Founders Day Speech

[ September 30, 2007 ]

Welcome to all alumni, especially to the class of 1957 celebrating their 50th reunion during the centennial year of the school, members of the Alumni Executive Committee, members of the Board of Trustees, esteemed faculty members, students and parents and honorable guests—Welcome!. It is a great pleasure to have the privilege of speaking to you today as we celebrate the Centennial of this fine school, the fortitude of the Founders and a beautiful homecoming for all the students, both current and former.

As this school ends one century and begins another century of operation. I would like to talk to you all about my ideas; some ideas I have picked up from students, alumni, teachers and board members in these last months; and some intriguing ideas that are now coming to the fore in education. I would like to divide my thoughts into two sets of comments this morning: thinking about the past and thinking about the future.

Riverdale County School’s history has been marked by three principal traits in my mind: a constant healthy struggle to define a community in this area of the city that offers so very much to students, a belief that a liberal arts education is the best means to develop ethical leaders and young people who will lead meaningful lives, and that a balance between academic work and co-curricular work was essential in providing the whole school with a healthy perspective—that being a scholar/athlete is indeed a glorious thing, that being an artist as well as an academic enrichens one’s intellectual life.

Frank Hackett, John Hayden Jones, Gordon Stillman, Roger Boocock and John R. Johnson were all committed in different ways to these historical pillars of this school and have demonstrated it in different ways over the years. Frank Hackett started the school with the idea of offering “abundant play” and scholarly rigor to young people from the city. This would be an ideal type of school for privileged gentlemen in encouraging them to be independent thinkers who would also be “socially useful”. John Jones deepened that vision and made it a reality adding his own clear-headed educational philosophy to the mixture. “He urged experimentation and he created a relaxed and secure atmosphere in which to teach…” as Harold Klue in his book The Jones Years notes. Gordon Stillman ushered the school through the tempestuous years of the Seventies, while Roger Boocock set up the school for its growth and the raising of academic standards that John Johnson has undertaken in recent years. The school has been a dynamic place and yet a secure place: a school that has certain touchstones, and yet, which is willing to change the assumptions by shifting campuses and inventing novel programs such as the ILS course and the C.A.R.E program. Therefore, I believe that the school has always maintained a foot in the past while seriously planning and thinking about the future.

I would like to read to you a short excerpt from a piece on global education: “ Today’s world is without frontiers. In a world moving at a rapid pace, with amazing scientific developments, old boundaries and distances have vanished. Today the lives of nations, races, and peoples are bound together. There can be no safe isolation, no secure hermitage. Today we know that peace and freedom, security and prosperity, cannot exist in one corner of the world alone. They must be common to all nations and all peoples…Today’s generation of youth, born to a complex, scientific world, have seen with their own eyes the cost of failure to cooperate.” Frank Hackett wrote this in 1947, sixty years ago. Although he was not able to bring his vision of a “World School” to fruition, his ideas and those of the people working with him were decades ahead of their time. I would like to take this perspicacity of Hackett’s as inspiration and cast out now for a few years, what I see as the future of education and in particular this great school.

As Jane Katz has remarked, Riverdale is primed for its next century. Its trajectory is one of improvement and refinement made possible by the great minds that have taught and continue to teach here. I think that this is a great moment for the school to take stock and invent its future. I also believe that it is a critical time in education, where we have co-opted the true concept of learning in favor of an empty credentialing of our children for college, for work, and indeed for life. Therefore, I envision a future for Riverdale and a future for education in the United States that brings the concept of effective learning and apprenticeship to the fore and de-emphasizes the filling in of multiple choice boxes and rote learning. We want young people to learn because they are interested in learning and understand that it will have them lead better and more meaningful lives.

David J. Skornton, the President of Cornell University, called recently for a Marshall Plan for global educational outreach in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Although I agree with President Skornton about the necessity of universities working globally, I also think that there is a need for a “New Deal” for education—something that is inward looking as well and will help cure the ills of the educational system. I hope that in the years ahead, Riverdale Country School will forge a path in education that others will look to as people did in Hackett’s time at the school.

I do believe that this school can be one of the premier educational institutions in the country and that we can do an even better job of producing the next generation of leaders for the United States and for the world. What does that really mean for us? It means that we cannot rest on our laurels. As you will hear from John Kao later this morning, the dynamics in the world are shifting and we need to pay attention to these shifts. Much of our current world is based on agrarian thinking or industrial thinking, it is not based on dynamic innovation and creativity, and yet, our children will prosper if they can understand complex ideas, think carefully about change, and innovate with both passion and good practical sense. Thus, for the next era in education I would propose four critical “redefinitions”: a redefinition of the place of the teacher, a redefinition of learning, thinking and communicating; a redefinition of community; and a redefinition of success. I hope to have the school grapple with such redefinitions in the years ahead.

A redefinition of the place of the teacher
I admire teachers more than any other people. Great teachers live in the path of Socrates, Mahatma Ghandhi, Marva Collins and Martin Luther King—individuals who put into action ideas that they felt were compelling. Teachers are role models and teachers are my heroes. I watched our wonderful team of Pre-Kindergarten teachers working with students in the playground the other day and much of what they were doing were showing these young citizens how to act and how to behave. I watched Bill Pahlka give a lecture on Classical Greece to the students in ILS the other day, and it was wonderful to watch someone with such a fine mind extract contemporary lessons from the culture and society of the Athens of that time.
It is tremendously difficult to expect people to possess deep knowledge in their various fields, and, at the same time, expect them to lead irreproachable lives—but that is what we expect of teachers. Although I agree with this expectation, I do not think that our society sufficiently respects teachers or their hard work. I know that the Riverdale community has always tried to do its best to support the teachers here, and I would like to continue that tradition as best we can in the years ahead here at RCS. I would like to see us take the professional development of our teachers and the way we offer feedback to our teachers more seriously. I would like to see our parent and student body understand better what a teacher does and how they can help teachers. I would like to see us raise the level of professionalism in teaching so that we do not seem like the poor relative of doctors and lawyers. Viewing education as a service industry can help teachers and schools become more friendly and sensible places for outsiders to comprehend. On the other hand, I think that this view of schools tends to diminish the standing of teachers. These last days I have seen alumni talk about how a teacher changed their life for the good. I hope that Riverdale can work at really shifting the current cultural perception of teachers and that everyone will again see teachers as “giants” and give them the fitting respect they deserve.

A redefinition of learning and thinking
Try to think back to a moment when you learned something well. It can be absolutely anything. I learned how to make a risotto once and that is actually something that it is quite difficult—it takes patience, knowledge, common sense, experience and deftness of hand. I learned how to make a good risotto, by watching experts, by experimenting and by having this insatiable desire to taste more good risotto. As you think back to a learning experience that was exemplary, fun and energizing, how akin is that experience to learning in schools or learning in universities? Although I deeply admire our present generation of students, I do think that often we tether them to knowledge and skills that may have helped previous generations, but are not linked to the skills, knowledge and dispositions needed in their futures. To my mind, we do not need people who write sentences that are more correct than others or who know the “right way” to solve a mathematical function. We need flexible lateral thinkers and questioners; teaching young people to think well like this requires special teachers. We are lucky that many such teachers have come over the years to RCS and have stayed here. Moving forward, though, as educators, we have to put a special emphasis on what it means to think well and how we can model that for our students. Good thinking is not about writing an effective five-paragraph essay, it is about forming one’s ideas in a valid way and being able to communicate them effectively to others. Good thinking is about rhetoric, and yet, rhetoric as subject matter is not taught as it was in the past in places such as Athens and Rome. I believe that good thinking is much more about understanding how to ask a good question and how to craft a good argument in response to a question, but do we teach argumentation and critical questioning in an intentional manner? As we move forward, I hope to have the Riverdale Country School focus on developing a common understanding, based on good research in education and cognition, as to what constitutes effective learning and thinking and how classroom practice needs to reflect the implications of this research.

I also think that we have to bring the artist into the classroom more and more. Good ideas come usually from the most creative minds, and the United States has been a creative leader for years, but I think that we have to ask if our schools really have young people understand what it is to be truly creative? How does one become creative? Good learning is truly a creative act. You take one received idea and play around with it. This play leads to other good ideas or a reformulation of the original idea. Creative ideas are manifest in each part of our lives. The way that we see the protagonist of a novel or film as a representation of us, the way we have a great idea while running in the park, humans’ visceral interest in the arts, the way that self-expression can lead to deeper understanding are all ways that creativity can affect the individual. Schools need to learn from the arts so that all work in every discipline is infused with the type of experiential and creative work that the arts encourage.

I would like to see us redefine learning and thinking as a much more engaged and creative process. Some people make the claim that students should “learn for learning’s sake”. I disagree with this view. We should learn because learning makes us better people and it can make us better decision-makers in our lives. To my mind, removing the ethical consequences of thinking and learning in schools and universities is a recipe for disaster. It opens the door to many people who hold up the idea of free thought as an imperative without having to be responsible for their ideas. Thinking without responsibility is morally bankrupt, and I would ask that we redefine thinking and learning as acquiring wisdom rather than purely knowledge— wisdom defined as knowledge put to some good use. As Tennyson wrote: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.” I would hope that in the years ahead, schools, students and teachers will focus on educating for that lingering creative wisdom so that we can all more seriously understand the consequences of our thinking and ideas—an attribute that is sorely lacking in our world.

A redefinition of democracy, community and communication
As evidenced over these last days, Riverdale is indeed a strong community, but how can we be an even stronger community? What does it mean to be part of a community in our world nowadays? What does it mean to communicate well? How do schools support the idea of students being apprentices in the democratic process? As technology and the global process of cause and effect have made the world smaller and flatter, the social context more complex, and condensed time, we do have to intentionally teach students how to work together with people from different backgrounds and countries. We have to have students understand what it means to communicate effectively with different audiences. Students can now become part of a local or global dialogue through social and collaborative software. The school of the future will be able to forge ties across national and international divides through technology. In addition to traveling to places like India and Africa—communication between students in different countries has become simpler and less expensive. Additionally, this communication brings along with it a strong dose of democratic thinking as we can see starting to develop in places like China and in the phenomenon of Wikipedia, a web resource that allows any informed individual to contribute to this digital encyclopedia. This generation of students might be able to connect with others in more substantial ways if schools support and help instruct in how to communicate effectively. I will enjoy seeing how RCS can support such communication and understanding through the appropriate use of technology in the years ahead.

Having young people become agents of their own lives rather than feeling that life is just happening to them is also tremendously important. I completely agree with the idea that all students need to acquire the basic literacies and knowledge that will allow them to function in life; however, it has to be more than acquiring knowledge and skills, students have to use their school learning to see how it can change and affect their lives and the lives of others. We used to teach civics—something that now seems dated, and although I would not revive courses in civics, I do think that all schooling should be suffused with lessons in civics. We are in the business of training leaders and good citizens, therefore, our work should be in service of that aim. Students from an early age should be involved in environmental and community service work that ties explicitly to their academic courses. John Dewey, the famous philosopher and educational theorist, argued strongly for this type of engaged and experiential education, and I think we are at a moment, when we must champion the idea of the engaged intellectual and decry the “ivory tower” mentality of academia in both secondary and tertiary education. We need to have our children actually use all their learning to help make their lives and the world a better place. Therefore, I hope to see RCS become a leader in community-based learning where one does not just go to school, but one becomes part of a vibrant multicultural community and comes to understand the responsibility of being part of a community, both in and close to the school and across the world.

A redefinition of success
How do we gauge success? This is an essential question for educators to ask at this point in our history. Post-Enron, confronting a complex and difficult situation in Iraq, living in a time where there are few heroes and where institutional ethics have been questioned by cultural relativists, we need to worry about the messages that our children are receiving from the media-drenched worlds we inhabit. I worry that people do not see the benefits of leading an ethical life. I am heartened by the interest in the stewardship our environment increasing global awareness; however, this is an ongoing battle. Currently we have an epidemic of depression and anxiety in young people. Schools and universities can no longer assume that students are happy and balanced, I believe that we have to intentionally foster virtues and character in our students. For many years this was done implicitly in schools, such as Riverdale, in school meetings or chapel talks and in the way that they were run—independent schools were to some degree tough places that were intended to build resilience, but it was a haphazard process. I would argue strongly that we need to intentionally develop character strengths and virtues in our children that will help them go on to lead satisfying and meaningful lives. It is no accident that the highest enrolled class at Harvard University is a course on Positive Psychology taught by Tal Ben-Shahar. This course aims to have students really understand what it means to be happy by having them think about meaning in their lives, by simplifying their lives, by expressing gratitude. I look to see people like Ben-Shahar and Marty Seligman at University of Pennsylvania, who invented the term “positive psycholology” and who has done great work on character strengths and virtues, visit the school in the years ahead and have us think about what it means to provide young people with a sense of well-being and a sense of how to lead happy, virtuous lives.

I think that this redefinition of success is tied very closely to the stewardship of the place where the school is situated. Frank Hackett started the “country school” to have young boys come out from the city to the countryside. I hope that the school will also ground our students in the quest to really understand how we need to take care of the land and the world we live in. This is another aspect of developing a moral compass whereby we can live happy lives. Environmental thinkers and activists such as Bill McDonough and David Orr are successfully pushing us all, including large companies such as Ford and Nike, to come to grips with the environmental consequences of all our actions and to bring good design to our lives and work. I think that a good school must pay attention to these social, environmental and moral issues. Thus, I would say that what we need to do is redefine success not in terms of the power we can wield, but rather in terms of the responsibility we can assume. I know that in the next years we will continue to encourage these young leaders to assume responsibility happily and graciously as alumni from here have done in years past.

Concluding remarks
The launching of Sputnik fifty years ago made the United States question its approach to education in general, and to the teaching of Science and Mathematics in particular. What is our precipitating event that will have us reconsider what we are doing nowadays in schools and universities? I would argue that there are many such events, here is a list of places and events, amongst others, that should make us wake up: 9_11 / COLUMBINE_VIRGINIA TECH / DARFUR / MYANAMAR / AL-QUAEDA / ENRON
It is clear that there is much work for schools and educators to do, but it has to be focused work. I believe that Riverdale Country School can be a leader in education and better prepare students for the complex world they will have to navigate if we can focus clearly on these four “redefinitions”:
– A REDEFINITION OF THE PLACE OF TEACHERS by treating teachers professionally and with respect for the amazing work that they do every day with young people. We need to see our teachers as heroes.
– A REDEFINITION OF LEARNING by helping our students understand how to learn and think more clearly, more effectively and more creatively by bringing to bear good research in human cognition upon our pedagogical principles and practice. We need to teach our students to become wiser.
– A REDEFINITION OF BECOMING A COMMUNITY MEMBER by developing community-minded individuals who understand themselves, others, can communicate cogently and how one can make one’s ideas become actions in the social, economic and political arenas. We need to have our students work together with others in this multicultural world we inhabit.
– and finally, A REDEFINITION OF SUCCESS AND WELL-BEING by providing young people with the type of strategies and skills that will allow them to cope with stress and find good balance in their lives. We need to have our students understand what it is to lead satisfying and meaningful lives.

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