Head of School Blog
As a college student in the mid-1970’s, I remember being undaunted by the article from a national publication that was affixed to the door of the Philosophy Department office. I no longer remember the title of the article, but the gist of it can be summed up as follows: “No jobs in sight for Philosophy Majors.” Happily, since I was part of a generation that was empowered by the idea that our job was to improve the world, if not to save it, I was not deterred by such an apparently dismal employment prognosis.
In a teaching career now spanning 40 years, I have had the privilege of observing first-hand the ways in which philosophy plays a key role both in learning and in decision-making. In everyday life philosophy has been traditionally understood as “the love of wisdom,” and as a academic discipline it is also associated with “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” Although these are pretty abstract ideas, there is lots of research to show that they are nonetheless relevant even to young children.
I have been struck in recent years at the way in which Data Analytics have come to play a more prominent role both in real world solutions and in the popular imagination. This is a promising development, but I believe that it is becoming increasingly important to balance the data-driven approach with a philosophy-driven approach. And while there seems to be general consensus that the roots of what I shall call “Big Philosophy” may be found in the respective traditions of Socrates and Aristotle, there is little consensus about the origins of “Big Data.”
Let’s consider the idea of Big Philosophy and the way in which it has helped to shape both our thinking and our culture. As the widely recognized father of Philosophy, Socrates is best known for promoting a logical method of inquiry focused on discerning goodness and morality from abstract principles. Socrates did not actually write anything down, so our understanding of his work comes from the devotion of Plato, one of his star pupils. Plato then became the teacher of Aristotle, whose major contribution to Big Philosophy was a focus on actual things and particular phenomena.
The origins of “Big Data” are less clear. According to a February 2013 New York Times article by Steve Lohr (The Origins of ‘Big Data’: An Etymological Detective Story), efforts to trace the origins of digital data have proved elusive, credit having been taken variously by economists, data scientists, and academics. That line of research is far beyond most people’s scope of expertise, and yet as 21st century citizens we are all linked to each other in an enormous and inextricable web of information exchange.
My point here is that GPS devices are able to tell us where we are with astonishing accuracy, but they are not very good at telling us where we should go. Similarly, while Netflix long ago pioneered the idea that our quality of life might benefit from personalized movie recommendations, most of us are now over-saturated with such information and thirsting for algorithms based on word-of-mouth or other less scientific measures. As we adjust to living in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, we will all need to stay in touch with our natural/biological intelligence as well.
In addition to such perplexing existential questions, on a practical level we are also witnessing a dramatic breakdown in American civic institutions. From my standpoint as an educator, I believe that there is urgent need for schools and other educational organizations to more closely align the innovative power of Big Data with the enduring benefits of Big Philosophy. Data experts can glean important patterns from unprocessed information, but in isolation they are unlikely to resolve the thorny issues of contemporary life.
My hope for America is to bring together the best of our emerging science with the best of our still-relevant philosophy. In technical terms this will require a reconciliation between Aristotelian logic and Socratic dialogue; in more everyday language, a willingness for people to reach out across the conceptual aisle. In realpolitik and in academia, the only viable pathway for a pluralistic future is to bring together these two powerful forces. How lucky that contemporary American society is filled both with talented data experts and with sensible philosophers.
In 5th Grade Leadership Class we have asked the students to look ahead to the year 2067 and to imagine that they are receiving individual Lifetime Achievement Awards. In writing Acceptance Speeches for these awards, we have encouraged them to imagine that they are looking back at a lifetime filled with successful attention focused on the specific issue that they have always cared deeply about. By way of example, here are some of the issues that are important to our students:
- Political Justice
- Athletic Accomplishment
- Support for Teachers
- Support for Scientific Research
- Access to Educational Opportunity
- Women's Rights
- Animal Rights
- Equal Pay for Equal Work
- Climate Change
- Sustainable Architecture
- Protection Against Child Labor
- Protection Against Homelessness
It is gratifying to realize that the children of this generation really do care deeply about a broad range of important values and virtues. Not only are they aware of many relevant challenges and opportunities that they will face in their own futures, they are also mindful of the ways in which they may choose to express their best possible adult selves. By way of example, here is but a small excerpt from one of the student's speeches:
It is my absolute honor to accept this world wide ice skating award; for my love of this remarkable art. I use my skates to express how I feel, what I like, what inspires me. I tell my story. I skate, to feel the tiny ice shards fly all around me, the chill, the worry, the voice....
It doesn’t matter if you are passionate about dogs, cats, horses, homeless, equality, yourself, or nothing at all; if you are passionate about it and you put your heart, soul, and love into it; you shall become amazing and hopefully, one day you’ll be standing where I’m standing, making a speech just like me. Passion. Hope. Wonder. Curiosity. Wit. Humor. And most importantly; friendship. You don’t just go in and you are instantly the best at what you just tried. You might show serious promise, but you’re certainly not the best. You just go out there, try something new, and if you like it, be the best you that you can be about it, and if you don’t, there’s always tomorrow.
I just watched a Ted Talk entitled Are You a Giver or a Taker? by Adam Grant. At the risk of wrongly paraphrasing, I found fascinating his use of the work "pronoia." I believe that this is an invented word, but it certainly sheds positive light on another pathway toward Best Possible Selfhood. According to what I heard, Mr. Grant defines pronoia as "the delusional belief that other people are plotting your well-being." He juxtaposes this to a more familiar term -- paranoia, going so far as to say that "they're going behind your back and saying exceptionally glowing things about you." The context of Mr. Grant's research is in studying organizations and trying to differentiate between the impact of agreeable people as well as disagreeable people, people who are "Givers" as opposed to those who are "Takers." As he concludes at the end of the talk, "In a culture of Givers, this (the presence of pronoia--emphasis mine) is not a delusion but a reality." Happy pronoid thinking to everyone!
I started my morning yesterday with a scheduled coffee conversation in the school library with several dozen CHS parents and staff members. Although this get-together had been scheduled many months ago as an opportunity to discuss the expected transition to the Trump Presidency, none of us could have anticipated that the weekend immediately preceding would be marked by such strong reactions to the Executive Order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. Though this was not the only topic of conversation, certainly it played a big role in the feelings and reactions of the group. Eloquently and candidly, many of our parents expressed the ways in which they are trying to find the right balance between informing their children of important and newsworthy events while protecting them from potentially confusing and alarming information. We learned that some families have been actively participating in public marches and demonstrations while others are trying to maintain as much normalcy as possible. Once again I was grateful for the level of honesty and humanity that is so much characteristic of our community.
Our faculty and staff gathered on Friday afternoon to talk about Inauguration Day 2017. I did my best to prompt the conversation with questions such as the following: how did it go? how were they feeling? in what ways had the children been wanting to talk about the Inauguration? The premise of this conversation was clear -- i.e., that neither the workplace nor the classroom are appropriate venues to discuss politics as such, but rather to acknowledge that the norms of American political life are being challenged and subject to dramatic reconsideration. We wondered together what the Best Possible Inauguration Day experience might have looked like for the children and shared examples and perspectives from across the grades. As elementary educators we recognized that we were facing an age-old dilemma with a 21st century twist: was it our job merely to initiate civics lessons into the curriculum or perhaps more intentionally to confront the awkward, if not contentious, aspects of a modern democracy? I’m not sure whether or not we can claim credit for the Best Possible Inauguration Day experience, but I was proud of the way in which our teachers engaged so respectfully with each other and responded so thoughtfully to this emerging challenge.
I studied John Dewey in considerable depth in graduate school and have never been able to let go of a particular sentence he wrote in "Democracy and Education." Despite the fact that this book was published in 1916, I find the sentence to be completely relevant to today's challenges:
In education meet the three most powerful motives of human activity: the intellectual, the intrapersonal, and the social.
I have long since committed this sentence to memory, and I suspect that it has guided my work continually for the past 35 years. To me, this is another important window into the pathway toward best possible selfhood. Absent a commitment to promote human knowledge through imagination and curiosity, to embrace human connection through empathy and understanding, and to increase human happiness through equity and the common good, it is hard to imagine becoming our best possible selves. The joy--and perhaps the burden--of teaching in an elementary school is that all three of these potential pathways are unmistakably real and simultaneously interconnected. It is a privilege to help children to develop in all three of these important dimensions.
For many years I've been interested in the relationship between knowledge, understanding, and empathy. Both in this blog and elsewhere I've tried to highlight the importance of caring about things as opposed to merely knowing something. Accordingly, as I've started to focus on the connection between striving for excellence and being our best possible selves, I realize that the standard of care metaphor is more helpful than the attainment of knowledge metaphor. Of course educators and parents are mutually interested in a school experience that leads to the attainment of knowledge, and there are many valid measures by which such results can be evaluated. However, the highest test of an educational experience points more toward personal excellence than toward the isolated accumulation of knowledge. It is precisely for this reason that I embrace the standard of care metaphor. If we want our students to care equally about personal conduct and academic achievement, naturally we want their teachers to care equally about the quality of curriculum and the quality of personal connection. To me, this is a tentative probe into the idea of best possible teaching and learning. The greatest challenge for educators is to exercise the highest standard of care in everything we do: conversation, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.
By any measure, the children of The Chestnut Hill School are quite remarkable young people. Inquisitive, enthusiastic, perceptive, and affable, they represent the best of our educational ideals and inspire us to provide the best possible programs and services. As individuals our students are self-motivated, self-aware, and eager to take advantage of a challenging and dynamic curriculum; as classmates and friends they are supportive of each other’s accomplishments, mindful of the ways in which their collective diversity is a great strength, and proud to think of themselves as members of a vibrant and inclusive community.
Let’s imagine for a moment that this preview is both a description of real students and a prescription for how these students can become their best possible selves. Indeed, this dual perspective lies at the heart of our job as educators and parents. On the one hand, we need to believe that formal schooling can bring about meaningful and concrete outcomes that would otherwise not be possible: literacy, numeracy, informed creativity, civic awareness, social and cultural competence, etc. On the other hand, we need also to believe that the children with whom we work are already capable of great outcomes.
Every skilled teacher faces this duality on a daily basis. If we didn’t believe unconditionally in the natural goodness of our students, we wouldn’t believe in their ability to reach for high standards of performance. However, it we didn’t believe that we could make a difference in our teaching, then we wouldn’t work so hard to create connections with them and to coordinate so fully with our teaching colleagues. There is little doubt that the education of a child is an enormously complex undertaking, and in our ongoing efforts to help young people to become their best possible selves we must have a keen understanding of biology, psychology, social science, cognitive theory, and pedagogy.
I am humbled in the realization that great teachers are knowledgeable about these each of these important aspects of human development. To care about a child’s growth is not only to be invested in his or her total experience, but also to understand the myriad ways in which the various elements of curriculum are all interconnected. More difficult math problems result neither in stronger mathematicians nor in more successful people. Conflict-resolution skills are important but do not in themselves help children to form secure notions of identity. And as much as homework can be a positive extension of learning, it is clear that self-initiated play is sometimes an equally powerful catalyst for growth.
I use these examples merely to highlight some specific measures by which we might agree that Chestnut Hill School students are indeed remarkable: math achievement, secure identify-formation, and self-initiated play. As our teachers and families work together toward the goal of encouraging best possible young people selves, I am heartened by the evidence of such success.
I've been lucky to see several inspiring films recently, most notably Arrival, a beautiful film combining elements of poetry, linguistics, free will, and science fiction. Mistakenly believing that the film was based on a book of a similar title, I purchased a copy of Shaun Tan's The Arrival and gave myself some time over the weekend to read it carefully. Indeed, I prepared myself for the fact that a graphic novel that had taken four years to research might require more concentration than a regular book with words. Although I greatly enjoyed this experience, it turned out that I was wrong about the connection between "Arrival" and "The Arrival" and that the film was based instead on a short story entitled Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. What a lucky mistake. Both texts provide insight/illumination on the relationship between going somewhere and being from somewhere. Whether in fiction or in the classroom of life, for me these are elements fundamental to the possibility of being our best selves.
Our school generally holds assemblies each Friday morning, often showcasing the work of a particular grade and sometimes highlighting the work of an outside artist or performer. With the whole school sitting together in a common assembly space -- students and teachers, it is quite an integral component of school life.
Organized and hosted by our Equity and Social Justice Team, this week's assembly was designed to showcase student voices across the grades. While the youngest students displayed posters illustrating affinities, family members, and important feelings, the older students introduced poetry and visual art as means by which to express themselves even more fully. Thanks, first, to collaboration by homeroom teachers and specialists alike -- art, Spanish, woodworking, music, technology, and library, this event was truly an example of our students at their best possible selves. Thanks, also, to visionary curriculum design, the students took full advantage of this opportunity and taught each other a great deal about human universals: not just about what is important on the outside, but also about what is important on the inside. Thanks, finally, to our strong tradition of public speaking, the children certainly held teachers and each other spellbound for the duration of the program.