Can a (new kind of) school change the world?


I'm obsessed with societal collapse. Economic inequality? Cultural dissolution? Systemic poverty? Environmental degradation? Substance abuse? The depression epidemic? Racial unrest? Ideological polarization? These are the topics that keep me up at night.

Though: I'm not despondent about these. Not only is there hope — I think our society is even making important progress on some of these fronts, progress that goes largely unrecognized in the media.

But a good outcome isn't a foregone conclusion. We live in the middle of a story whose ending is still up for grabs. From my vantage point, it's reasonable to expect that we'll screw the whole thing up (and take half the biosphere with us) and, at the same time, reasonable to expect that we'll get society right (and create a world truly worthy of Homo sapiens).

And I'm obsessed about figuring out how we can move away from the bad ending, and toward the good one.

I say this because lately I've realized that almost no one knows this about me. (Not my friends; not even my wife! That was an intriguing conversation.)

And I say it because, at some level, my goals for this school — this new kind of school — are bound up with these questions.

Can a school — a new kind of school — help mend the world?

Not save the world, mind you. Save is all-or-nothing. Mend is a more realistic goal. Mend allows us to count half-steps, allows us to take pride in making improvements at any scale, allows us to work with others.

So: can it?

Three possible routes

Obviously, this question of "can a school mend the world?" is an old one. It's what launched the common school movement in the mid 1800s, what launched Dewey's Progressive movement in the early 1900s, what launched Maria Montessori's and Rudolf Steiner's schools in the mid-1900s.

I can count (at least) three routes that people have pursued as to how a type of schooling can do this. The first — ideological indoctrination — I think misguided (and entirely inappropriate for our school). The second two — developing skills and cultivating understanding — I think promising (and entirely fitting).

Route #1: Ideological take-over of society? Nah.

There's a famous essay — well, famous among historians of American education! — that advocates that schools be ideologically-charged: that they communicate the true view of the world and radicalize the students, who will then go on to launch the revolution that will change society.

(It's funny: the author I'm thinking of was a Communist, but what I just wrote could equally well describe any number of Republican or Democratic writers currently writing about education.)

The author was George Counts, a previous partner of John Dewey who, in the midst of the Great Depression penned the pamphlet "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?"

I love the chutzpah of the pamphlet. Heck, I love the chutzpah of just the title! (I bet George Counts' wife knew where he stood on mending the world!)

It's a short piece. If you haven't read it before, and have yet to fulfill your doctor's daily recommended dosage of fiery midcentury call-to-revolution rhetoric, can I suggest you take a skim through it?

Counts argues that schools should help bring about the socialist revolution:

If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must... face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, establish an organic relation with the community, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened than it is today at the bogies of imposition and indoctrination.

This is the moment I probably should make something clear: George Counts was a Communist, and I'm not. (Though, oddly, I'm wearing this Communist Party t-shirt right now! In my defense, it was still dark when I picked my clothes this morning.)

George Counts, of course, failed in his attempt to make the teaching profession an extension of the Communist Party. And in retrospect, it's almost impossible to imagine he could have succeeded. Politics follows Newton's Third Law of Motion:

For any action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

If well-meaning people on the Left try to bend schools to their will, then well-meaning people on the Right will step in to thwart them. And if well-meaning people on the Right try to do the same, then well-meaning people on the Left will step in.

George Counts' mistake was thinking that the schools could stand outside the rest of American society — that they could influence without being influenced (except by him!).

Mending the world by ideologically charging the schools: a losing game.

Route #2: Building skills? Yes.

But there are other routes to mending the world: one is by building crazy-mad skill.

I'm teaching a high school course in moral economics this year, and this week we've talked about human capital. "Human capital" is a term from economics, invented when economists started taking seriously that the resources that lead to economic well-being aren't just oil and machines and large stacks of bills: they include the grand sum of skill, natural talent, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgement, and wisdom that reside inside people and contribute to their ability to make a living.

Human capital, to be clear, is a very expansive idea. Sci-fi author Robert Heinlein once wrote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

All of these, even, fit cheerfully within "human capital." (In fact, one of the primary criticisms of the concept is that it's too inclusive, but that's a different topic.)

Why do we care about this? Because human capital is one of answers to the question "why are some people more successful than others?"

Charles Wheelan, a professor of public policy at Dartmouth, writes in Naked Economics:

True, people are poor in America because they cannot find good jobs. But that is the symptom, not the illness. The underlying problem is a lack of skills, or human capital. The poverty rate for high school dropouts in America is 12 times the poverty rate for college graduates. Why is India one of the poorest countries in the world? Primarily because 35 percent of the population is illiterate.

Now: this isn't the whole story. Poverty is a complex beast, and it has more causes than a dearth of human capital: systematic racism, classism, sexism, and so on. But human capital explains a crucial part of what holds some people back (and allows others to leap ahead).

The wonderful thing, of course, is that schools do provide human capital: reading, writing, math, and so on. The terrible thing is that they seem to not do it particularly well.

Take reading. Diane McGuinness unpacks a research finding, in Why Our Children Can't Read (And What We Can Do about It)

about 17 percent of working adults, thirty-three million people, are both well educated and sufficiently literate to work effectively in a complex technological world. We are dooming the vast majority of Americans to be second-class citizens. 

And E.D. Hirsch writes, in The Knowledge Deficit:

Reading proficiency… is rightly called "the new civil rights frontier."

There's a defensiveness that can pop up when people criticize schools. To be clear, I'm not criticizing public schools in particular: it's been demonstrated that private schools don't do a much better job.

There's also a defensiveness that can pop up when people suggest that people in poverty lack skills — the idea can appear to people as "blaming the victim." But does anyone really want to argue that children born into intergenerational poverty wouldn't benefit from reading much better, from excelling at math and science and computer programming and everything else?

A new kind of schooling can deliver human capital. Heck, we can develop superpowers — recall that this is Big Goal Number Two of our school! And we can do so without stirring up the ire of the political Left and Right, the way ideologically-charge interventions do.

We can empower people — especially marginalized populations. We can help people read well, write well, and think well. And by doing so, we can help mend the world. 

Charles Wheelan again, citing Marvin Zonis:

Complexity will be the hallmark of our age. The demand everywhere will be for ever higher levels of human capital. The countries that get that right, the companies that understand how to mobilize and apply that human capital, and the schools that produce it… will be the big winners of our age.

I'm not concerned with our schools being "winners" of our age. I'm obsessed with cultivating children and adolescents who have the capacity to win for themselves, and for others.

And we can do this.

Route #3: Expanding understanding? Oh yes.

There's one more route, I think, that a new kind of school can take to helping mend the world: expanding comprehension about how the world really works.

On this blog, I've been concentrating on describing our vision for elementary school, because that's what we'll be opening with in 2016. Our high school program is a decade out — we'll be growing the school organically with our opening classes of kids.

But boy, am I excited to be starting a high school.

I'm a high school teacher, and I love my job precisely because I get to spend my days peeking into how the world hangs together. A stranger, looking over a list of the social science courses I teach, might be confused —

  • Moral Economics
  • Evil
  • Happiness
  • Philosophical Worldviews
  • World Religions
  • Political Ideologies
  • The Next 50 Years
  • Ancient History
  • Moral Controversies in American History

The thing that connects them is my obsession with how society works. Why can we explore space but still have poverty? Why do some people behave horrifically to others? What is the good life? How do ideas drive society? Where is technology taking us? Where do we come from? And so on.

Many students don't get the opportunity to deliberate on these compelling questions in school. Most schools aren't designed to reflect on issues like these every single day. Most schools aren't designed to help students ask probing questions, identify and overcome their biases, and develop hard-won wisdom.

Ours can be! (In fact, this is our school's Big Idea Number Three.)

The thing to keep in mind is that mending the world is possible. We know that, because we've seen it.

Steven Pinker's recent book on how some things (especially rates of violence) really have been getting better — The Better Angels of Our Nature — helped convince me of this. From that he wrote a short essay, "A Two-Minute Case for Optimism," that appeared on (and I love this) Chipolte bags. The essay concludes:

“Better” does not mean “perfect.” Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress we’ve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.

We can have a better world. To some degree, every school everywhere — every teacher who teaches — is already creating this world.

Our school can be part of that effort.

A School for Engineering (part 1 of 2)

Behold, the humble toaster

The problem:

We are surrounded — and confused — by technology. Those who will flourish in the 21st century are people who can understand, and revel in, machinery.

At present, few of our schools connect students to the wonder of technology.

Our schools can lead all kids into the joy of technology — even without being special "technology" schools. If they pursue this right, they also build abilities in other subjects — science, history, math, reading, writing, and thinking.

Putting engineering near the core of a school can help the entire curriculum become more vividly intellectual.


 The Possibility

Unless you're reading this off the grid in the wilds of Alaska, you're surrounded by technology.

We often complain about this: we grumble that mechanical things feel other and alien, that they feel unnatural. We want to return to simplicity, to nature. (Well, at least feel this way!)

But this is stupid. 

Technology is the creation of human minds. It's not alien to us: mechanical objects are human thoughts given form. A gasoline engine is as much a part of Homo Sapiens as a snail's shell is part of it.

Steve Jobs captured this perfectly — as usual!

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is that everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use…. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.

To understand the technology around you is to try on other people's minds. It's to expand yourself. Understanding technology makes us into different people: We become fuller. We sit in the driver's seat. We understand that we're not chess pieces pushed around by machinery — we can take charge of the technology.

A proper engineering curriculum, that is, brings human transformation. 

Kids should understand how toasters work. Kids should understand how computers work. Kids should understand how gasoline engines work. And so on.

Understanding the "made environment" can help students live more fully in the real world.

Engineering: The Magic Is Not Magical

If we don't understand technology, the external world looks like magic. We have no idea how things work. I discovered this recently when I asked some of my high school students how computers work.

"Hard drives," I was told. "Processors. Graphics cards." Blah, blah, blah.

No, I said, these were only the parts of a computer. What about the essentials? What makes a computer think?

They didn't understand what I was talking about. I decided to try another path.

Okay, I said. Does a computer need electricity? Could we build a computer out of, say, Legos, or wood blocks? How about even a simple computer — like a Nintendo, from the 1980s? Could you play Super Mario Brothers on a Nintendo made out of wood and metal?

The answer is yes. In fact, the first computers were entirely mechanical — made of wood and brass, and powered by hand-crank. (Side note: it's really fun to imagine how you could make a Nintendo out of such materials.)

This answer blew my students minds. They saw that they'd never understood computers before — they had thought electricity was, somehow, "magical," that it had the power to "think." In reality, the "thinking" that a Nintendo (or any computer) does comes from the organization of its pieces.

The Renaissance engineer Simon Stevin was enraptured by the ability of scientific understanding to make wondrous things. The secret, he said, was realizing that the wonder came from simple sources which could be perfectly understood. "The magic," he wrote, "is not magical."

Mechanics can be magical. The deepest wonder, though, comes from seeing magic as flowing from mechanical laws.

We need schools that use engineering as a way to encounter wonder. 


Next up: How this could actually look in our school.

Our Trinity, #3: Wisdom

wilsonwilson Our trinity of goals for our school begins with love and progresses, in middle school, to masteryOur third goal — reaching its apex in the high school curriculum, but present at all grades — is wisdom.

If, by the time our students are entering ninth grade, a majority of them (1) love science and history and literature and math and everything, and (2) are accustomed to pursuing mastery, then we have to ask ourselves: where the hell can we take them next?

One common answer (popular at both public and private schools) is "college prep."

I think this answer, though definitely well-intentioned, is positively daft. At best, this answer kicks the question down the road: what is it about college, specifically, that's worthy of prepping for? Job success? Social status? Philosophical insight? Happiness?

However we answer that, it makes more sense to pursue that goal in high school. (Why wait?)

At worst, though, the "college prep" approach runs the danger of degrading high school — turning the four years that could be a marvelous capstone to a rich K-8 education into a bureaucratic checking of boxes, in which the highest goal becomes obtaining a good GPA and amassing college credits.

Ack: anti-human nonsense. 

Tutoring college entrance tests, I see this attitude all the time, from students and families at even some of the best schools. It's disheartening. Which isn't to say that a lot of good learning doesn't happen along the way, just that the goal itself doesn't help ensure the good learning (and can even get in the way of it).

So what's our answer?

What should we do when working with these crazy-wonderful students, who love knowledge and pursue mastery?

I think the answer is easy: explore deeply how to increase human flourishing, both for themselves and for the world as a whole. I'll use the word wisdom to encapsulate this goal. Pursuing wisdom in this fashion will take us more fully into a vividly intellectual curriculum than any "college prep" ever could.

"Wisdom" has, historically, at least two divergent meanings, which are captured by two Greek words: sophia and phronesis (fro-NEE-sis). We want them both.

Sophia… is the ability to think well about the nature of the world, to discern why the world is the way it is (this is sometimes equated with science); sophia involves reason concerning universal truths.

Phronesis is the capability to consider the mode of action in order to deliver change, especially to enhance the quality of life.

(Borrowed from Viona.)

To re-state:

Sophia is book smarts, intellectual knowledge, an understanding of what the world really is and how it all hangs together.  Phronesis is street smarts, practical knowledge, an understanding of how to achieve the good life. 

We need both of these. The question about how to live well in the world (phronesis) requires understanding what the world is like (sophia).

Delving into both of these will take us into a full liberal arts curriculum in which divergent ideas on how society can work and on how life can be lived will take center stage. Our school can be an invitation — for teachers as well as students — to engage the most diverse, most exciting ideas of humanity: anarcho-Communism and Christian pietism and Theravada Buddhism and GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE. Ours can be a vividly intellectual school, bringing in more cultural and philosophical perspectives than, perhaps, a single school ever has.

It will also take us into a full science and math curriculum in which the substrata and superstrata of human life are explored — what's "below" and "above" us. To understand human happiness, for example, necessitates comprehending psychology, biology, chemistry, and physics. To understand meaning requires apprehending the shape and history of the universe.

Chasing wisdom is thus an excuse to take part in the Big Questions that the brilliant minds in the humanities and sciences have been exploring for ages.

Some of these Big Questions are civilizational, and even cosmic: "Are we just conglomerations of atoms bumping around an empty void? And if so, what are the implications of that?" "What is evil (and is there evil)?" "Do all peoples share a common human nature?" "How do cultures shape people?" "Where is history going?" "Why is there inequality?" and so on.

Other Big Questions are personal: an invitation to puzzle over our own selves, our own struggles and potentials. They include questions like, "What is this thing called happiness, and how might one find it?" "How deeply should one sacrifice for friends and strangers?" "What does it mean to be 'deep,' and what does it mean to be 'shallow,' and is one really better than the other?" "How is my culture shaping me?" and so on.

There's a stereotype I need to war against here — that thinking about these Big Questions is unserious, the sort of thing 19-year-olds talk about in their dorm hallways late at night. The stereotype that these Big Questions are unserious, unacademic.

Well, yes: some college freshmen do have those conversations. But these are also the some of the academy's most serious questions. Significant work has been done on each of these topics. Pursuing wisdom means more than intellectual self-pleasuring: it means advancing our own answers even as we master the previously-formulated ones.

In sum, then, our high school curriculum will be rigorously academic — but the rigor should flow from the meaning and excitement of the questions we're investigating, and not from some sort of superficial severity.

In pursuing wisdom, we can acculturate students into the life of the mind as we pursue together wisdom.


Oh, a note on the photo — it's of the fictional character Wilson, from the 90's sitcom Home Improvement. I struggled to find an image that denoted "wisdom" without falling into the silly trope of the old man with a long white beard — or Yoda. I think those images actually connote fake wisdom: the sort expressed in statements that no one truly understands or which, when taken literally, are stupid. "Do or do not: there is no try." (Sorry, Yoda!)

The character Wilson (full name: Wilson Wilson, Jr.) is the opposite of that: someone who knows a jaw-dropping wealth of knowledge about the world, and who easily brings it to bear on the problems of daily life. Wilson has both sophia and phronesis. When I was growing up, he was my first vision of the sort of useful intellectual that I wanted to become.

Which is all to say: that's why this post doesn't have a picture of Gandalf!

Dodging the banality of modern fables

One of these things is not like the others. Luke Epplin at theatlantic.com argues, in "You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?" —

For all the chatter about the formulaic sameness of Hollywood movies, no genre in recent years has been more thematically rigid than the computer-animated children's movie. These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney's 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists' primary liability, such as Dumbo's giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather--or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears--and believe that their greatness comes from within.

Epplin cites a profusion of current and recent offerings — Planes, TurboKung Fu PandaWreck-It RalphRatatouille — that follow the same formula. He takes the perspective that this message is naive: it's a patent falsehood that grandiose hopes can be achieved with minimal failure after a 90-minute quest.

Epplin suggests that Charlie Brown — whom Charles Shultz gives a home-run to after forty-three years — might serve as a useful counter-example.

I'm less concerned about the specific moral of contemporary kids' movies — though I agree that the anti-cult-of-self-esteem partisans have a point — than I am about the monotony of morals.

One of the things I'd love to see in our school — in the early grades, particularly — is a plurality of messages in the stories kids read. What glorious grist for their mental mills Aesop — even at his most brutally pessimistic — can be!

Any recommendations for heterodox children's stories?