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History & Philosophy in Education

Paper submitted on 4 August 1994

Thomas B. Gregory
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47401

Dear Mr. Gregory,

I had occasion to read your book Making High School Work: Lessons from the Open School recently. With this letter, I complete the requirements for my Masters degree in Elementary Education.

Making High School Work was one of seven books that the History and Philosophy in Education class read. The Open School was presented in the course as an example of a child-centered approach to education and was closely linked to existentialist education. I suppose I’m the culprit of the latter. To me, the Open School represents a major step towards where schools need to go. However, as much as the Open School is approaching that, I find a glaring error in the approach to one aspect of the school. You too remarked on it and structured a New World Seminar to its discussion: The Culture of Classrooms. It is to this that I focus the remainder of the letter.

Allow me to lay the groundwork for the discussion of the classroom. I am very much of the thought that the only thing I immediately know is my existence. Before anything else Mr. Gregory, my existence is known. Anything else that I claim to know is in reference to my existence. The fan that sits a few feet from where I’m writing this is known in reference to me. The pen that I am holding is known only as it relates to me. This is an important point for everything that happens stems from me. Presumably, that is the case with you and the other five billion people on this planet. Presumably for I cannot know it. As the stem for all that happens I design my life. How I do this is what others will judge me on, but ultimately that is not who I am. I am my existence and how I design the essence of that existence (trust me, this will tie into the Open School . . . I promise).

The essence of my life is relative to my existence. If I grant that others exist as I do, then it follows that the essence of everybody else’s life is relative to their existence. That being the case, the role of education is easily defined. Education should prompt everyone to identify his existence. In harmony with this is that education should prompt everyone to design the essence of his life. The two go hand-in-hand.

There are plenty of folks who would like to discuss politics when defining education. Mortimer Adler for instance likes to propose that we should guarantee a decent living for all who complete his program. Paulo Freire would have us teach revolution/love to an extent that we all become free. Myles Horton offers a similar tact. It seems to me that ultimate democracy lies in an existentialist educational program. What could be more democratic than affirming individual existence and essence? A person who has identified who he is and what he is about will be the ideal democrat. To the social reconstructionists: that is the ultimate empowerment.

So, how do we go about creating an educational program that will fulfill this role? It seems to me that the Open School (see, I told you this would tie in) tackles this head-on. The very first thing a student who enters the school does is the Wilderness Backpacking Trip. As you state,

our real goal was to help new kids who had pretty much been told what to do and when to do it through most of their schooling careers begin the sometimes frustrating process of becoming self-directed learners.


A natural first step towards identifying your essence is taking charge of your actions.

However, you really summed up the Open School and existential education with the following

It [Futures] is one of several means – Governance and Advising are others – through which kids in the school become mindful of the intent of a high school education…Futures is guided by one core value: students should play a central role in setting a direction for the program.


Why should students play such a role? I suspect it’s because the education at hand is theirs. It belongs to each of them individually and who is best to direct their own education? Students of course! This is far beyond learning how to become a self-directed learner. This is demonstrating individuality. It is the performance of an individual’s essence. I cannot begin to explain my regard for the Open School on this account. This is education at its best! So, how do these kids come to a point that they define their essence and act on it in such a manner? You described Futures, Advising and Governance throughout the text to really get a good handle on that. I find the development of the Passages even more marking on the design of an individual’s essence.

The six steps to adulthood could easily be re-named the six steps to defining my essence. As I read about this particular program I was ecstatic! Finally, I thought, a school which embodies what education should be. How the hell can we expect these kids to function in this world if they haven’t a clue as to who they are? Passages seems to be the solution to such unempowerment. The student defines who he is through this self-investigative inquiry. For fear of sounding too enthusiastic, I wholeheartedly agree with your description of the drawbacks to the program. It is unfortunate that worthwhile experiences are shunned because they do not directly fulfill a graduation requirement. This needs to be solved. I wonder if there isn’t an imposition felt by students from the faculty to meet these requirements. I thought throughout my reading that the four-year-program mentality was very much present at the Open School. As much as the school broke other public education habits, it did not attempt to break the Freshman, Sophomore, etc. structure that is very much ingrained in our high school students. Was there pressure to graduate on time? It seems to me that a student should graduate when he arrives at adulthood (essence). To me, that would be unlikely to be May four years after high school begins for everyone. Many may arrive earlier and many later.

Jeff addressed a critical point to how education should be approached in the first New World Seminar. In many ways it’s the core of the debate about child-centered education and ultimately existential education. How do you provide an education that isn’t merely accidental? Isn’t guidance needed? How much guidance can there be without infringing on an individual’s personal discovery? Discovery is what this is about, right? There’s certainly a fine line and one could not put in writing the rule. The practical application of a theory has never been without flaws. It appears to me that the Open School has a strong foundation and it just needs to adjust to these nuances and see what works in particular instances.

I hope I have described the role of education. I trust the definition of an individual’s essence has been linked to education. And I think it’s clear that the Open School very much embodies this. So what’s the problem? You may recall that I began this letter to you by stating that there was a glaring error in the approach of one aspect of the school. That error is how the classroom is structured, what is expected from the students and how students address the classroom.

The Classroom
We decided the role of education was to prompt students to identify their existence and define their essence. Futures, Advising and Governance as I quoted you a few pages back certainly incorporates this goal. Passages is the ultimate fulfillment of an existential education program. But what about the classroom? The Open School struggles with the classroom. What is it that takes such a glorious (if not successful) program and causes such inertia? From what you described, it seems that the classroom is the rest stop in the program. Everything is so intense that when we get to the classroom everyone takes a deep breath and goes through the motions. We have all learned the routine. I know you described some exciting classes. I know the faculty has complained that the students balk at coursework. What we have here is a program that does not fit in with the role of the school. Everyone sees it and that’s why it just sits there like a grass stain on the dress whites of the school.

Do I dare propose the obvious? I think I shall. There’s no need for the classroom at the Open School. That’s right, I, a teacher, have just proposed the abolition of the classroom in education! What is it there for? To teach content. Does this mesh with the role of education? Not necessarily. I submit that Passages, Transcripts, Advising, Governance and Futures are quite capable of providing the opportunities for students to arrive without implementing coursework that is foreign to those experiences.

This seems so obvious that I’m surprised it hasn’t already occurred. We bog students down with content for so many years that we can’t even fathom education without it. Yeah, there will be those who claim that students need to be able to read, write, do arithmetic, etc. No shit Sherlock! Do these skills have to be confined to a classroom? I think not, particularly at the high school level. Let me ask you a question. Can you expand a polynomial? Describe all of the levels of the Earth? Tell me one other character besides Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye? This is what is being taught in high school. It doesn’t matter. Yet, these kids are graduating having no idea of who they are. It’s a crime! It seems much more practical to at least have an enlightened populace.

Now, I realize that my proposal isn’t very likely to be adopted. What a shame. But do not fear, I do have another solution to the classroom problem at the Open School that might be an easier swallow. First, let me state that up to grade six or so, the classroom setting is very much appropriate. Certainly not as it exists today, but some mutation thereof. However, when we get to the Open School how do we address the classroom and still appease the traditionalists? The classroom could be dealt with similarly to trips. Have students involved in the planning, teaching/learning and reflection of the course. That way students have something at stake with the course. They will be as much a part of the course as the faculty. Actually, they will be the course. This will be another opportunity for a student to define his essence in Passages. That seems quite natural. Your concern for whether the kid has a pencil or notebook will magically disappear. The student has set his standard. He knows what he expects of himself having designed the course. I believe this is a much better role for the student to assume than being attentive, prepared and playing out the routine of student.

I hope I haven’t come off as being critical of the Open School. That was not my intent. I am extremely impressed with the school you described . Moreover, I am encouraged that such a school exists. I can only imagine what kind of bureaucratic grief the school met with when it was being proposed. It really is not surprising that the classroom is as it is at the Open School. One could hardly expect that the traditional classroom could be abolished today. Although, it is equally unexpected that the Open School even exists…so who knows?

Contrary to what my peers may believe, the argument I have related here is not merely a mental exercise. I truly believe that an existential education program could succeed. I do not think it’s beyond the scope of our society, although a carefully detailed description is necessary to clearly define the program. But that is another issue…

I enjoyed your book and it definitely opened my eyes to many interesting applications at the Open School. I hope you found this interesting and feel free to respond as you think necessary. I would welcome further discourse on the subject.

All of the best,
Robert Owens

The Paideia Program

History and Philosophy of Education
Paper submitted 4 August 1994

Acquiring language; improving one’s ability to listen, speak, read, and write; achieving full literacy-these are the tasks of a lifetime. They are also indispensable for a fully human life, a lifetime in which learning never stops.

(The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus, p.59)

My initial reaction to this was: do we really want to exclude those who are illiterate from living a fully human life? It is presumptuous if not out-and-out wrong to portray illiterate persons as less than human. It is with this that I choose to begin my investigation of the Paideia Program. It was suggested that the education we should seek is the education a wealthy man provides for his children. This is the underlying principle of the Paideia Program (or it at least resembles that). Although there are benefits to be derived from such rhetoric, the driving force of education needs to break beyond these calls for good ‘ol fashion education.

Book Lists
We discussed book lists and what they mean to the Paideia Program at length during class. For the life of me, I cannot see justification for this. To be honest, there is a lot that can be said for this program and I would be almost (but not really) supportive of it, for I believe some permutation of this will be the role of education in years to come. Why is it that one must form a book list in order to teach? I have voiced my objections to it. First and foremost it limits what can be taught. There is no justification for this in the Proposal. Wanting to limit classroom resources, no matter how the list is formulated, is unconscionable. That’s just outrageous. But my feeling is that this is another attempt to control. Bleeding-heart liberals should be appalled at Adler’s attempts. First I mentioned the exclusion of illiterate persons, now we have a book list which cries out for the religious community to offer their censorship. No, it doesn’t have to be this way I realize. But everything (that may be too strong of a term, but I’ll stick to it) the Paideia Program espouses seems to have this potentially-manipulative spin to it. Obviously, that makes me uncomfortable.

Color Outside of the Lines Johnny
There is a commercial running (for some sneaker company I think. Goes to show how well advertising actually works, eh?) that dares us to go outside of the lines. Whenever I think of this challenge, I am reminded of a scene from Dead Poet’s Society (which was filmed at my high school. I’ll discuss that school later). Robin Williams played a heretic teacher at an all-boys prep school in the 1950s. He challenged the traditional education of the school. In this particular scene he requested each student to come forward, stand on the teacher’s desk and look out at the classroom. The point being that we must constantly take a new look at things. Change our perspective. Dare to go outside of the lines! Of course at the end of the movie when he is asked to leave the school, the students demonstrate their new understanding of themselves when they dare to go outside of the lines by standing on their desks proclaiming Captain, My Captain as a furious headmaster frantically grasps for order.

Contrast that scene to the following excerpts from The Paideia Program outlining how English Language and Literature and Mathematics should be approached.

Language and Literature in a Paideia School

Three things characterize this part of the program. The first is the presence of teachers who habitually practice language skills.  The second is a schedule that includes periods of intensive coaching and weekly or bi-weekly seminars. The third element…is a list of readings containing the best and most interesting example of major kinds of writing. The reading list is the backbone of a Paideia school (again, why?)


Why Mathematics Should Be Extensively Studied

…Among the properties of mathematics…are: order, rigor, logical development from simple to complex, exactness, universality, abstraction, economy, and elegance (symmetry, diversity, rhythm, balance)

p.71 [italics added for emphasis]

It appears to me that contrary to what Mr. Adler purports, he is framing a blueprint for education. The above suggests that blueprint isn’t terribly flexible. Again, have we lost sight of of the kid sitting next to the pencil sharpener?

Computers and Education
Adler totally missed the point of computer use in education. A question was posed to him as to how computers and other technologies can be used in a Paideia school. His response was typical and inaccurate.

Computers have shown themselves to be effective tools (no argument yet, but get ready) in facilitating Column Two learning…Technology will also play an important role in Column One teaching and learning…Column Three is one place where technology can help little, if at all.

(Paideia Problems and Possibilities, p.41).

Let’s get it straight as to what he’s saying. Computers have been shown to be effective in drilling students and presenting facts. That is incorrect. There has been a tremendous amount of research that has countered this claim. Computers used for these purposes will not reach its intended goal. By the way, do we really want to promote this worksheet mentality? I was under the impression that most of us agreed that education needed to get beyond this valley.

Next Adler claimed that computers will be of little use for analysis (Column Three). I have a copy of my Masters Thesis (The Effects of Multimedia on Writing Quality), if he would like to read it, that argues and proves (if you buy into statistics) that computers are effective in this area. Computers have to be incorporated into Column Three learning in The Paideia Program. Exposition of ideas (this paper is an example) and multimedia presentations (my third graders did wonders this Spring) come readily to mind. Multimedia is really an exciting area. Not only will computers be used, but other audio and visual aids as well. A presentation incorporating these media may prove to be far more fruitful than an essay. If nothing else, multimedia provides opportunities for technology to be used in Column Three learning.

St. Andrew’s School
As promised, I am going to detail my high school. The reason for this is that St. Andrew’s was the embodiment of The Paideia Program. As you may have discerned already, it is a private school. It very much is where a wealthy man may send his children. Indeed, many did. The school ranked among the nation’s best for academics (however that was defined) and other areas. The ranking most publicized by the school was that it had a higher percentage of students receiving financial aid than any other school. Good thing since tuition was $11,000…and that was fourteen years ago. The school drew students from thirty states and fifteen or so different countries. On paper, we were ideal! The school existed to prepare us for college and presumably a well-rounded life.

We read the classics: Hamlet, 1984, Dubliners, The Grapes of Wrath. We extensively studied mathematics: my Calculus course there was indeed a struggle unlike any I’ve encountered since. We studied a foreign language: Latin further rounded out my credentials. Science too: how many high school students are privy to a course in Optics and worked regularly on a $400,000 HP mainframe in 1980? We had our book lists. We had our three modes of learning. I can’t think of anything Adler proposes that St. Andrew’s didn’t have.

Now I know you think I’m going to sit here and rip the school and tell you how much it failed. Surprise! The school provided an education that is very dear to me. I cherish what I learned there. I enjoyed reading the classics. I enjoyed the projects in the science labs. I learned a great deal at that school. However, I did not reach the existential goal I believe now should be the guiding interest of schools: namely, defining my essence. My content knowledge grew during that time and I will grant that I began investigating myself. However, when I left St. Andrew’s, I could not define who I was.

My other paper discusses the Open School. In it I discuss the role of the classroom. At St. Andrew’s, the classroom could be very much an existential encounter. Could be because it depended on the teacher and the student. I had my first enlightening moment at that school. I recall vividly my teacher’s expression when I commented that Hamlet was an asshole! This was enlightening for two reasons. First, it was an original thought. I certainly had not ascribed to any written dissertation that proclaimed it. Second, I was called to defend my position (the first in what has turned out to be countless times). Now, this would have only occurred under the right circumstances. There was a select group of heretics, if you will, that maybe not promoted this, but certainly allowed for this radical approach. I truly feel this is beyond what Adler means by discussion.
Anyhow, as I stated, I left that school not having defined who I was . . . although I was musing over it. I suppose I should note that my Hamlet comment was in reference to Waiting for Godot—the quintessential existentialist play. That play plagued me. I was uneasy with the answers it offered. When I got to college, I sought to settle that uneasiness, so I studied Philosophy. It was there at college that I defined myself. True, it too was very much a traditional school, but I was free to design my studies. Even more than selecting classes, I designed programs for study. It is without question that this freedom/democracy/openness permitted me to know/define who I am. Had college been as regimented as a Paideia school is, I very well may have sat in your class this summer and agreed with those who said they had no philosophy of education. Maybe I’ll try a little of this and a little of that or examining my life is not essential to who I am. Geez, I gasped whenever I heard that.

That’s just a little about me and how I have come to be leery of traditionalist education and accepting to existentialism. I think it sums Adler pretty well. But taking into account that at 18 I was clueless, if not for my family, I may have been one of the many who never comes to know who he is . . . or comes to know it much later.

As much as Adler appeals to the masses (I believe), when you really look at what he is proposing, you have serious obstacles to hurdle. I didn’t even address his promise for a decent living upon graduation. Every step has more than meets the eye. And as I mentioned, I can’t help but to think this is really a ruse to keep the status quo. Adler asserts that this is not the case. The fulfillment of the program would be impressive. However, since fulfillment of just about any program is seldom realized, I have doubts as to such goals.

My First Lesson

Seal of Appreciation

Now enolled in graduate school in the inaugural class of the MST program at Rowan, it was time to teach.

Our first assignment was to pick a lesson put of a bowl. Whatever we chose, we would have to teach to the other graduate students. I drew an origami butterfly. Yes, I had to teach these adults how to make an origami butterfly.

I knew nothing about origami. After finding directions (I am sure Mom helped as she is good with interpreting the fold diagrams), I began practicing. I was still waiting tables at the Mad Batter. At the end of the shift, many of us spent time at the Ol’ Shire Inn. FWIW, The Shire was the best bar in Cape May. Absolutely the best bands came in, including Blue Sparks from Hell. Anyhow, I would sit there with a stack of cocktail napkins practicing my butterflies. Got the attention of plenty of women. 😉

I made a tri-fold poster of the process of how to make the butterfly. And I came up with the certificate at the top of this post. I always thought that was neat.

My teaching career was off to a good start.