Phillips Grand Central

Those of us who believe that memory is more than a test-taking skill also have a rooted conviction that it works with other mental powers, sometimes for simple delight but also as a guide. One of the oldest ways of grouping these powers was to call memory and its allies the Five Wits. Of those five, I want to consider imagination and common sense as helping us with our memories to take good educational decisions and actions and to avoid bad ones.

Memory not serving for much more than threescore and ten years, we have developed our imagination and common sense (could we in this case call it worldliness?) in the discipline of history. That, combined with the records of annalists and chroniclers, either as written or as shaped by need and culture for transmission, is what Richard Hofstadter called “the collective experience of the human race.”

When the collective experience of the human race tells us something, we ought to listen. The same with history. It is therefore exasperating to read that in Brooklyn a “new experiment” is in progress that appears to be ignoring these lessons. This “new experiment” is none other than an Open Classroom.

Against history, common sense, imagination, memory, and the collective experience of the human race are ranged a handful of Harvard graduate students and Joel Klein. They seem bent on confirming the critic George Steiner in his dictum that “American education is organized amnesia.” It must be, to have forgotten the open classrooms of forty years ago.

But when memory won’t serve, we could use imagination and common sense to supply the mental shortfall. The ostensible purpose of this open classroom is to duplicate the educational successes of the Phillips Exeter Academy, “where students in small classes work collaboratively and hold discussions around tables.” So they do, and well, but we must think and imagine carefully before bringing Exeter to Brooklyn.

First, there are physical and organizational differences between a classroom at Exeter and Grand Central Terminal. It is possible to conduct group activities in Grand Central, as a number of successful restaurants show, but I would not want to generalize from this success that uninstructed and incontinent six-year-olds in a cavernous constructivist environment will get their tasks as successfully as commuters headed to their tracks or as menu-driven diners at the oyster bar or the steak house.

Second, the students at Exeter were eminently successful pupils at other schools and have internalized many, many lessons in conduct, culture, and academics that a hangarful of first graders would not yet have managed to assimilate.

Third, classes at Exeter are generally limited to twelve students (not just any twelve, but twelve focused, highly motivated, extensively trained, and disciplined young—but not too young—people). Anyone who has taught classes of twenty-five or thirty and classes of twelve or fewer students, as I have, knows that there is a world of difference between the two. It is suspect, if not reckless, to assume that successes with a room of twelve in Exeter can be duplicated in a room of sixty in Grand Central.

Common sense and imagination tell us these things, but the open classroom also has the lessons of history against it. Open classrooms were tried, and they failed.

It is pointless to argue that they might have succeeded if they had been conducted by teachers who leap tall buildings, walk on water, and assimilate the findings of second-rate research: most schools don’t have many such teachers. That argument is another version of the old wheeze that the idea wasn’t misbegotten, but that instead the teacher was to blame.

The impetus to blame also seems to have governed another decision at this “academy.” I mean the assignment of students to single teachers in successive years. Is it done, as it ought to be, because there is an educational benefit from knowing whom you teach? (And there is.) No, it is done to increase teachers’ “accountability.” All that this assignment will end up showing is that bad thinking sometimes accidentally has good consequences. On a lark, here is bit of accountability-thinking: whenever Joel Klein or anyone else cooks up and imposes a scheme to improve learning and it doesn’t work, let them have their own salaries cut by 20%. But even better than waving paring knives around the schoolhouse would be genuine collaboration based on respect, the Five Wits, and the collective experience of the human race.

Diane Ravich reports that one special school in New York has had remarkable success in teaching disadvantaged children. Unlike the Grand Central Academy, this school has boarding students and a highly structured program in small classes. She notes what this school does not often report: that the assistance it receives from private foundations allows it to spend in the neighborhood of $35,000 per student per year.  This is about what the Phillips Exeter Academy charges. [Note: as of 2022, Exeter charges $59,000 per year.]

Common sense, imagination, and experience tell us that the commitment of ample resources to teaching in a program using methods that history shows have worked will be more productive than teaching on a shoestring in a hangar, which history shows has not worked. If I were a betting man, I’d rather put my money on Exeter and the Harkness Table than on Grand Central with beanbags.

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