A couple of weeks without the routines of school allows time to enjoy gatherings with family and friends, as well as a city where there is so much to enjoy for free. I also find that in my time away there is opportunity to reflect on all that has transpired since September when the doors first opened for the school year and George welcomed all of you to Manhattan Country School. I find that small moments and big events all surface and remind me of what it means to be a school with big ideals striving to make them real. The process is joyful and satisfying sometimes, and a little more trying sometimes, too.
At this time of year, the work and the magic teachers and staff members bring to realizing the potential for students to grow is the subject of cards, letters, emails and notes that come with contributions from alumni and their families. I always want those messages to go farther than an inbox or pile on a desk. Angela Walker Campbell, parent of two MCS alumni, wrote, “I wanted to thank you all once again for the foundation, education, rigor, inspiration to learn, encouraging environment, social consciousness, and all of the other things I could list that you have helped to instill in Zuri ’15 and Tai ’17!.”
Another of the great pleasures of a few days away from school is the time for stories and time to read and reread! In a diverse community there is terrific fun in family stories and family traditions. I asked Jay for suggestions of books that would give a context for festivals of light and the solstice bringing lighter days and shorter nights to the winter assembly. No surprise he had a whole pile: The Storyteller’s Candle: La Velita de los Cuentos, about Pura Belpre, a Puerto Rican cultivator of stories at the New York Public Library; The Longest Night, about animals adjusting to the solstice; Light in the Darkness, about enslaved families learning to read by candlelight; and Owl Moon, about a ritual that a father and son passed down the generations.
The music at our winter assembly has had a similar multicultural theme and celebration of light for many years. It is joyous to watch new 4-5s embrace songs with full throats, and see the faces of visiting alumni when they hear familiar tunes. To look out and see an authentically diverse community always brings up questions like, “What if all children were to get their education in a school like MCS?” “How might the world be a better place if they did?”
I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent article by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker about Success Academy and its quest to introduce progressive education as part of its school model. One of the core tenets of John Dewey’s educational philosophy was the belief that, in school, children learn not only the explicit content of lessons but also an implicit message about the ideal organization of society. A school, he argued, was a civilization in microcosm. “I believe that the school must represent present life—life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, or the neighborhood, or on the playground,” Dewey wrote in My Pedagogic Creed, which was published in 1897. The society for which the child was being prepared should not be conceived of as an abstraction from the remote future, Dewey believed. It should be replicated, in simplified form, within the structure and culture of the school itself.
“A school should be a model of what democratic adult culture is about,” Deborah Meier, a veteran progressive educator and a theorist in the tradition of Dewey, told me. “Most of what we learn in life we learn from the company we keep. What is taught didactically is often forgotten.” A corollary of Dewey’s belief is that, if children are exposed in school to an authoritarian model of society, that is the kind of society in which they may prefer to live.
As we turn the page on 2017, what better creed to endorse entering 2018. The rest of the school year is ahead of us and I’m looking forward to all of it. Thank you for the generosity of spirit and passionate commitment to children and to MCS.