A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Office

by Vince Durnan

Campus visitors frequently mention overhearing cerebral conversations between students in the halls. Such had never really been the case for me—until now. Get a load of this:

Heading into my cluttered chambers two days ago, my distractible mind noticed a lively conversation in the foyer. Four members of the senior class (Jordan Fishel, Kara-Jade Gordon, Isabelle Greenberg, and Crawford Lyons—just to get the shout out done) were clearly engaged in something weighty, complete with hand gestures, leaning in to listen to one another, and a total absence of cell phones. Unable to resist asking the reason, I learned that they were honing in on a topic for their Philosophy class final project.
The assignment came from Jeff Edmonds, our HS Academic Dean and no slouch in his field, or so it would seem, given that he earned a PhD across the street and taught there before his Diogenes’ lamp illuminated the path to USN. With a class full of seniors, Jeff wisely framed their near-to-graduation group effort as a chance to ask a philosophical question about their school and their community. Color me interested.
This group wants to know something about fear of failure among their peers, with a particular focus on the prevalence (or not) of that condition among young people who actually rarely experience failure. There might be a more interesting question to pose, but if so I’d like to see it. The self-awareness evident in this inquiry leaves me thinking that these young people are ready for launch. They’ve pinpointed a signature feature of our times, a dynamic that pushes us in opposite directions—sometimes we conclude that the less we bring it up the better, and sometimes we realize that we ought to talk about it more. And that ambivalence probably fuels the phenomenon.
The larger question inspired by the course and the assignment is USN’s philosophical grounding. What, at our core, informs our educational practice? Would that we could all share and compare our answers. My growing understanding of our founders’ purpose in 1915 leaves little room for doubt. They were Progressives (with both a capital and lower case “p”), not in the contemporary political litmus test sense but in the Deweyan pragmatist philosophical way—in fact our founding director Thomas Alexander was a graduate student of John Dewey at Teachers College shortly before arriving like a tempest at Peabody.
What we have become since is not for me to say definitively. What we do proclaim, in our very mission statement’s first line, is that we “model educational best practice,” but we don’t say according to whom. The presumption and the promise would be kind of a consensus model. Not best practice according to Montessori, or Rudolph Steiner, or E.D. Hirsh, or the Advanced Placement program, or Rousseau—just plain best practice. Therein lies our strength and our vulnerability. And our potential.
We’re a school that can agree on a (voluntary) community read, as you’ll see announced in this newsletter, a read about WWII no less. We’re a school that hosts Rinker Buck to talk about reenacting the Oregon Trail journey. We’re a school that asks seniors to go on a philosophical journey in their elective class. And I don’t even have column inches to write about the Mayor speaking here last week.
What do all those data points indicate about our philosophical mooring? My experience is that we’re here to help open doors for students, doors to understanding and to expanding capacity to make something of their place in the communities they will call home—a pretty pragmatic purpose, really, with a high minded, optimistic orientation about their lives offering reasons to stretch and to commit. Hearing that conversation in the hallway confirmed the truth of those anecdotes, and more than that reminded me that philosophy is no idle pursuit.

Sure that we’ll be talking about this more,
And P.S.--thanks to the kind folks who responded to my last column with encouraging words about writing. Suffice to say that I’ll keep at it and not despair—otherwise how would I learn what I’m thinking?

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