I think of you, the Class of 2015, almost daily—and it has nothing to do with your Middle School antics, the veritable plague that you all came down with on the D.C. trip, or Collin’s detestable green jacket.
It is because, at least once a day, I walk up the stairs of our 7th/8th grade building and get to see your 8th grade Legacy Project. It is a treasured Legacy Project—you chose aspirational words, each one beautifully designed or illustrated, to challenge yourselves and leave behind some thoughts for younger students to ponder.
I am sentimental about it because of the inspiring words you chose: Strive, Journey, Inspire, Believe, Duty, Give. Your words are so simple, but unquestionably essential to learning.
The Cum Laude Society has a simple charge as well, to "Promote learning and sound scholarship." It certainly fits well with the sentiments of the Class of 2015's Legacy Project, and with Randolph’s mission. So, today, in honor of that project, and on the theme of promoting learning, I’m going to talk about a few of them.
THINK: forwards and backwards. Now, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that Mrs. McMichens' lessons on polarity or Mrs. Reyes' explanations of how to create depth in your work should be turned on their heads, or suggest that Mr. Cobbs' interpretation of Hamlet is at all backwards—the knowledge you’ve gained here at Randolph will serve you well into the future. Yet, I’d like to suggest, just for a moment, that in the future you should forget what you know.
Consider how many times we prevent ourselves from learning because we think we already know something.
One of the most influential persons in the history of education proposed something similar to this over 500 years ago: forget what you know to be true and imagine a new way of doing sound scholarship.
I’m referring to Francis Bacon. I’m sure you remember who Francis Bacon was—lawyer, philosopher, Father of Empirical Science, and educational reformer.
He challenged the idea that an educated person was one who had mastered the classics—overturning the established tradition of scholasticism and humanism. Bacon pushed us into a more modern way of thinking, giving value to those who sought discovery in learning, experimentation, and inductive reasoning. Bacon was not without his critics, and his legacy is not without its detractors today, but in my mind he presents us learners with this: It is often what we know or understand about something that will keep us from learning something new.
Mark Twain said something similar, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”
In other words, we need to be able to put aside our preconceived ideas, to forget perhaps, if only for a time, to be able to learn. I think this is relevant today as you/we are again in the midst of significant changes in education.
IMAGINE. The last two decades have given the world of education incredible information about how the brain learns and this alone has changed our thinking on instruction. Finland is introducing phenomenon-based teaching, a move away from singularly focusing on subject-specific teaching toward an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. Similarly, another leader in education, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, is doing research in its Project Zero, helping us broaden the understanding of human learning, and stretching its application across contexts such as business and digital environments.
From e-texts to MOOCs, we are seeing how technology continues to impact learning, including the collection of a plethora of data in our world. Data are used in every realm of research, from medicine to artificial intelligence. I read in the Atlantic last October how early “machine learning” was really just an abundance of data, 2.2 million pairs of sentences, in both French and English, paired together to create simple substitutions to create one of the first computer translators. It was a project by IBM, very simple, and yet imaginative.
Francis Bacon would have loved this, as he was a data fanatic! And he would NOT have believed the amount of data we have today. But in the end, let’s not forget the limits of data—it has to be interpreted by the human.
Without imaginative thought data will not get us anywhere and with too much imagination it can be dangerous.
That leads me to the third word: BE
Randolph believes and teaches, that a solid education should teach students to question, to be active—not passive—in seeking truth, and to be yourself, not who society tells you to be.
A middle school girl a few years ago, one who was a talented athlete, told me something that sticks with me to this day. I was trying to figure out why she didn’t play ball with passion, get after it, as they say; she was constantly holding back. It was not that she didn’t have the size, she had it, or she didn’t have the brains, she did, but not all the compliments I gave her, nor the imploring of her coach, made a difference. One day I just flat out asked her why she didn’t play her hardest. And she said this to me: “I want to, but I don’t want people to think that I think that I’m so great.”
It may have been my upbringing as a child of the '60s and '70s, which ingrained in me a confidence to be myself regardless of others' opinions. Watching others “buck the system” was part of my formation; it was the norm in the Civil Rights and Vietnam war days.
Just to be clear, I was too young to be really in the action when much of the protests were taking place. I did, however, jump at the chance to reenact this when the movie Kent State was being made in Gadsden, my hometown. I was a senior in high school and my friends and I put on our white flared jeans and halter tops, wore our long hair down in our faces and stood in line to get parts as extras. Kent State was one of the many college campuses in the late '60s and early '70s whose students spoke out against injustices such as segregation and the war in Vietnam and resulting Cambodian campaign. I’m sure any filming of me was left on the cutting room floor, but not the lasting impressions of what this might have actually been like.
It was much later in life that I read a poignant passage in a speech from the president of Columbia University in NY, a school whose protests were also violent in the '60s. Grayson Kirk said, "The most important function of education at any level is to develop the personality of the individual and the significance of his life to himself and to others.” Forgetting the sexist language, I agree with Mr. Kirk—we educators should be about the business of empowering you to find your significance in this world—and supporting you in doing this yourself —to BE.
Ironically, Mr. Kirk himself was unable to uphold his high ideals; when students at Columbia came out to protest not only the university’s backdoor connections supporting the war, but also their plans to build a segregated gymnasium on the campus, which bordered Harlem. He called in the police, who hauled students off to jail.
I should also add that, with great teachers and coaches around her, that young middle school girl I spoke about was able to put her fears aside and finish her varsity basketball career with a total of 755 points. She found herself, and her passion.
So lastly, PASSION—And in choosing this word, I have to share a greetings to the senior class from the other Miss Robb, the one some of you had as an English teacher here at Randolph a few years ago, as this story has to do with her. Miss Hayley Robb, now Hayley Brantley.
I’ve tried to keep Hayley up with what your year has been like—from the amazing job Anna and Collin did emceeing the Talent Show to hearing about the incredibly moving last moment this year when Caroline, Abby, Maddie Extine and Brittany, assisted their injured teammate, Maddie Kofskey, to score a basket in their last home basketball game. She teared up just as I did, loving all your stories! Hayley, now teaching at Ensworth School in Nashville, and sends her best to you.
Now if you knew Hayley as I do, you’d know she is a rule-follower; she never had her apple pulled in elementary school, and I wished for the day she got an infraction in Middle School, so that she would know the sun would still rise the next day, but it didn’t happen. So Hayley might balk at this last piece of advice for you but I’ll venture there anyway—BREAK THE RULES—and find your PASSION.
Hayley’s favorite quote is from Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
This quotation, hung by her roommate freshman year in college, confounded Hayley. Hayley has mulled this question over for many years, knowing its intention—be purposeful, be joyful, knowing that life is a gift—but wondering just how it affects decisions in her life. She loved it, but it also really stressed her out! It is the one question you seniors will be asked time and again over the next few years and you likely don’t need Mary Oliver to help lend it some urgency.
Now Hayley, being 28 now, is wise in her older years and I think this question is much less intimidating. She has her own quote now: “People are more important than rules.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway she learned in college and, honestly, afterwards as well (because you won’t figure it all out in college) was that thinking you are “getting it right,” (life, that is) is not about following all the rules, but about Taking the Journey, Striving, Believing, Imagining, Thinking, Being, and Finding your Passions—all the things you precocious kids must have already known as 14-year-olds when you created your legacy project; I trust that you will follow your own advice into your future.