Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Education of An Educator by Theodore R. Sizer

I didn't want to meet Judson Shaplin. He was then – in 1956 – Associate Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and czar of the university's Masters of Arts in Teaching program. Actually, I wanted an M.A. Degree in history but could not qualify for admission as I had, prior to two years in the Army, majored in English at Yale. Now, a teacher in a private school, I wanted to shift fields, an unacceptable decision for Harvard's history department. My sister Alice, a Cambridge resident, pushed me towards Jud and an MAT. He had just won election to Cambridge's School Committee as a reform candidate, and Alice knew him as a bright new light in an old college town.

I slunk into his dilapidated old Lawrence Hall office oozing (I'm sure) preppy arrogance. Education schools? “Certification” for public school teaching? Taking courses in Methodology and How to Teach Reading to Snotty Little Kids? Nice Yalies didn't consort with such things.

Without preliminaries, Shaplin took me apart. It was clear that he admired neither Ivy arrogance nor preppiness, that there was a job to do in public education and that he'd admit me on the spot if I forthwith tried to shed my snobbery and if I had enough stamina to take a 150 percent academic load, including eight history courses (in that very department which had earlier spurned my Cleanth Brooks-sharpened Lit Crit skills). I joined up, probably because I believed this to be the only way of stifling his scorn. My abrupt decision may have startled my wife. It surely amused my sister.

I had Jud in class, an old certification chestnut, “Education B-6: The American School.” Lectures were held in the Mallincrodt Chemistry Building, Shaplin presiding behind a gassy table. Pipe tobacco littered his rumpled suits; he was ever fussing with, tamping and misplacing a series of foul pipes. He was out of shape; his belt strained.
 His course didn't. We graduate students – virtually all still at least closet snobs- contemptuously expected lectures on Classroom Management and The Making of the Daily Schedule. Instead we got an ill-organized jumble of provocative speculations on issues that were then in few education textbooks. The poor ( we read Allison Davis). Race ( Gunner Myrdal and the Brown decision). The pros and cons of federal aid to the schools. Teacher unions ( he imported Myron Lieberman to talk to us). And back to social class (we now read MiddletownElmtownGrowing Up in River City.) The public schools were public; the poor were welcome there. Even though these schools ill-served poor kids today, they might serve them better tomorrow – that is, as long as the likes of us cared. We were an elite social status; Shaplin would have us be a meritocratic elite, or at least a part of an elite corps that would serve the public interest. To worry even for a moment over how such a commitment would be viewed by our mid 50s Ivy peers was contemptible.

These were odd views for Harvard. Yes, one could respectably study the poor and the political process. But labor with them? Run for public office? Work the ethnic halls, churches and bars for votes? Teach in city schools. Indeed, even like the hoi polloi?

His course, like the man, was a triumph of personality over plan, of intelligent passion over academicism. It bespoke Jud's origin. His father, who died early, was a usually unemployed Pennsylvania miner [ a H.S. Principal actually- J.S.]. His mother struggled, failed. Jud was shipped off to Girard College in Philadelphia, a sanctuary for poor white orphan boys. His volcanic energy and smarts vaulted him from there to a Harvard College scholarship. He majored in physical anthropology, earning a summa. Graduate school with a PhD in social relations [clinical psychology, actually- J.S.] followed: there he displayed energy, restless intelligence, and a deep anger. He had to be at Harvard because he hated a part of it so ferociously. And loved a part with passion, to. He labored in the college dean's office. He married a professor's daughter.

After a year of teaching, I returned to Harvard for a PhD and worked for Jud. We argued often, as friends, seated in chairs in his office or home. He always won, however long the discussion took, jamming the stem of some grubby pipe viciously into his shoe, rattling off the latest statistics gathered by his left-leaning social scientist friends. His course, in which I now became a teaching fellow, continued in its seemingly incoherent but stimulating form. He tolerated my issuance of weekly reading lists, but pointedly ignored them. Chaos reigned in the MAT program too – a chaos caused by honoring of substance over process, ideas over procedure. He would get his Jeffersonian elite, and they would care about The Public, all of it. If toward this end one made decisions about people on the spot, then procedures be damned.

Kennedy's election was further galvanizing. Jud led Harvard into the Peace Corps; the world's poor were added to those of America. Nigerian notables found their way to his Upland Road living room (Judd was surprised, however, and disappointed by their aristocratic airs.) Washington had him regularly on the phone. The anger and the optimism reach their zeniths.

Jusds boss,Francis Keppel, left Harvard in 1962 to join the Kennedy Administration. Shaplin became Acting Dean. He wanted the top post, his shoes started to shine, a comb was used; he got organized. He didn't get the job. In due course, I, his Yalie flunkie did.

Jud moved to Washington University in Missouri. Soon there was less fire, less optimism. He welcomed me to St. Louis, gave me counsel. We argued; he still always won. His advice was as right as the pungency, the blunt assurance, of his manner of talk. The old indifference to appearances still sparkled. So the Arts and Sciences professors mock Education. Let 'em mock! What you're doing is more important than what they're doing, so ignore their sherry party snobbishness. Schooling is the way up for orphaned sons of impoverished mining families. That is your cause. Don't let any pseudo-aristocratic academic pomposities deter you. Don't romanticize the poor (poverty isn't pretty), and don't forget them either. Be inventive on their behalf. Understand, he'd argue, what social class is all about. Don't entangle yourself in the details of red tape, those procedural deities that give elite institutions excuses for inactivity. Believe, and act.

Jud Shaplin died years ago, in great pain ([peacefully, actually -J.S.], from kidney disease. But up until his last illness he enjoyed our arguments. He didn't appear to resent me, the newly-minted Harvard Education Dean, probably because my admiration of his principled activism and sensible impatience was so transparent. He knew I believed his anger to be justified, an ultimately constructive force for democratic ends.

No little kid should have to suffer what little Jud had suffered. One had first to understand this; one would then become angry about it; once thus moved to action, to correct it. Energetic, informed good intentions could lead to reform. Anger, ironically, gave birth to optimism.

Washington Post Educational Review, 20 April, 1986

1 comment:

  1. My Dad's Older Brother
    Alfred C. Shaplin was in the 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry division of the U.S. Army- a technically advanced combat team. His regiment was the first unit to assault German forces on Normandy Coast.

    On Nov. 6, 1944, the Battle of Hurtgen Forest began. It was the longest, single battle that the U.S. Army has ever fought in its history.

    Stretching north-east from the Belgian-German border, the Hurtgen Forest covers an area of about fifty square miles within the triangle formed by the towns of Aachen, Dueren and Monschau. From September 1944 to February 1945 thousands of American soldiers advanced upon the Germans through this forest. Other battles on the Western Front of World War II have been more dramatically decisive, but none was tougher or bloodier.- Close-ranked fir trees, towering 75-100 feet made the Hürtgen Forest a gloomy, mysterious world where the brightness of noon was muted to an eerie twilight filtering through dark trees onto spongy brown needles and rotted logs.

    More than 24,000 Americans were killed, went missing, were wounded or captured. Another 9,000 succumbed to the misery of trench foot, respiratory diseases and combat fatigue.

    Some 80,000 German soldiers fought in this battle. An estimated 28,000 were rated casualties. "A major military error!" - "The Death Factory!" - "A Hell of Icicles!" were echoes from those men who were thrown into the inferno of the Hurtgen Forest and a battle which should never have been, - a battle which senior staff officers in the rear fought on maps, not being aware of, that battles are never won or lost on maps, - but "Up Front!"

    "a misconceived and basically fruitless battle that should have been avoided."-Charles B. MacDonald, a US Army historian and former company commander who served in the Hürtgen battle.

    Alfred died on November 18, 1944, in this battle. He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Cross. He is buried in the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium.