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?


Anonymous said...

As with many paths, we'll probably be somewhere in the middle between Mad Max & the Jetsons, but in a way that's what's worrisome; like Gore's frog cooking metaphor, we're getting the slow boil and not noticing the temperature is rising.

Anonymous said...

Although I like many of your comments I must say that a quote from an elitist, white, Christian, English speaking noble cannot and should not be used as a metaphor for independent schools. The hills of Eton do not resemble the United Mosaics of America. I would have blended dozens of battle fields from around the world and hope that a flag emerges; a colorful flag for peace, friendship and open-mindedness. I like that you compare life\learning to a battle field. I doubt that the web and all its new tools will be a defining factor, for they are just that: tools. For students to be part of a constructive century they will need minds that have traveled, suffered and experienced what this world is really all about. Independent schools too often shelter students from poverty,suffering and struggles. Let them experience the world first hand. Books, classrooms and the web can only take you so far.