of intellectual "work" not other things - no matter how noble.

Thoughts - stolen and derived - for a new school

Here's a rough list:
  • Promise to do less but really do it
  • Articulate clearly what is primary and what is secondary, and let the secondary stuff fall away if necessary
  • Avoid at all costs of the never-ending compromise of adding "just one more thing" to teachers' to do lists
  • Writing should be the center of schooling (Hmm, see page 104)
  • Coaching as a task of teachers (and tutors)
  • Teacher to student contact time - keep it somewhere between college professors and what it currently is (gravy, if my counting is right, it was about 32 on paper at MEC - patently absurd, Charlotte & Co.!)
  • Teachers draw out what is inherently interesting in their subjects (versus facile "relevance" or drill and kill)

Much to mull over and explore. Sizer has done something profoundly interesting. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Rise and Downfall

Although it is not the longest book I've ever read, it comes close: William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This is a book I've wanted to read since I was in sixth grade. It was far too daunting for me then, but it was worth the wait.

A mere summary?

I tell people that this book is an interesting summary of Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazism in a "mere" 1143 pages (plus notes). But it is a summary in the sense that one gets a feel for the major players and events but at no point is there a lot of historical depth.

Still, there is enough context and detail that events such as the rescue at Dunkirk are riveting even though one knows the final outcome.

One becomes aware of so many lost opportunities to stop Hitler early on, but one is also left with the sense that he might very well have gotten away with far more than he did and the present world order could be far different. Chilling.

Existential lessons

Perhaps what moved me the most in reading this book was the realization of things I've left undone or unsaid out of fear or of human respect or God-knows-what. I'm thinking of some events in the last few years in my professional life where I was a guilty bystander. Letting the emperor proclaim how great his (or her) new wardrobe was -- knowing all the while it was utter nonsense, or, worse still, harmful nonsense which did sensible and perhaps permanent harm to decent people.

Those omissions of mine - how were they any different from the silences of so many Germans in the 30s and 40s? We are all so ready to declaim, "THEY should have known better," but the plain fact is that they is us: my humanity, their humanity, your humanity - it is the same. Sure, the weight of the situation is different, but that points out the merely obvious by way of evasion.

Enter Downfall

If Shirer's book is a summary of the Nazi period, the same is true of the film Downfall of it's final days. Bruno Ganz is brilliant as Hitler: one gets a sense of his madness for sure, but also his "tenderness" and pockets of humanity that are hidden behind the famous mustache.

The film is based largely on a memoir of one of Hitler's secretaries, Traudl Jung (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and much of the action is seen from her perspective. In an older documentary, an old Traudl addresses the "how could you?" question. She admits that it seemed to her for many years that she was not culpable for much of anything and then, one day, something happened. She came upon a memorial to Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement. She saw Sophie's date of birth and realized they were the same age. The same age but such different responses to Nazism! It was there that she realized she could have acted differently.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Art of Getting By (Gavin Wiesen, Director)

Half way into this film I was enthralled; by its conclusion I was annoyed and glum. This is a film that -- through the protagonist played at once oddly creepy and attractive by Freddie Highmore -- asks all the right questions but fails to follow the logic of those questions.

George is a high school senior at a fancy pants prep school in NYC who has been led by the following bit of pop existentialist philosophy -- "you are born alone, die alone and everything else is an illusion"* -- to despair of doing anything meaningful. Despite the despair inherent in the slogan, George is quite chipper and expends vast amounts of energy doing what he wants and avoiding doing what The Man would have him do: study hard, takes tests, and prepare to go to a fancy pants college.

Surely there must be more to life?

Indeed, George's intuition that there is more to life is profoundly correct, but he takes the ever-popular romantic shortcut into enlightenment: falling in love. Don't get me wrong: love, beauty -- these and many more can be a path toward the truth about oneself. But in this film I was reminded of the glib "sex as salvation" tonic fobbed off on moviegoers in Titanic. George's relationship with Sally Howe (Emma Roberts) seems like too pat an answer to George's questions. It left me feeling like the film was suggesting that the way to get the girls is to play the moody existentialist. (That may well be true, by the way.)

Perhaps the film should have been entitled Go Along to Get Along, for if the heart can be satisfied by loves that do not exceed what immediately confronts us, then George will be a happy camper by being successful according to someone else's criteria.

*Orson Welles may be the source of this quotation; I didn't pursue it very far online.