We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
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Thursday, August 27. 2009
Our Editor wanted me to post this draft of a reminiscence about my wonderful boarding school (which will go unnamed), so here 'tis:
My boarding school had a required 4th form - sophomore - course we called "Shit He Wants Us to Know," which we labelled "Shwuk." Real name of the course was something like: 4th Form Required Headmaster's Course. That's where I got my love for stats, and lots of other things.
Besides How to Lie with Statistics - and a week on Liebnitz (who amazed him), the course also involved reading about half of the Bible - with a focus on Samuel - he made it great fun - and Moby Dick, plus one Shakespeare play which changed every year - and whatever else our Headmaster thought any person educated in his school ought to know. The history of Baseball, the history and chemistry of plastic, wood, and cement, Aristotle's Poetics, and how sails and windmills supposedly work. It also included the math of the Parthenon's design (those guys knew the keys to perspective way before the Renaissance), and every tiny detail of The Last Supper - including a discussion of the meaning of cannibalism in religion up to the symbolism of the Mass.
His class was like a real Intro To School. He was a Brit, an Anglican priest with an apparently blissfully affectionate marriage to a beautiful, reserved, distinguished lady who occasionally did book reviews for the NYT and The New Republic, and who loved to shoot grouse in Scotland. They were both shooters. They had four Ivy League boys, who, as I recall, who did extremely well forging their paths in life - at least one of whom returned to the private school world after making bags of bucks on Wall St. Another went to Yale Theological Seminary after Harvard College. I forget the others.
About The Last Supper, I remember him saying something like this "Would you eat human flesh, if cooked properly? Would you? Humans used to do it every chance they got. The Maoris called it "Long Pig" in the south Pacific because it tastes like pork. So they say. They made a feast of it when they were able to spear an enemy tribe in the jungle. Well, many claim you do it every week, if you are a believer, in Communion. In some spiritual sense, I do consume this human flesh too, but from a hunger of the spirit, not the hunger of the flesh. How wonderful it is that we reach back to stone age times for our most powerful ideas to nurture us. Drink this, this is my blood, shed for you. That is powerful stuff, ladies." And then "Now, Miss Bliss, tell us why Leonardo has Christ pointing to a glass of wine, and the what and why of the emotional reactions of the people at this Passover dinner. It's not a great painting, nothing to be nervous about - just a too-famous picture by a hugely talented mind. Explain to us what Leonardo might have had in his mind - besides wanting to get paid - when he painted this scene on the wall of the refectory. Begin on the left side." He was good fun, and there was always a twinkle in his eye.
The only political science was Plato's Republic and Burke's Reflections. Oh, a bit of Locke too. We all had to shoot rifles and shotguns, and learn the basic physics of ballistics. We learned renal physiology, because he though the kidney was a miracle in its ability to make sea-born creatures like us capable of maintaining ocean levels of salts under our land-dwelling skins.
We took a bus to West Rock (same geological formation as the Hudson Palisades) to learn Triassic paleontology and geology. Nothing superficial, he made us dig into it - with real shovels. A serious Christian (he wanted us to know Jesus, but he did not try to convert anybody because he assumed many or most of us were religiously-rebellious teens anyway). He loved Darwin and his Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals - we had to read it along with modern research on the topic. And Orwell's Politics and the English Language.
Class met twice a week in small groups of around 15-20, around a circular table. It was the best and perhaps most demanding course I ever took in my entire education. The volume of reading would be incredible to kids today. The guy was interested in everything - Adam Smith, baseball pitches, kidneys, aviation, chlorophyll - and he treated it all as an adventure and infected most of us with his curiosity about everything. His attitude was "Let's figure this out" because he never claimed to be smart. Never "This is what it is." For him, everything was "What the heck is this?" - whether a butterfly, Hamlet, Freud, God, Newton, or ballistics.
Plus, through this course, the Headmaster got to know each one of us personally, and he was one shrewd dude to do that. No slacker escaped his gaze, and committed slackers were sent packing for good, because he did not believe in offering treaures to those who did not wish to partake in treasure-hunting. If your mind wandered, he would say "Miss Bliss, I Will Throw No Pearls Before Swine. You can day-dream later, or you can do it at home with your Mommy and Daddy if you want." Then he would make you stand and try to explain what he had been talking about. Tough. Love. Loved life and loved people. A lifetime role model.
I recall there was no hiding in his classes. He just said "Stand and deliver, Miss Bliss. You have one generous minute. Tell us everything you know about the Bernoulli Effect." There was no paper and no exam: all based on class performance. That's the great potential of private schools: you can demand performance. And he had a school to run, so could not be bothered with reading puerile or stolen papers. He wanted to know what you had to say for yourself, and he only gave one "A" per group. For that A, he'd write you a gracious college recommendation.)
You cannot be a powerfully inspiring teacher without being a natural learner who assumes his own stupidity. His unique course followed his inquisitive nose, and the model remains with all of us. He did not teach so much as share his enthusiasm and curiosity, but you had better have the answer about how kidney tubules handle sodium concentrations - with the math: he had a talent for integrating things, from the biochemical level to the math to the culinary - he gave us his favorite recipe for steak and kidney pie with his method for not making it smell like a urinal as part of his sessions on the kidney. According to his interests, he would alter the course a bit each year.
It was his personal introduction to the life of the mind, to a life of curiosity. Doing this course was his great joy in life, probably a greater joy to him than his little old farmhouse in Greece.
Did we make fun of his enthusiasm? Of course. Young people do stuff like that. It means nothing.
I am still catching up on some of the abundance of Maggie's posts from the couple of weeks while I was away. Did you read Dr. Bliss' My School, Part 1 and Part 2? I just did. Interesting - and inspiring. You have to spend big bucks to get this
Weblog: Maggie's Farm
Tracked: Sep 17, 12:48
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Nice accounting, Dr. Bliss. Sounds wonderful, and I wish I had run into that sort of inspiration in my youth. My life would be different. Whether I would have had the maturity to accept it at the time another matter, as I was drawn to the beat of a different drummer.
"You cannot be a powerfully inspiring teacher leader without being a natural learner leader who assumes his own stupidity."
I believe there are many connections between the two. We both learn and lead throughout our lives. By our curiosity and by our example. Our current national leader could do with some humility in that respect.
I recall a similar posting on the Headmaster's course some time back. This is a topic that is worth revisiting.
While most of our high school teachers were not at the level of your headmaster, I would like to put in a plug for bad high school teachers, or for having a bad experience with a teacher.
When you encounter a bad teacher, you encounter the subject on your own, without the assistance of a teacher. Taking a course with a bad teacher will show a student what one's natural strengths and interests are.
While I did well in math through 8th grade, the subject did not interest me. In 9th grade I had a poor math teacher, who ironically was a family friend, and an excellent math book. I ignored the teacher, and learned math from the textbook. From teaching myself the course, I found out that I had abilities and interests in math that I previously didn't know about. Math became my favorite subject in high school, in spite of that bad teacher.
Before 9th grade, I would have said that history was my favorite subject. I took a marvelous Politics course in 9th grade that confirmed my liking of the subject area. It was a demanding but very interesting course, and one which was fundamental in forming some of my political opinions. From reading Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, I learned that the Soviet system was immoral. From a term paper on Soviet agriculture, I learned that the Soviet system was incompetent.
For my subsequent history courses in high school I had a teacher, who while he was a competent teacher and a kind person, grated on me like a fingernail on a chalkboard. He just irritated the hell out of me, and my enthusiasm for history collapsed like the popping a balloon. He didn't "pick on me;" he treated me no better nor any worse than anyone else. The way he went about things clashed with my criteria for good teaching, and I found it difficult to do anything more than go through the motions with him as a teacher. Before I had him as a teacher, working hard in history was easy; with him as a teacher, it was a struggle to work hard.
From these experience with "bad" teachers in high school, I accurately concluded that my natural strengths and interests aligned more with math than with reading and writing.
Second Buddy's notion, Dr. Bliss. This second introduction to this man is wonderful. I also have to agree one cannot teach unless they are curious. If I had to name the greatest gift a young person, any person, could receive, it would be the gift of curiosity. The world is forever a paradise of learning, and it is this constant learning that motivates the desire to share it. I had the pleasure of teaching many 'curious', insatiable learners, and they were such a treat. It was as if their eyes were wide open all the time channeling information delights into their minds. I used to do 'Show and Tell' as part of my public speaking lessons - to ease them into speaking in front of the class - and the 'curious' ones were such a pleasure because they'd bring in all kinds of stuff to go along with their speeches. The kids laughed at first, but that was short lived as they became caught up in the speaker's enthusiasm. Kids like this, especially in the 10th and 12th grade tend to be kind of nerdy as they live in their own world, but their genuine enthusiasm blew that nerdiness out the door as they morphed into class favorites. What a pleasure to think of it.
I don't remember any bad teachers. I just remember teachers I did not like because of their personalities. I was a curious learner from early childhood, so like Gringo, I moved on with the subject matter in spite of the teachers. That may account for me not 'knowing' any bad teachers. I didn't see them as a hindrance to what I wanted to know...just as someone I had to put up with. I was my own best teacher, I guess.
Meta ... and you obviously did a darn good job of teaching yourself. I remember that Maggies had an interesting discusssion about a year ago about one-room schoolhouses of the earlier years of our country, and their advantages and disadvantages. One point that was made was that the older students kind of taught and informally reviewed the progress of the younger students, and in the process settled their command of a subject more firmly in their own minds.
I think modern schools miss some of that, necessarily, because of the specialization. And it is rather a loss. Don't you think that when you teach something to someone, that the act of the teaching and the repetition of the facts benefits you as well as the student? If you're forever curious, that is, and we both obviously are.
There is no question you learn more as you teach. It is partly the repetition - but that can become rote if you're not careful - but I think it's that it all becomes new again with each new class. I know everything I taught excited me because I loved it so much, and what better than to share it? It's icing on the cake to have your students love it.... whoa, is it ever. Novels and writing were my favorites to teach - heh, the two most demanding things in the syllabus. I did not like research papers because the writing was so stiff and bad. Plus, I made my students turn in all their sources to stop them from cheating. But, I then had to check them all. ugh.
I did no group work, but I would have the kids switch an in-class essay with another student for feedback. That was very helpful with a guideline. (No guideline and they'd say, "Oh, that's really good. :) But lots of times I'd get a student to explain something and that was terrific for that student and for the others learning from a peer. It was a real easy learning thing that tended to bring the subject into a comfort zone of 'If you can do it, I can.' Very nice.
marvelous stuff, I only wish that my children can obtain that type of education.