Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Playing Fields of Eton--and 21st-century Waterloos

Of necessity I have been thinking quite a lot about branding and independent schools lately, and I am hereby decreeing that the most enduring tagline ever created about our schools is that attributed to the Duke of Wellington: “The Battle of Waterloo was won upon the playing fields of Eton.”

The line has a suspect provenance, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the way in which the sentence encapsulates by implication all the virtues that elite British manhood required to defeat Napoleon and, in time, ensure that the sun would never set upon the Union Jack: courage, stoicism, resourcefulness—all the qualities of the student-athlete and ultimately the warrior, suitable indeed for the century and the situation.

Which has me wondering, at the end of a globally discouraging winter, what the battles of our century will be. Right now all the forward-thinking educators I hear and read seem awfully fixated on the vocational skills and workplace attributes enumerated as “21st-century skills” by various employers and business councils, and I am assured that subtle technological proficiencies in social media and other Web 2.0 skills will guarantee success to our students in the world of the future. They will need these skills to conquer global warming and spread health care, peace, and prosperity around the flattened globe. Some of them will be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, changing lives with beautifully designed products that are solutions to problems we never knew we had.

It’s a lovely picture, progressive in its optimism and focused on the things that education is supposed to be preparing kids for: college, jobs, and responsible citizenship. This is all good, and I’m all for it.

But maybe it’s time to take a cue from the past and ponder the kinds of real experiences our students are having in our 21st-century schools and whether we are serving our students well with either our programs or our platitudes. Will our schools prepare students for the battles—and I use the term here in all its meanings—they will face in our century?

The hundred years that followed the famous victory of Wellington and his schoolmates saw the expansion of European empires and European democracy, but hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people died in the wars of conquest and the revolutions that brought the Industrial, Imperial Age into being. While sun-kissed heroes of Western Civilization like Wellington, George Armstrong Custer, and Kipling’s Stalky pulled on their boots and primed their guns to spread Victorian blessings, European families as well as indigenous communities from Alaska to Arabia to Afghanistan to Australia saw their lives and worlds shattered.

The dawn of the 20th century saw a new version of the elitist avatar, and prep schools worked to embody “muscular Christianity” in their missions and practices. The new heroes were Dink Stover and the Rover Boys, privately educated in the glories of the Strenuous Life, somehow combining the best qualities of Jesus and Theodore Roosevelt. (This version of the prep school hero managed neatly and ironically to ignore the authentically strenuous lives of the majority of teenagers who left school at age 12 or 14 and worked in agriculture, resource extraction, industry, or urban commerce.) The poets of the British trenches and the novelists of the Lost Generation provide us with all too many autopsies on the body of values and beliefs drummed into schoolchildren a century after Waterloo.

Those who survived the trenches and could sublimate their bitterness and cynicism soldiered on into the Great Depression. Their children, of the generation of Phineas (in A Separate Peace) and Holden Caulfield, either missed World War II or they became Mr. Roberts or (a bit later) the self-righteous, over-bred crew of the U.S.S. Caine, deeply affected by but eluding the worst consequences of the war that killed 417,000 American soldiers but as many as 70 million people worldwide.

Ahead of us in 2010 we have global climate change, an exploding population demanding access to shrinking stocks of global resources, and a backdrop of terrorism and war with a daily death toll that would appall us if we paid attention. Political civility even in old and established democracies is seriously on the wane; crazies who fly their airplanes into tax offices are cheered as martyrs, just like Islamic fundamentalists who blow up marketplaces. The rest of this century could shape up into something distinctly unpleasant, and we need to be educating people who can help pull the world out a real nosedive, not just earn a living by their cleverness and sophistication.

On one level, and I’m not ready to linger here, screeds on the irrelevance of the lectures at TEDxNYED are pretty much beside the point. What schools need to be focusing on, along with the effective use of social media in the classroom, is how to provide experiences that are like the playing fields of Eton—experiences that will bring forth (or instill, if you are Old School) the best qualities of resourcefulness, critical analysis, courage, and committed engagement that will prepare students for a world that could look more like that of Mad Max or Blade Runner than The Jetsons.

I’d actually look well beyond curriculum and pedagogy here. Wellington (or whoever) didn’t cite the classrooms of Eton, and I suspect that character—real character: values, courage, optimism, even faith—is still largely a product of advisories, of discussions of school and social values in dormitory common rooms and club and activity meetings, of chapel talks and school meetings, and—yes—of athletics.

Society’s needs, though, have moved beyond a stiff upper lip or muscular Christianity. We’re going to need innovative thinking and the ability to face large-scale, immediate, and even horrific problems—to improvise, lead, and endure when cyberwarriors bring down the Internet, when resource wars threaten to engulf both developing and developed worlds, or when violence becomes a regular aspect of political disagreement even in our own communities.

Where are we teaching our children how to confront challenges on this scale? Where are we even admitting to ourselves and our children what the future might look like if things go wrong?

Neither Wellington’s teachers nor his coevals could have foreseen the struggle against Napoleon, and the faculty and graduates of St. Grottlesex in 1938 didn’t understand that America would soon be battling the forces behind the Anschluss and the Rape of Nanjing. What calamities don’t we foresee, and are we truly giving our students what they will need to face them?

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Arne Duncan's Classroom Nightmares

Sitting in the waiting area as my car gets its oil changed, I had occasion just now to hear a CNN news clip in which Secretary of Arne Duncan vigorously supports the firing of the faculty of the "failing" high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, and responds to the questioning of the interviewer about teaching students who have little or no support at home by saying, "If you can't teach poor kids, get out of the profession."

The whole Rhode Island episode represents such a cosmic failure of adult leadership I'm not sure I even know how to feel. It has sounded all along to me like a perfect storm-level convergence of family poverty and disengagement, school board neglect, school administration ineptitude, teacher surrender, and federal and media attention--too little (the feds) and too late (the media, who always make up for their own neglect with histrionics). It also sounded as though the secretary was making a pointed jab intended to let the world know that the Obama administration is not in the pocket of the "teachers unions"--those media symbols for resistance to education reform, however one might construe that idea--or the mollycoddling progressives.

It's all so disheartening I don't even know whom to feel sorry for, except that I don't hear a lot of meaningful sympathy for--or a real set of plans to help--the kids in Central Falls. But I have to say I find the delight that the current administration seems to be taking in the whole situation distasteful and opportunistic, the moreso perhaps because Arne Duncan is no more capable than anyone else of dropping into Central Falls to quickly set things aright.

Which brings me to an idea for a television program, rather like Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares or any of the other "experts come and correct a bad situation in a few short hours" television shows. The genre seems to be British in origin, but it has spread, perhaps because we all like to indulge in the magical thinking involved in imagining that an SUV full of gay men can make us handsome and suave or two judgmental middle-aged women can turn us from Oscar Madisons into neatniks.

I want to see Arne Duncan, or anyone else, walk into the classrooms of schools adjudged "failing" and fix things up in a jiffy. C'mon, we've seen this in a zillion teacher movies, so it must be easy. Recent news from Teach for America says it's easy--just take some ambitious Ivy Leaguers who fit a certain profile and add students.

I don't think it's easy. Teaching is never easy, no matter where one is or what kinds of families students come from or what kind of colleges that teachers graduate from. But there are a few principles that tend to bear fruit (just as there are principals who can't do the job), and I bet we all know educators who could walk into Central Falls High School and turn the place around--given some time. The optimist in me likes to think that most of those fired teachers could yet be redeemed, and I hope they get the help they need to have that happen before even more teenagers come adrift from the education system.

Maybe the "Classroom Nightmares" show could represent teaching for what it truly is: a skill, a science, and an art that depends on a whole culture of supports, systems, and above all beliefs that make it possible for young people to learn. Please note that I am not advocating any "one best system" here, just reminding the reader that this can be done.

How about CNN, or Fox, or BBC, or PBS, producing "Teacher X's Classroom Nightmares" as a way of demonstrating to the world at large what teaching is really like and what the challenges are, whether in a poor urban district or even (gasp) an affluent independent school? Of course, it would have to be a continuing series, not a one-hour special. And we know we can't vote any students off the island.

Done well, a program like this could help frame the debate on education and education policy as something more than Arne Duncan posturing or Fox pundits spewing whatever it is they spew.

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