Well that went over like a lead balloon. What was I thinking? Talking about the significance of the high school years in and of themselves, as something more than four years of college prep. I probably lost half of the room when I talked about adolescence as Rousseau’s second birth and the responsibility Alden has to help students give birth to their moral selves. Some probably nodded off and the others wanted me to can the philosophy and get on with the real issues like whether Alden’s science, math, and computing curriculum is rigorous enough for Caltech and MIT, or what the school is doing to foster entrepreneurship.
But then there are the kids. Many of them are troubled about the world beyond the classroom. Chris’s speech at yesterday’s town hall meeting made that clear. Instead of going on about the wonderful experience he had visiting our sister school in Kenya, he stunned the audience by simply stating the obvious: that he’s been to Nairobi but as of yet hasn’t set foot in the Bronx. Got to admire Chris’s candor when he confessed that he can more easily talk to a kid from Kenya than a kid who lives a few subway stops away. And probably for my benefit, Chris made it clear that two hours per week of community service won’t solve the problem.
Then there’s the class. Is it because we’re reading dystopian novels or do the novels simply reflect what the kids have already concluded — that the natural and public worlds are careening towards chaos? As Ben said, “species are becoming extinct, extreme weather is the new normal, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic and dead, but all our politicians do is debate whether there’s anything to worry about, that is, if they haven’t shut down the government.”
Somehow amidst all the discussion about preparing for college, the capital campaign, salaries, I need to make these concerns central to the conversation that takes place at Alden. We tell our kids that they are the leaders of tomorrow, but what does leadership mean for someone coming of age in the twentieth-first century? Especially if that someone has enjoyed the privileges bestowed by a meritocracy many of their fellow citizens perceive as rigged in favor of the rich and well connected? Open that can of worms and what are the chances that conversation could become my farewell address?
In Letters of Recommendation the headmaster’s concerns are addressed as a student tries to figure out what role privilege plays in a democracy and how privilege differs from entitlement. Along with depicting Alden in all its concrete reality, Letters also illuminates something more ineffable: its informal curriculum that can serve as an incubator for the civic arts. Every school has an informal curriculum. It pervades the halls, cafeteria, student lounges, anywhere students congregate and act as autonomous persons making choices, making decisions based on those choices, and ultimately forming judgments. It’s a school’s informal curriculum that makes the aforementioned practices, the defining features of the civic arts, possible or not.
Online booksellers carry Letters — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Tower Books — and your favorite bookstore can order it for you — Letters of Recommendation by Maxine McClintock is published in The Reflective Commons (New York: Collaboratory for Liberal Learning, 2013). ISBN 978-1-937828-004, $24.95.