Education Opinion

A Headmaster Reflects

December 03, 1997 4 min read

In early October, I had the privilege of introducing the keynote speaker at an international conference of elementary school principals. The fact that our speaker was widely acknowledged as one of America’s foremost journalists felt far less important to me than the fact that he was a graduate of my own school--a point my introduction emphasized with shamelessly chauvinistic institutional enthusiasm.

Hedrick Smith’s career has moved beyond his decades of prize-winning reporting and exemplary editorial work for The New York Times to public-affairs television production; and several of his recent series for PBS have focused, in part, on the role and importance of education in the comparative cultures around the globe. So the audience of elementary principals was unusually attentive to his vivid description of similarities and differences he had observed in American, European, and East Asian schools.

This was commentary far more substantive than the comparative-education drivel that makes its dumbed-down way into our national news. Yet the bottom line was essentially similar to the hand-wringing in The Wall Street Journal: National, societal commitment to every child is palpable in European and Asian countries--and conspicuously absent in the United States.

Of equal interest to his elementary school audience was Mr. Smith’s point that educational funding in other cultures is heavily tilted towards the elementary level. America stands alone in its public-investment bias towards postsecondary funding. Under questioning, he conceded that this seems unlikely to change: American society is so divided, in his view, that it does not have the will to change. “The elite 20 percent do not appear to care about the remaining 80 percent, as long as life is good for them and their children.”

Contrary to the current media myths, early elementary education in the East Asian countries focuses less on ‘skills’ than on social collabration.

These sobering observations--from a graduate of my own school, no less--struck me as infinitely more chilling than the unflattering depiction of my school’s suburban environs in the current film “The Ice Storm.” (Now playing, in a theater near you: Fairfield County, Conn., life in the 1970s, proof that there’s more than one way to be brittle.) Hedrick Smith and the film’s director, Ang Lee, preach at least one common bit of gospel: On the verge of a millennium, we all had better start thinking about more important priorities than where to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 1999.

Mr. Smith’s final point in his keynote address was equally provocative (as well as relevant) to his old alma mater. Contrary to the current media myths, he noted, early elementary education in the East Asian countries focuses less on “skills” than on social collaboration. Teaching in Japan and China puts primary emphasis on the importance of young children’s learning to work together across social gaps. These schools for the most part avoid tracking in the early years. The heavy emphasis on skills and academic “results” is delayed to the more advanced stages of education.

Later in the same conference, University of Michigan professor Harold W. Stevenson, the author of The Learning Gap, confirmed Hedrick Smith’s points by reporting the most recent results of his international educational research--comparative studies that continue to illustrate America’s poor performance in mathematics and the sciences and the astounding complacency of American parents. It’s not enough that our country is doing a mediocre job of educating its future citizens, the grown-ups continue to believe their schools are doing a fine job.

In truth, Mr. Stevenson’s graphs and bar charts held little interest for me--and not simply because graduates of my own school, collectively, score at the highest level on such assessments. (After all, that’s not an unusual achievement in an independent-school environment, from which one can, if one chooses, exclude children who are difficult to educate--opting, as critics charge, to make silk purses out of silk ears.) I sat in the darkened auditorium reflecting on my own good fortune, wondering (not for the first time) why I was privileged to work in a yeasty elementary school community that has historically resisted the rampant complacencies of American education.

It’s not enough that our country is doing a mediocre job of educating its future citizens, the grown-ups continue to believe their schools are doing a fine job.

I couldn’t help but ponder the significance of our institutional history, the school’s progressive and genuinely “missionary” roots, laid down by our founding headmaster, Henry Welles, and the self-described band of “old China hands” who fled the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, abandoning the campus of the American School in Shanghai and alighting in our leafy precinct of Connecticut.

Asia to America, six decades before anyone ever dreamed of Harold Stevenson’s technicolor bar charts. What did the missionaries to our little elementary school bring with them in the 1930s? A balanced emphasis on hard work and socialization. A deeply held conviction that “childhood is an end in itself.” An insistence, in the face of a materialistic culture, on the values of “simplicity and friendliness.” They put those values in the school’s mission statement, radical as they must have sounded to affluent suburban parents. And we’ve been able to cling to them ever since.

Children don’t forget these lessons. Fifty years after his own graduation, an alumnus who grew up to become one of our country’s most distinguished men of letters is still preaching them. He’s hoping, as teachers and preachers do, that someone out there is listening.

Nicholas S. Thacher is the headmaster of the New Canaan Country School in New Canaan, Conn.