I almost didn’t click on the link when it showed up in my Google+ stream this morning. I know enough about the history of the common school movement to know that Horace Mann did, indeed, go to Prussia and was, indeed, inspired by what he saw in schools there. But what might I find if I clicked the link?
I’m glad I did. I found an organization called The New American Academy that seems (or at least claims) to be slowly, but steadily transforming existing public schools in New York City, as well as building new, non-factory-model schools from scratch. I want to know more about them, of course, but I’m glad I clicked that link today.
I’m also glad I listened to an odd feeling and used a restaurant gift card somebody had given me last night. I hadn’t been there in years, but the food was significantly better and the service was remarkably good. And then I saw two different former students, from two very different time periods, within five minutes at the grocery store.
Things are slowly coming together. I’m not entirely sure how the meal, the conversations with N and M, and the article about the “Prussian-Industrial Model” of education are all connected, but I’m beginning to see some possibilities. I think I had stopped eating at the Restaurant In Question because it felt more and more like a dining factory. When The Girl was small, it was a favorite of hers, and we ate there a lot in those days; when we were staying with friends almost 15 years ago, on the way to another close friend’s wedding, we had a really good meal and great conversation at the location in Those Parts. But then things started to change … and now, perhaps, they’re changing back, or something.
What about N and M? More than a decade ago, when The School was working on the idea of student leadership for its then-still-successful Socratic Seminar program, I sent an email to the faculty asking them for their “best and worst” seminar participants. I had a hunch that both groups would be a fruitful source of Student Seminar Assistant candidates, but I was particularly interested in the “worst” lists, the “bad, lazy, horrible” students, from the Ms. X and Mr. Y group. And of course N was on that list! And of course she’s gone on to a successful life, a happy family and marriage, and a career she loves … because N refused to accept the “bad, lazy, horrible” label from Ms. X and Mr. Y. “It’s so good to see you!” she said. “I want to sit at your feet and learn some couponing skills from you,” I told her. M is younger, a fairly recent graduate, but she, too, refused the “bad, lazy, horrible” label and has found a job she loves. And yet, if I told Ms. X or Mr. Y about the work M is doing, they probably wouldn’t believe me. If I could find the previous Ms. X and Mr. Y who knew N, they certainly wouldn’t believe me. “That awful kid?!” they’d exclaim.
As the folks at The New American Academy reminded me, “fear, isolation, and monotony” were the deliberate underpinnings of the Prussian model, and they came over more or less unchanged when the designers of the American factory-model system imported the Prussian structures. The goal, after all, was to prepare young people to succeed in the isolated and monotonous factory-jobs of the early 20th century … and most jobs in those days, from the factory floor to the office, really were built on isolation and monotony, on obedience and hierarchy and task completion and following the directions. “Just hold them accountable,” said That Power on Monday afternoon, “and fill out the paperwork, and we’ll punish them, and everything will be just fine again.”
I don’t really want a pony, of course, but I’m about as likely to get one by wishing for it as Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the Powers In Question are to get accountability from students by paperwork and punishment. “What’s wrong with so many kids anyway?” asked N, who was one just a few years ago. “They don’t seem to understand about effort and persistence.” We didn’t have time for a long conversation; N was on her way in to the store, and I was on my way out with some perishable stuff that needed to be put away. If I’d had more time, I would have said that the structure itself, which was only designed to encourage effort and persistence in some students some of the time, is producing its predictable results. B, U, and the others have developed a fixed mindset: they’ll “do OK” with minimal effort, and they’ll still “do OK” even if they really exert themselves, so why do more than the minimum? Besides, it’s spring, and Spring Break will be here soon, and then there will be the Prom and Graduation and Summer.
A joyful learning community can encourage greater effort and persistence, but how much can one little learning community do to change the foundations of a vast, complex system? Or is that the question we need to ask? On this rainy spring day, with much to accomplish, I’m left scratching my head and wondering what new insights and discoveries await. Wondering … and grateful for the things that slowly came together yesterday, and for the insights that arrive when the time is right.