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The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract

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In this groundbreaking book, Theodore and Nancy Sizer insist that students learn not just from their classes but from their school's routines and rituals, especially about matters of character. They convince us once again of what we may have forgotten: that we need to create schools that constantly demonstrate a belief in their students.
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Overview

In this groundbreaking book, Theodore and Nancy Sizer insist that students learn not just from their classes but from their school's routines and rituals, especially about matters of character. They convince us once again of what we may have forgotten: that we need to create schools that constantly demonstrate a belief in their students.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Theodore and Nancy Sizer describe, with passion, wisdom, and diligence, what a moral school could look like. --Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children's Defense Fund

"Theodore Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer have been on the front lines of the school reform battle for decades." --Newsweek

"Teaching is a moral profession, and the Sizers provide us with invaluable insights into the way in which values play themselves out in the lives of children and teachers." --Herbert Kohl, author of The Discipline of Hope

"The power of a good school to grow good people who can reinvigorate public life is enormous-and the Sizers have got it just right. It isn't an 'add-on' but part-and-parcel of the whole enterprise-as it has been part-and-parcel of their own lives." --Deborah Meier, author of The Power of Their Ideas

"The Sizers offer us an important and clarifying book on a subject that begs for their exceptional thoughtfulness-the moral aspects of education, explained here, suggestively and astutely, by two wise, experienced teachers." --Robert Coles, author of The Moral Life of Children

"This book is a must-read for anybody concerned with character education, moral teaching, or simply with the values of our children. Carefully thought out, cutting edge, and completely compelling." --Amitai Etzioni, author of The New Golden Rule

"Theodore Sizer looms as a giant on the American educational landscape. . . . [The Students Are Watching] packs a mammoth wallop to the status quo with arguments rarely addressed to political leaders who make educational decisions." --Muriel Cohen, The Boston Globe

Rebecca Maksel
This book is thoughtfully written and it will be of interest to students, teachers, parents or anyone interested in education reform.
ForeWord
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Teachers play a vital role in shaping the morality of young people, contends Ted Sizer Horace's School, etc., founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, and co-principal with his wife, Nancy Sizer Making Decisions, of the Francis W. Parker Charter School in Ayer, Mass. In their first endeavor as co-writers, the Sizers maintain that teachers model ways to approach knotty problems and, because they have emotional distance from students, can help them keep their thinking balanced in difficult situations. Acknowledging that some people are concerned by the notion that educators have the right to shape students' minds, they assert that high schools have long had three core tasks: to prepare young people for the world of work, to prepare them to think deeply and in an informed way and to help them become decent human beings. Yet, though schools exist for the benefit of children and adolescents, the Sizers point out that the students are often seen as the school's "clients," as its powerless people--though the authors believe that is a costly, patronizing pretense. Instead, the Sizers call for adults to put stock in the suggestions of children, since they watch and listen to adults all the time and have learned more than we realize. Clearly sympathetic to educators, the Sizers recognize that "serious teaching does not carry an eight-to-four expectation whatever any contract says." For educators and parents concerned about raising thoughtful citizens, this slim book offers the surprisingly weighty insight that if we wish to shape our children's values--how as a matter of habit they treat others and how self-aware they are--we must first look into the mirror. Sept. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A passionate argument that moral education should be seen as an intrinsic part of high school life suffers from the very abstraction the authors seek to avoid. Sizer, noted author of a trio of school-reform books (Horace's Hope, 1996, etc.) and his wife, who trains teachers at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, believe that most educators view character education as an "extracurricular" activity designed around a series of "absolute" nouns: respect, integrity, honesty, and so forth. The authors, on the other hand, insist that "the routines and rituals of a school teach, and teach especially about matters of character" and that becoming an ethical person ought to be an active struggle that engages students' minds as much as calculus does. For even as the typical high school preaches a "civil religion" intended to turn out young people of good character, the Sizers point out, the sights and sounds of a typical school day may undermine these same values. Students who walk into broken-down school buildings learn that their education is not a priority. Teachers who come to school ill-prepared also teach their students how to cut corners. Schools with predominantly white honors classes teach that academic winners and losers break down along racial and class lines. Though the Sizers do a wonderful job of highlighting the hypocrisy that students see all too clearly, the authors frequently use "real-life" situations as springboards for airy theorizing. Rather than discussing the frightening rise in student violence, for example, the chapter on "Shoving" contemplates pushing in the hallways, dirty jokes, and rudeness, before redefining "shoving" past the point of absurdity to meanbreaking new intellectual ground. This book makes an eloquent case that schools need to practice what they preach. But because the authors define their moral categories so broadly, the values they champion lose their power. When words mean too much, they ultimately mean too little.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807031216
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 294,237
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.43 (h) x 0.46 (d)

Meet the Author

Theodore Sizer (1932-2009) and Nancy Sizer were coprincipals of the Parker Charter High School. Ted was founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and University Professor emeritus at Brown University. His books include Horace's Compromise, Horace's School, and Horace's Hope. Nancy, who spent twenty-five years as a classroom teacher, is author of Crossing the Stage. Together they are authors of The Students Are Watching.
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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Modeling


I'VE DECIDED one thing, anyway" Dave says. "I don't want to be an American. As soon as I get the chance, I'm leaving." Dave arrives early to social studies class, and while he seemingly throws these words into the air, he clearly intends for the teacher to pick them up. A few of the kids hear them too.

    Clearly Dave is not kidding. His sentiment is as genuine as it is unexpected, at least by his peers. Something serious is festering within him.

    "Really? Why?" Ms. Santos's voice is calm, interested.

    "Oh, I don't know, all these problems. You know ... we talk about them all the time in this class. Americans think they are so great. We think we have the answers to everything, that everyone should copy us. I don't want to live in a place that's only thought of as rich and powerful. Especially when it's not really a democracy. I mean, there are way too many poor people, and how come so many of them are black? Other countries are better. I'll just go live in one of them?"

    Dave is going through the First Disillusion, a rite of passage that history teachers learn to expect. He's been through the whole Aren't-We-Americans-Just-Dandy curriculum, the one for little kids, and now he is learning about how hard it has been for his country to live up to its ideals. In him, however, the reaction is intense, more than passive awareness. His voice reveals how upset he is, even more than his words do.

    "Do you have a country in mind, Dave?" Ms. Santos says. While class technically is tobegin, she stays with Dave. The others watch, intrigued by all this painful honesty from their buddy.

    As a matter of fact, Dave does have some countries in mind, but when he suggests two or three, the other kids mention problems in those countries too. It is a lively but not threatening discussion. Dave holds his own, but he increasingly appears ready to listen to others' views. Ms. Santos does not take part as the various facts are traded back and forth. The clock keeps ticking. Class is about Dave.

    "Do you want to live in a country without problems?" Again her voice is quiet, her interest focused. The question, directed to Dave, embraces the others as well. All are intent. And in this round of the conversation, the teacher helps the students to consider the potential value of spending a life in a country where there is absorbing and worthy work to do. They catch on, and start giving examples of people they know, people thay have studied or read about who have been able to accomplish something—Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez. After a while, Dave is able to come up with an example too. His voice grows less anguished. The issue—what is America like for the adults who live there?—becomes more complex.

    "Class" should have started ten minutes ago. The other students are milling around, impatient with all this soul-searching and about to get into trouble. Ms. Santos shuts down the discussion of Dave's dilemma and the class moves back to Jacob Riis and the social troubles of the 1890s. She tells Dave, "Let's keep talking about this."

    In the course of the conversation, the teacher is subtly guiding her students to see the ways in which honest and constructive adults make important personal decisions. They don't shy away from the pain they feel when they see things they don't like. They don't jump to conclusions before they have looked at further evidence. They keep their ultimate goals firmly in mind, especially the goal of a worthy life.

    Ms. Santos is modeling that process by honoring Dave's dilemma. Her calmness in the face of Dave's anger implies that moral outrage is an acceptable emotion. It indicates that others—perhaps even she herself—have faced the decision that Dave is facing, and that they have found a way to deal with it. She shows that she realizes that such conversations and work take time: some now, some later. The way she responds implies that although moral outrage is understandable in the short run, it is also honorable to work to solve a problem. She is showing how it can be done—modeling—but she is also teaching, by carefully leading others through a process which is familiar to her.

    Dave is still resolved to check out another nationality for himself. He is thinking hard, acting much less out of pain. He is at the time in his life when he is more likely to bring up agonizing personal dilemmas with his teacher than with his parents. If he were to tell them, at fifteen, that he was checking out other nationalities for himself, their reaction would be likely to be a mix of astonishment and ridicule. They would ignore his statement, or tell him he would outgrow it, or tell him stories about people who tried to emigrate and failed at it, or tell him that he needs to stay nearer home. They would be either in denial or in hysterics. Neither parent would coolly help Dave to walk through his impressions, convictions, and disappointment in America. They care too much about him.

    Ms. Santos is much safer. She has the distance from Dave's decisions that helps her to stay balanced, yet Dave will have access to her all year in social studies class and can see her around the school after that. She takes the time to listen, sympathizes with a real dilemma, and, in this case, knows something about what other countries are like. She makes Dave feel as if he is being a thoughtful person and not just a bratty teenager lashing out at what is frustrating him. The respect she shows him in class—putting off the day's schedule—sends a powerful signal of acceptance. She takes him seriously, helping him to identify and then weigh his choices. Without sermons, with only a few artfully posed questions and the promise to return to the discussion whenever Dave wants, she exhibits the kind and rational behavior which is especially important to teenagers who are beginning to consider adult lives. She is modeling a certain way to approach knotty problems.


As individuals, the Ms. Santoses can model. So too can a school, by its collective signals and its tangible priorities, "model" what is worthy and what is not.

    Many Americans are familiar with th e Westinghouse high school science prize winners who smile shyly at us each year from the safety of the newspaper photographs. The winners and other finalists from, say, a science-oriented magnet school in New York City, are usually bunched informally by the photographer, all happily dazed by their good fortune and the attention being placed upon it. At their side is their teacher, smiling too.

    The article about the winners usually quotes the young people, and their teacher is asked about them. "Yes, these are great kids. They worked very hard. They deserve the best ..." The students respond in kind. "Mr. Jones helped us so much. ... He was in the lab with us all the way."

    What is it that makes some students hurl themselves at an academic challenge, overcome false starts, keep going, and bring the task to a good conclusion?

    Much is involved. None of it is impossible in some form at virtually every school, if its leaders insist on and protect it.

    There must be a challenge, a clear target that is perceived as worthy both by the adolescents and by the larger society. Westinghouse, or its counterparts, have to be out there, providing the tingle of competition. The competition has to be authentic, the presentation of a sophisticated answer to a real and demonstrably important question. Can I answer my question better than all the other brainy kids can answer theirs? The intellectually feisty kids wonder. Sure I can.

    The work is theirs, not an exercise assigned by someone else, a teacher, testmaker, or curriculum planner. It is science, but it is the science that emerges from their own interests. It is their science. The tonic of that ownership is palpable, recognized as each winner talks with reporters. It is my project, our project.

    There are tolerant parents, interested parents, expectant parents, encouraging parents—or surrogate parents, an aunt, a mentor, a neighbor. Yes, they say, you can work on your project all weekend and, no, you need not take a paying job this winter. Yes, you can leave the mess from your research here. How are you getting on? Let me see what you have in mind. Can I help? You must do this. It is exciting. It is good for you. It will help you get a scholarship to Cal Tech.

    There is a knot of like-minded kids, youngsters for whom the ascent into the struggle with an academic abstraction is a special joy and who will not mock anyone who dares to make that ascent. That is, there is a gang of what others may derisively (or jealously) call nerds who provide a sanctuary of sufficient size to give comfort and protection.

    There is a safe place to work, such as a garage or the corner of a laboratory in a classroom and the rudiments of equipment to get started. There is time to work, before and after school. No janitor keeps you out on the street until 7:15 A.M. and makes you leave at 4:15. Indeed, the janitor loiters briefly some of the days, to find out about your work and give his encouragement.

    There is a school that cares about what you are doing and a teacher, a Mr. Jones or Ms. Cho, who nurtures you, getting you thinking about the prospect when you are a tenth grader, joshing you into a particular scientific interest not only in class but outside of class, chiding you when you slacken, making sure that you have the academic tools to do a piece of serious science, showing you about doing science by doing it himself or herself.

    And, surely, there is a je ne sais quoi quality found in such adolescents, a spark that ignites both curiosity and the stubborn ingenuity to pursue the answers to arresting questions. Whether one is born with such a spark or captures it from experience is too elusive a question to answer, but the context in which a young person lives and studies—that youngster's school—surely and powerfully counts. Some schools and families produce genuinely questing students. Some do not.


The conditions that nurtured Dave and the science whizzes are not particular to schoolkeeping. Milbrey McLaughlin and her colleagues looked carefully at what they called "urban sanctuaries" neighborhood organizations that attracted and served inner-city youth, especially those who were drifting, at odds with society. Those that succeeded, in the sense that the adolescent participants found constructive meaning and sensible direction from activities there, were places that had "family-like environments in which individuals are valued and rules of membership are clear. Their activities offer opportunities for active participation and present challenges that result in accomplishments as defined by youth as well as the larger society.... They are youth driven and sensitive to youth's everyday realities.... They assume that youth are a resource to be developed, not a problem to be solved. They are flexible ... tangibly local ... They enable youth through family-like challenging, prodding, nagging, teasing, loving."

    These "urban sanctuaries" are in many respects similar in their functioning and in the attitudes they foster to those available within the schoolhouse. The "sanctuaries" the science teams and the social studies classes are small, made up of groups of young people and one or a few adults who have the chance to know and support each other. They have goals, whether quite specific, such as a science prize, or more diffuse, such as the creation of a safe and rewarding place where important matters can be discussed. They have rules, usually crafted by their participants, but congruent with the best of those of the larger society. They are voluntary; the participants are sought after, but they have to buy in.

    They are intense; they do not function with casual participation. The work of each has a reward, either obvious (a prize) or subtle (association with a group of trusted friends). They are respectful of the power, however latent, of their adolescent participants to accomplish worthy work of their own devising. They are safe, physically and psychologically. They have adult leaders who act as mentors or coaches—as friends—rather than only as dispensers of information. The teenagers are surrounded by people who make the prospect of taking charge of one's own head and heart possible.

    These are the values that ought to permeate high school. Institutions, large and small, which are organized around the principle of helping adolescents to grow sturdily into adulthood can be places which model goodness. Furthermore, evidence of goodness need not be limited to behavior; it can also be found in the thoughtful choice of one argument over another or even in the most private stirrings of the heart, stirrings which are only glimpsed in a dramatic performance or a line in a student's poetry. The three groups described above—two inside schools, one outside—are creating a context for moral growth.

    These groups have countless counterparts, the most familiar in schools being sports teams, newspaper editorial boards, drama companies, and academic "teams" such as those preparing to compete for an Odyssey of the Mind prize. Adults operate similarly. Students in law schools create study groups and mock trial teams. Art and architecture schools provide cavernous studios where students usually work at close quarters in what is structured and enormously productive chaos. Most large churches and synagogues are the sum of all sorts of gathered smaller communities, committees, planning and service groups, workshops, governing boards. The military emphasizes the collective commitments of small groups of men and women—gun crews, rifle squads and platoons, teams of Navy Seals, most of them made up of people in their late teens. Most successful politicians and managers have their inner, honest and reinforcing groups. And it is not for nothing that celebrated criminals are usually part of what the public calls "gangs." Humans are animals who gather.

    Why and how and whether they gather makes a difference. Context counts. The way a place or group is arranged, the nature of the incentives for that group to do whatever seems most important to do (for good or ill) and the quality of the human interactions are pivotal. The context teaches by how it is structured and how the participants interact.

    The contexts can be intentional. Ms. Santos's class certainly is, and so are those created for students hooked on science or for city adolescents attracted to a group which promises constructive safety. Or they can be antisocial, a gathering of people for their own protection and efficiency, for example in the traffic of illegal drugs. Or the contexts can be the product of mindlessness, places and situations that emerge from a long-forgotten necessity but exist now without plan or reason. Or they can be constructed primarily for the administrative convenience of people, often dismissed contemptuously as "bureaucrats" who labor far away from the group. Or they may be merely the happenstance sum of actions and policies devised for different purposes. That is, they may be unintentional communities.

    High schools are one of America's most ubiquitous intentional communities. They exist to prepare youth for the adult world. Most American adolescents are required to go to school, and they attend schools which enroll a thousand or more pupils. Most high schools are organized to manage the flow of these diverse pupils over a series of carefully described activities with the least possible hassle at the least possible cost. Though high schools were originally designed with the sorts of values implicit in the examples we have cited, demands for order and efficiency have long commandeered the priorities of the architects of American secondary schools.

    More is the pity. By means of their design, all high schools teach. Their rules and routines are lessons of substance and value. Thoughtfully or unthinkingly, students and teachers ingest these values, thereby learning to live by them. These lessons may promote optimism or cynicism, hard work or shortcuts. Most often, because so many schools have become unintentional communities—that is, have strayed from their original purposes—they promote different attitudes in different classes, so that the student herself is left with the job of sorting it all out. Furthermore, while high school is but part of an adolescent's life, it is an influential one. The quality of that experience leaves its mark.


High schools have long had three core tasks: to prepare young people for the world of work; to prepare them to use their minds well, to think deeply and in an informed way; and to prepare them to be thoughtful citizens and decent human beings.

    While a typical high school attempts to be true to these ends, in practice, even when undertaken by decent and devoted people, it often falters. Most high schools are friendly and, for most students, safe places, and most prepare their students moderately well for college and work.

    Few, however, are organized to encourage the relationship between students and their teachers such as that between Dave and Ms. Santos. The loads per teacher are normally heavy—100 to 175 young people during each semester—and the rapid reassignment of students from course to course makes it likely that a large percentage of students are not known well. This creates a situation which is, unfortunately, welcomed by many students: anonymity means their freedom from all sorts of scrutiny and obligation.

    The formation of "thoughtful citizens and decent human beings" is, of the three, the oldest and most controversial of high schools' traditional tasks. The goal itself raises all sorts of questions. What kind of people does our community desire and deserve? How might the young people's values be shaped? Do public schools have the right to "shape" a student's mind, or was Bartlett Giamatti correct when he said that such an invasion of the "contours of another person's mind ... would be an act of terrorism"?

    High schools are surrounded by these questions, questions as good as they are ancient. As a practical matter high schools have to reduce them to a number which is both feasible and essential. What do we stand for in this place? How is that stance reflected in our routines, activities, and rituals? How do we model—as institutions and as the people who work within them—that which we most value?

    The kids count on our consistency. Few qualities in adults annoy adolescents more than hypocrisy. Familiar examples abound. The English teacher who insists that her students read fiction but who never reads any herself. The social studies teacher who neither knows who the candidates are in a local election nor bothers to vote. The physical education teacher who is, whatever his or her age, grossly out of shape. The assistant principal who acts on the basis that a student is guilty until proven innocent, even as he teaches the opposite in his ninth-grade social studies class. The principal who lectures his students about fairness but who coddles the children of influential families.

    There are also positive examples that tell their own story. The biology teacher who, spring after spring, tracks the nesting patterns of red-winged blackbirds, dragging his students before dawn into a mosquito-infested swamp to watch and record the movements of the birds. The English teacher who writes poetry, shares it with her students, and not only teaches drama but directs student performances. The coach who keeps on top of her game, razor-sharp on new rules, plays, and practices and always ready to share them. The custodian who in his work exhibits pride of place and insistently, politely, and persuasively expects the students to do likewise. The assistant principal who makes certain he learns the name of every student within a month of the opening of school and who greets and treats each student with knowing familiarity. The teacher who organizes a "coffeehouse" every month where people of all ages present poems, songs, dances, duets, skits, short essays. All these people bear witness to values many feel are the province of a public school.

    The people in a school construct its values by the way they address its challenges in ordinary and extraordinary times. Again, familiar examples display the lessons which adults may not wish to be teaching: toleration of endemic cheating by a faculty which has run out of energy and, thus, strategies; favoritism shown to athletes, who get easy assignments in class and whose out-of-school high jinks are tolerated; mockery of kids who work hard at activities sponsored by the school; suspicion and mistrust demonstrated by the security officer, festooned with a radio apparatus, patrolling a corner in a hallway, challenging kids as they hove into view. The kids laugh about him and his schtick, mock him behind his back, but they learn from his distrustful stance what their school thinks of them. They think we are dirt, they tell us.

    There are happier examples, also known to us. The empathetic courtesy at a school assembly given to a long-winded visiting speaker or to a fellow student who forgets his lines or sings flat. Generous recognition by the crowds in the stands to a valued player on an opposing team who is injured during a close game. The use of the school as a place in which to introduce some of its seventeen-year-olds to the practice of giving blood. Gathering crews of teenaged snow shovelers to be put at the service of the town police during a major, crippling snowstorm to dig out both the entrances to essential public services and the homes of housebound elderly. Closing school (even in technical violation of a school system rule) to attend the funeral of a student who was killed in a freak automobile accident in full view of many students.

    Institutions can bear witness, in good and bad times. That is, they can model certain kinds of behavior.

    The persistent question is, of course, which behaviors, which values, which qualities are to be modeled. Lists of such virtues have been made and argued about for centuries; no topic in the history of education has attracted so much analysis and attention. The possibility of original sin in the young, or the unrepressed irresponsibility of the adolescent, or the cruel prejudices of adults controlling the schools have vexed generations of Americans.

    Samuel Phillips in 1778 tied morals and learning together in a classic knot, instructing the Master (the one-man faculty) of the academy bearing his name as follows: "above all, it is expected, that the Master's attention to the disposition of the Minds and Morals of the Youth, under his charge, will exceed every other care; well considering that, though goodness without knowledge (as it respects others) is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind."

    At the heart of this expression is an important and persistent American assumption that "good character" and "morality" are tied to the use of the mind; and that the mind is best used for worthy, indeed moral, ends. Church and state are to be separated for doctrinal purposes, but the inculcation of civil behavior—sometimes even called a civil religion—is a proper task for the public schools.

    Many schools wrestle hard with what all of this practically means.

    Some reduce it to an enumeration of desirable—but mostly undesirable—behaviors. No cheating. No fighting. No littering. No rudeness. No raucousness.

    Some recount the expression of virtues: "You accept things you cannot control with humor and grace; you are tolerant of a delay or confusion or other uncomfortable conditions. You are patient with others. You resolve your conflicts peacefully; you seek a resolution that is fair and just for all." The students and faculty regularly discuss these "criteria for excellence" and the criteria serve as the text from which a school's "justice committees" or their counterparts reach decisions on penalties for alleged miscreants.

    Yet others design "contracts" that the school makes with each student, a statement of what goes and what doesn't go in classrooms and hallways and what might happen if a student (or, sometimes, the school) strays from what is expressly and clearly agreed upon.

    All three of these approaches inevitably provoke questions and unwittingly disconnect issues of value (and the behavior that flows from them) from the habit of seriously thinking about important matters. That is, matters of value are treated as if they were extracurricular, implying that the intellectual rigor expected, say in calculus class, is not expected in matters of moral concern.

    Yet, save for extreme matters such as blatant and premeditated violence in a hallway, for example, most presumed errors of behavior are subject to disagreement. They therefore require a mind which is capable of making distinctions. When is a sort of copied social studies essay deliberate plagiarism and when is it merely the naive stumble of a fledgling scholar who does not fully understand how to cite another's work? When is a shout of warning in a hallway unwarranted noisiness and when is it a legitimate act to prevent an accident? When might "fighting back" be justified? There are no satisfactory universal and easy answers to any of these questions. All are to some important extent rooted in a particular situation. Only by examining the principle that was apparently violated against the evidence of the offense is there the possibility of reaching a satisfactory conclusion. That is, all the people involved have to think about the issue, both in the abstract and with regard to the immediate details.

    After over two hundred years, Samuel Phillips is still right: the moral and the intellectual are inextricable. One school turned this complexity into a virtue by creating a system that required careful thought about every appearance of a possibly uncivil act. Charles Merrill, in designing his independent Commonwealth School in Boston some decades ago, posited one rule: Don't Rollerskate in the Hallways. Pondered carefully, stretched this way and that, such a dictum served the school as a metaphor for how people should behave. The first expectation in an intentional community is consideration for one's fellow beings. All other mores and rules must follow from that. An incivility was not merely plucked from a list of school "don'ts," It had to find its own place against what appeared to be a whimsical requirement but in fact provided a framework for all kinds of issues. People of all ages had to think about their actions, personal and collective.

    The modeling of scholarship, such as the tracking of red-winged blackbirds by students and teacher, and the modeling of "behavior," such as living what you preach, are of the same substance. Rarely are they treated so in schools. The large American high school which was originally meant to promote careful thinking among all of the people has become a monument to mindlessness, at least as far as personal conduct is concerned. "Good behavior" is something that applies to students. Adults have no comparable "contract" save a usually ill-defined professionalism. Teachers have no moral equivalent of the Hippocratic oath. Adults can be cruel to others in the students' hearing, without penalty or remorse. Adults do not have to practice the disciplines they teach; indeed, some feel little need even to show enthusiasm for what they teach. The subjects of the curriculum are academic castor oil which students must ingest because it is good for them. For students in such a place, a school's "rules" are usually perceived as strictures that implicitly insist Do what we say, not necessarily what we do—hardly desirable models for a principled life.

    But the examples we have cited—a teacher's serious consideration of adolescent questioning, involvement in a science project, and the functioning of "urban sanctuaries"—suggest the possibility of a different arrangement.

    The "rules" in Ms. Santos's classroom are those of consideration for another's dilemma and of reasonable and confident problem-solving. The "rules" of evidence in serious science are demanding, and the prospect of defending one's project before judges whom you have never met is threatening. One has to get it right. The "rules" and customs of a community which is a legitimate "sanctuary" are in their classification by the participants and in their application no less demanding. One has to get them right.

    In each case, the "rules" apply to all involved, not only the students. Young and old create thoughtful communities, fashion or borrow their "rules" and function by and within them. The ways that each community pursues its work are rational, devised by human minds, and principled in that they provide a framework for fair, safe, honest, and decent conduct. The minds and morals of every person involved are engaged. None is exempt. There is little hypocrisy to be found here.


Individuals are one thing. The school as a whole—the institution—is another. Desirable ends cannot be wholly limited to the individual or even to the small pockets of civility and purpose which we have described, and which can be found in nearly every school. They apply deeply to the community as a whole.

    Amitai Etzioni puts it usefully. "The basic social virtues are a voluntary moral order and a strong measure of bounded individual and subgroup autonomy, held in careful equilibrium." Schools have to have a collective culture, a "moral order" but one which is in balance with individual autonomy.

    Two words are of special importance. The moral order is voluntary; the adults and the students are partners in its creation and maintenance. Both students and teachers see the point of schooling. In small and voluntary associations, shared norms emerge which make it unnecessary to devise elaborate sets of rules. The rules that last come out of environments, not books. The relationship between the needs of the community and individual freedom is not something arbitrarily imposed; it is, rather, arrived at through explanation, exploration, and persuasion.

    In a school, this is difficult to do. Younger students have little experience in this process and often are impatient with it to the point of intolerance. "They need structure" it is explained, "and clarity." Adults, who will be held ultimately responsible, often feel outnumbered, put in corners by youth and often by their well-organized adult special interest "spokesmen."

    There is strain in all of this, but the end does justify the means. A community's functioning rests on trust, and trust comes from the understanding that emerges from dialogue. Such is a justifiable cost of democracy, even among unequals, such as those within schools which are gathered for the older (the more powerful) to teach the younger.

    The second critical word is equilibrium. There has to be a unified (if not precisely uniform) culture. And there has to be room for the appropriate expression of individual convictions. These two are not necessarily in opposition, but they can be. Among a few very important things, school is about helping young people to gain the habit of seeing the virtue of such a balance, not only at school but in all the years that follow. One is true to oneself. One is also true to one's communities. Each citizen must find his or her most defensible balance. School exists to help along that process.


All of this is not to suggest that there is no struggle. The great human questions persist. What is moral? What is civilized? What is good character? The answers are neither easy nor likely to be readily settled. Schools are necessarily afloat in a soup of ambiguity, one which is accompanied by strong feeling and, often, paralyzing confrontation.

To find the core of a school, don't look at its rulebook or even its mission statement. Look at the way the people in it spend their time—how they relate to each other, how they tangle with ideas. Look for the contradictions between words and practice, with the fewer the better. Try to estimate the frequency and the honesty of its deliberations. Though it will always want to spruce up for visitors, its hour by hour functioning is what is important. Judge the school not on what it says but on how it keeps.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Watching
1 Modeling 1
2 Grappling 19
3 Bluffing 39
4 Sorting 58
5 Shoving 81
6 Fearing 99
Afterword: Thinking 116
Sources 122
Notes 129
Acknowledgments 133
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