The interview: part 3

Thom: You mentioned that the high school you went to was different from most high schools. Can you describe this school in a little more detail and why it was perfect for you?

Robert: IT was a public high school in NY, an experimental school, called John Dewey high School, based on the educational philosophies of John Dewey. I went to it the second year it was open. It had no grades, no competition (no honor societies....), no competitive sports, self-paced, tremendous facilities. Probably just as importantly as all those things, because it was a new, weirdo experimental school, where there was considerable anxiety as to whether people would be accepted into decent colleges afterward without grades, it was highly self-selective. Smart eccentric kids who would have mouldered in traditional high schools, or loathed the "Ooh me, I know, I know, call on me" edge of the elite NYC specialized high schools (Bronx Science, Stuyvesant....). It was wonderful for me -- I was driven enough to not need grades or any sort of structure, the flexibility of things that were available was great (e.g., in addition to traditional science courses, there was a 2-year course in anthropology, a year of microbiology, 2 years of marine biology. You could take "sabbaticals" -- throughout, I worked a day a week in a primate lab). There was no violence whatsoever, not the remotest hint of kids bullying each other, no idiot sports worship. Lots of hippie teachers who found the school to be a refuge from traditional high schools, so they were wildly enthusiastic and motivated. A great place for me.

Thom: Do you think this school was 'stressful?' Was this good or bad for you?

Robert: Stressful only in the sense of "good stress" -- an ideal level of stimulation. There was definitely a subset of students who sank there -- they couldn't deal with the freedom and lack of structure and kind of disappeared. So, I think that for there, one could somehow frame it as there being insufficient stress of a certain shaping sort. But that's a bit of a reinterpretive stretch.

Thom: From what you know about schools today which your son might go to do you think schools are designed to minimize or maximize stress for kids?

Robert: I don't know a ton about this, and there is obviously a great variety of schools. The Columbine High school model seems to be one built around worship of sports, of cliques, of the popular, a tremendous tolerance for victimization -- this obviously creates vast amounts of stress for the outliers, but I don't think there's the remotest hint that such schools are "designed" to be that way. It seems like a combination of laziness, uncreativity and shitty values.

Palo Alto seems to specialize in schools instead where smarts/achievements are valued, which is a nice change, but where it winds up being a pressure cooker that apparently does some pretty stressful things to the kids (this seems to be the world of the 9th graders developing ulcers worrying about the SATs years hence...). Immensely competitive, where you can't escape it, no matter how tacitly the stress is generated. I found Harvard to be a lot like this. So obviously a variant there of maximally stressing kids along a certain axis, and what seems to be an outcome of design.

Then, we're seeing various progressive schools, in looking for places for our son. A lot of them seem to be designed to minimize stress and, in the process, to accidentally generate too little stimulation, makes it seem slightly unPC and boorish to be excited and driven about something. Not the idiot values of the Columbine world, where it is bad to be smart and driven because football is more important, but out of basically the good intentions of it being bad to be smart and driven because you might hurt the feelings of those not smart, because the best and the brightest got us into Vietnam so you'd better be suspicious of meritocracy, blah blah.

How's that for not quite answering your question.

Thom: Is the stressfulness of a learning environment something which should be taken into consideration when teaching, designing or evaluating a school?

Robert: Obviously, in terms of stress making for poorer learning, less pleasure in learning, depression. And the stress could be, a) because the place is a driven competitive pressure cooker; b) because seemingly anything but learning is what is valued; c) because the environment is not safe, either physically or emotionally; d) because the values taught at school, as a representative of mainstream culture, is strongly conflicting with your values at home (I'm thinking here of the Ebonics war of a few years ago -- the issue of what is a kid supposed to make of school where, if they learn things properly there, they can only reach the conclusion that their parents are ignorant and don't know how to speak English?)....

Thom: If someone asked you to help design a school how would you structure the space and the learning situations in terms of stress?

Robert: Aii. Let me pass on that one. Either a sound bite or a book out of that one...


©2002 AIT Press & Thom Gillespie. Pictures by Eriberto Lozada from the Butler University J. James Wood Science Writer Lecture Series