Category Archives: Liberal Arts

What Does it Mean “To Use One’s Mind Well”?

  • by Steve Roushakes                 

    The pedagogy and culture at The New School revolve around the belief that learning should be purposeful and that students should have choice and agency in their education. Our mission – to help students learn to use their minds well and take charge of their academic lives – captures this two-part belief in simple terms, although exactly what we mean by “using one’s mind well” and “taking charge” may not be self-evident. In his February 2014 blog, What is Educational Ownership? John Potter, our founder and headmaster, discussed this principle of choice in education, whereby students considerably shape their academic lives and begin to set high standards for their work. It’s certainly worth checking out. Here, I’d like to take a closer look at what it means to use one’s mind well.


    Perhaps a good place to start is with criticisms of American education, which are not hard to find these days, and which seem to lament a general absence of dynamic thinking in school curriculums. Here are just a couple:

    One study…found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.
    –Jeffrey J. Selingo, “Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?” The Washington Post, January 26, 2015

    Don’t get me wrong—to study science, history, literature, indeed anything, one needs information. But shorn of their connections to one another, to underlying questions, to a disciplined way of construing this pile of information, facts are simply “inert knowledge”—to use the pithy phrase of the British American philosopher Alfred Whitehead.
    –Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future

    What these opinions and statistics point to, it seems, is an over-emphasis on the accumulation of facts at the expense of applied learning. Facts matter, of course, but they shouldn’t be mistaken as the be-all-end-all of learning, and the real heart and soul of a quality education – the really hard work, in fact – is applying what we’ve learned. “…analytical reasoning…” “a disciplined way of construing information…” This is largely what we mean at The New School by using one’s mind well.

    SLsydney01Sydney, Class of 2015

    It’s ultimately about asking the right questions. Ask a factual question (When was DNA discovered?) and you will get a factual, or “inert,” response (1869). When framed as a problem-based or essential question, however (How has the discovery of DNA benefited modern medicine?), you are asking the student to do much more than simply recall a fact; you are asking her to make connections, synthesize facts, and express and support an informed opinion. You are asking her to use her mind well.

    Compare these factual questions to their open-ended counterparts:

    • When was the telegraph created? / How did the invention of the telegraph serve European imperialism?
    • What are Newton’s three laws of motion? / How may Newton’s laws of motion help us understand, and thus improve, fuel efficiency of cars?
    • How many soliloquies does Hamlet give? / What do Hamlet’s soliloquies tell us about his character?

    Such open-ended questions are certainly challenging, yes, but they also invite the students to co-create the learning in the classroom. No sophistry: the teacher doesn’t have the answer. Rather, there are degrees of quality, informed answers, and students’ opinions therefore truly matter, because they are contributing to an open exploration. We all want what we say to matter, and students are no different. In my experience, too, students like to be challenged, so long as they see the purpose in the work, and it’s certainly fair to label such questions purposeful. I think many students feel alienated by their classroom experiences (I know I did) because the learning is so often one-directional and fact-based.


    Great teachers indeed ask thought-provoking questions (and great schools let them ask those questions). But great teachers also ask questions that are meaningful to their disciplines, i.e., questions that train students to think as historians, scientists, novelists, etc. This is what Gardner means by “a disciplined way of construing information,” which is sometimes called habits of mind in education.


    A similar, disciplined-based approach is to frame classes as “information in context,” whereby the class itself is an application of learning. For example, within the high school at The New School, we offer topical, or applied learning, classes within each credit requirement. Thus, rather than English 9, Chemistry 10, etc., students may choose:

    • 20th Century Social Movements through Music (U.S. History)
    • Art in the Context of the Self (Art)
    • The Chemistry of War (Chemistry)
    • Cryptology (Mathematics)
    • The Ethics of Capitalism (World Studies)
    • Roller Coasters (Physics)
    • The Search for Self in Literature (English)

    Teaching information in context allows students to see the purpose and real-world application of what they are learning.


    There’s indeed nothing revolutionary about such a question-based / disciplined-based / using one’s mind well-approach to learning; it’s the foundation of liberal arts and sciences programs, not to mention most graduate programs. So why is such an approach so rare at the elementary, middle, and high school levels? The reason, I think, has mostly to do with the structural demands that standardized testing, such as the SOLs, creates for schools. There just isn’t enough time to stop and think. But for us at The New School and other like-minded schools, depth of thought and application of learning – using one’s mind well – always win over breadth of coverage.

    I think schools should examine their pedagogies by asking themselves, What are you trying to create? My answer to that question, as I think about our focus on using one’s mind well and students taking charge of their lives, is this:

    A New School graduate is an autonomous, skilled learner: an individual who owns his/her education, is self-aware and poised, and is fully prepared for college and a bright future.  

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    A Personal Reflection on the Seminar

  • by Steve Roushakes          

    My ideal learning structure is the seminar. I’ve always valued personable exchanges of thoughts, and I just don’t find larger learning structures energizing or rewarding. Put simply, I don’t like to be strictly on the receiving end of a conversation, and I suppose too, as an educator, I worry about educational models that disallow a dialectic between the teacher and students.


    Growing up I disliked school, especially junior high and high school, I think because the learning was structured in such a one-directional way. The teacher spoke, and we, the students, sat quietly, took notes, and went to the next class. I remember liking several of my teachers, wonderfully bright and witty individuals, but I don’t remember ever speaking with them, either in or out of class. I did okay grade-wise, but I never felt my mind genuinely sparked; I never felt part of the learning or that I was adding value in any way by my presence.

    A case in point is seventh grade. I was at Thoreau (just a few miles from The New School), and a couple months into the school year I realized I hadn’t said a single word in any of my classes. Another month went by, and another – it became a game: how long could I go? – and in the end I went the entire school year without speaking in class. I must have learned something, but I honestly can’t recall any meaningful moments from my classes.

    A great change came in college, though, when I entered my first seminar course. For the first time I found myself engaged in a roundtable discussion with a small group of students and our professor. (I remember him perfectly, Dr. Rafeq, and I honestly believe he remembers me too.) We were a focused group, and, having never expressed my thoughts in a classroom setting, I felt uncertain. But I immediately appreciated the effect conversation-as-education had on my mind and sense of self – I also appreciated that I had a responsibility to be part of the learning – and I quickly found my voice.


    I had never worked so hard preparing for a course. The demands and expectations were high, but I was energized by the work and looked forward to each class. I find it telling that I felt deeply challenged, yet happy and never anxious.

    The seminar was a real dividing line in my thinking about both myself and education, and I’ve never looked back. I found the learning purposefulinclusive, and humane, and I like to think that my own teaching, twenty years later, is still guided by these three principles.

    Attracting and Retaining Excellent Teachers

  • by John Potter          

    At The New School, the teaching environment is unique and rewarding, and our staff usually stay many years.  Only six out of 31 staff members have been here less than eight years, a striking piece of data by any measure.  Such longevity leads to a very tightly knit group working in a highly collaborative manner.  As a result, bringing in new faculty members is both exciting and daunting.

    Our faculty represent the heart and soul of the school.  New School teachers have freedoms that teachers in most schools would envy.  They create their own classes based on their interests and passions—consistent with our curriculum guide—and we encourage them to develop their own unique approach, always bearing in mind the highly dialogic nature of this environment.


    On the flip side, being so small means we ask much of our teachers, all of whom wear many hats. They may have fewer students than teachers in larger schools, but they put an extraordinary amount of effort into their classes, their assessments and their relationships with students and their parents.  The effort they put into designing a course for a class of ten takes more time for our teachers because of the latitude they have.


    As teachers in most small schools will tell you, our salaries can’t compete with the public schools or some of the wealthier independent schools, yet we attract amazingly talented teachers. Why do these talented, creative people choose to work here? And why do they stay so long?

    Juana Gomez-Diez has taught Spanish at The New School for 14 years, having turned down repeated offers of higher paying positions at big name prep schools in Washington, DC.


    Students often stay with her for four or five years, and achieve a remarkable level of fluency. When asked what keeps her here, Juana says she is endlessly grateful for the freedom to create classes in her own style and the chance to work so closely with her students, with whom she develops a powerful bond. “I am not micromanaged,” Juana says. “I believe in mixing language instruction with cultural studies, often through film. In this I am supported and encouraged, not restricted.”

    So what do we do when an outstanding faculty member leaves?

    I have a system that might make some people wince, but it winnows the field very effectively so that I’m not inundated with responses from those who might well be less passionate.  More times than not, it has brought me excellent applicants. My teacher ads don’t simply ask for a cover letter and resume, they contain a challenging prompt to which the applicants must respond.  For example, a well loved, multi-talented humanities teacher moved to another country after being with us for several years, leaving a huge professional and personal hole in the staff. We had big shoes to fill.

    My ad for her replacement read, “Write an essay about what it means to be a Renaissance teacher.”  I received only ten responses, of which four were thoughtful and well written.Of those, one in particular stood out, and that was from Jacob Cholak, whom we ultimately hired. The ad didn’t include the name of the school.  Jacob was so intrigued by the ad that at first he thought it was a hoax placed by his friends to see what he would come up with. Here are a couple of excerpts from his essay:

    Real learning is an act of aggression. One must kill one’s own assumptions and then ransack the past… But there are fragments which, reconstituted, provide new life.”

    “My small apartment consists mostly of books. I try to read three a week. Sometimes I read four.  My students need me to know everything. I can’t and never will. But: Russian symbolism, German idealists, ancient Near Eastern poetry, Zoroastrianism, political economics, Chinese zen painting, paleolithic fertility icons, Ethiopian garage bands, and C# programming. I’m a young, old-fashioned generalist in an old, specialized world. I’m learning Akkadian. I rode through Asia on a motorbike.”


    Great stuff!

    I also require an applicant to design and teach a class before I make the final decision.Jacob taught a class on the culture surrounding The Great Gatsby, using a film clip,pieces of art, a short reading and an analytical discussion with the class. The students ate it up. I hired him_I2A2194


    Echoing Juana, Jacob loves the freedom we’ve given him to follow his passions. As a film school graduate, he badly wanted to start a film program at the school, and he pitched it professionally. He now has the equipment and time to train students to use it, and is planning a film festival for February. He is actively collaborating with the rest of the staff to film exhibitions, unusual classes and school events. Half of his classroom is set up as a living room, with couches, chairs and lamps, over which hangs a large pull-down screen for viewing films.

    Jacob appears to have settled in for the long haul.

    Our new theater director, Steve Elm, had the task of bringing together six high school  students (no warning for them) to coach them into creating a cohesive production in 90 minutes (between 9:00 AM and 10:30 AM).


    The result was nothing less than sensational.  Steve’s extensive theater experience is breathing energy and inspiration into the department and this is proving to be infectious.


    We work extremely hard to find and retain people who will add to the richness of the mix we have. It is imperative that we hire people who will not only be successful teachers and mentors, but who will ultimately blend their own considerable strengths with those of the rest of the faculty as they grow into The New School community.

    Ode to the Math Department

  • by Eden Costagliola

    I have two pet peeves about the way people talk about math.

    The first is when people say, “Do the math.” Arithmetic is a very small part of mathematics, and many brilliant mathematicians are slow or inaccurate at arithmetic. From the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements we learned that we sometimes denigrate people in subtle ways through speech, and, for me, Do the math is a put down that discourages potential mathematicians.


    My second pet peeve is the question, “When are we ever going to use this stuff?” Many students who struggle with math ask this question, which is often a veiled cry for help. Just as an eating disorder is not usually about eating, When are we ever going to use this stuff is not really about the application of math. I take the question as a sign that I need to analyze the situation and figure out how best to help the student, and, as the student begins to understand the math, he/she naturally begins to understand and apply it and therefore understand its value.

    Truth is, most mathematicians work entirely without numbers, and pure mathematics is truly an art form. A mathmatician is motivated by a kind of daydreaming curiosity and the beauty of mathematics, rather than some concrete problem. Students may never need to write a lab report in “real life,” but we still want them to understand the process and habit of mind of the lab report, because it’s the logical thinking of the lab report that they learn to apply in their lives. Higher level math is similarly about habits of mind, and traditionally these habits of mind begin with Algebra 1.

    With this in mind, I’d like to introduce you to The New School Math Department. While we teach traditional material in traditional sequence (i.e., Algebra 1 through AP Calculus), the methods by which we teach are examples of New School pedagogy in action. Our students give explanations and proofs both informally and formally; they teach and design projects that explore real world problems. Most importantly, we teach students how to think like mathematicians – to describe, visualize, represent symbolically, prove, check for plausibility, make conjectures, change or simplify problems, work backwards and closely re-examine problems.


    The abstract concepts of mathematics are difficult for many students to grasp, but we teach our students to persevere. We find new ways to reach our students to build new and enhanced logical reasoning abilities. I often tell my students that the exercises they’re doing are stretching their brains to be capable of more complicated thought processes. This aspect of our classes cannot be undervalued, for that mental capacity is carried with them everywhere.


    I like to believe we’re good at inspiring mathematical curiosity in our students. Our students continue thinking about mathematical ideas beyond class, and they sometimes come up with original ideas that they are curious enough to explore. Our math students also learn to appreciate the beauty of mathematical advancements, ideas, and logic in their historical context. Pure mathematics is an art form with a rich history and we share our love for that aspect with the students along with the practical applications.

    Critical Thinking is Creative Thinking

  • by Steve Roushakes           

    The most common expression in education today is the need for schools to teach critical thinking, and I couldn’t agree more. The problem, though, is that the term “critical thinking” is so widely and effortlessly used – it seems to be a catchall mission statement these days – I’m afraid it’s becoming meaningless. George Orwell rightly said that imprecise language leads to imprecise thought, and schools and educators need to define – for themselves – what they mean by critical thinking, if they want to make it the mission of their pedagogies, and if they want those pedagogies to serve their students well.


    Of course there are many ways to define critical thinking, although most definitions, I find, revolve around the application of reason, as in:

    • Evaluating arguments
    • Solving problems
    • Distinguishing fact from opinion

    These are all good and equally valid definitions of critical thinking, and certainly great lessons and curriculums may be developed from these goals. I suppose, too, that such definitions are closest to the actual meaning of critical, which implies a keen and discerning judgment – an essential skill, for sure.

    But I like a more constructivist definition of critical thinking, one that emphasizes originality of thought and allows for the greatest possibility of informed ideas; a definition that defines critical thinking as a creative, rather than a judgmental, act. For me, critical thinking means:

    Creating meaning from information.

    Aren’t these – Meaning and Information – the two real platforms on the scale of education, and hasn’t Information been given greater weight in American education at the expense Meaning? 1492, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, stars convert hydrogen into helium through nuclear fusion, all dogs are descended from wolves, Martha Graham pioneered modern dance. All true, but where’s the corresponding meaning to these facts? Where’s the critical thinking?

    13566047401274783345scale2-2And the most important pedagogical question of all: How do you create meaning from information?

    At The New School, we believe that open-ended questions – essential questions – are the best approach towards teaching critical thinking. For example, for my English class on Romanticism, I began with the question What is the essence of Romanticism? which the students had to answer in a 30-minute presentation and Q&A – what we call an exhibition – at the end of our nine-week study. We read Rousseau, Goethe, Mary Shelley, Frederick Douglass; we examined the art of Friedrich, Blake, Turner; we listened to Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert; we studied nationalism and the rise of nation-states; and we sought to define the particularly Romantic concepts of the sublime, irony, and the self. Most importantly, we always read and discussed these works in the context of the essential question, which made the students engage those works critically throughout the course; after all, they would each be responsible for an informed answer to the question at the end of the class.

    I’m particularly fond of essential questions because they allow for this kind of student choice, which I think inspires engagement and motivation, and therefore leads to student success.


    On exhibition day, no student gave an imbalanced presentation of pure information, because the essential question – What is the Essence of Romanticism? – engaged each student to create an informed and meaningful argument. Note, too, that an essential question has no one, correct answer and therefore allows the greatest possibility for student responses.

    What a fascinating series of presentations that day. The essence of Romanticism is…

    • A celebration of the uniqueness of each individual and the importance of self-realization (based on a close reading of Rousseau’s Confessions and Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).
    • A fascination with the less rational forces in human nature (based on a close reading of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
    • A defense of the importance and truth of human emotion (based on a close reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther).

    It’s exciting to teach in such an environment, where you provide a space for exploration and originality of thought – always grounded in informed reasoning and relevant information. And after fourteen years at The New School, I still feel the same perennial excitement as I look forward to a new year of student possibilities.

    Welcome back to school.

    September 2014

    Brain wheels


    Exchanges: From Facebook to Face-to-Face

  • by Virginia Palmer- Fuechsel


    While preparing for one of our school’s first international exchange trips, I thought a lot about the nature of communication and friendship in today’s world wide web. Social networks are bringing more people together than ever. The internet is flooded with personal photos, memes, videos, news, gossip, games, covers, profiles, and selfies. Some people seem to practically live their lives on the internet. They share, post, comment, twitter, chat, skype, log, blog, vlog, reshare, and overshare. And what would we do without YouTube? The biggest social network by far is Facebook, and that brings me back to the possibilities and limitations of online exchanges.


    Three years ago, when I was challenged with the task of re-starting a German language program at The New School, I spent a lot of time searching for up-to-date, teen-friendly internet content to supplement the otherwise excellent Langenscheidt immersion curriculum. It didn’t take long before I stumbled on a YouTube channel called “Easy German” (you know, that European language that has the reputation of being really hard to learn). Easy German started in 2006 at the Schillergymnasium (a college prep school) in Münster, where, under the leadership of a creative, global thinking media instructor, students have been producing increasingly professional, very cool street interviews, language lessons, and cultural exchange videos. Through watching their episodes, my students learned loads of new vocabulary, but even more, enjoyed glimpses of different cultures, dialects, concepts, places, and faces. Some faces became familiar over time. But they were still just faces on the screen. So when Easy German created a Facebook group, I joined, hoping to learn more through participating in this international language learning and sharing community.


    One day last summer, I noticed that the English subtitles on one of the recent uploads were a bit wonky; obviously, someone had taken the Google translator short cut. I made a friendly comment and gently corrected the text. This led to an offer to help out with more episodes. Before long, Janusz Jamerski (Schillergymnasium’s media guru), Carina Schmid (manager of the affiliated non-profit, The Global Experience), and I were busily exchanging notes and subtitle scripts back and forth, and while doing this, getting to know each other. Finally, I plucked up courage to ask the question on my mind, “Would it be possible to bring some of our students over to your school, to work with and learn from you and the German students in your media classes?” The answer that came back was, “Ja! Let’s figure out how to do it!”


    So, to make a long story short, after months of preparation we assembled an exchange group of five students who were totally excited about spending face-to-face time in Münster, Hamburg, and Cologne with their new Facebook and E-mail buddies. Nine days were just too short for everything we wanted to do, but we packed in as much as we could. It was wonderful to finally hug our exchange hosts and Easy German friends! We came back stuffed with faces, places, exchanges, experiences, digital footage, and skills that will help us produce our first Easy English-American Edition videos.

    Easy Languages Colleagues

    But let’s hear from the students themselves, for this is their trip, and they have been involved from the get-go in making this exchange a reality. And, because it was a media workshop trip, their contributions to this blog are in video form. Here is a friendly video in which some of our Schillergymnasium Münster student hosts are inviting us to visit their school:

    Schillergymnasium Intro Video


    This was our students’ video response about themselves and The New School:

    NSNVA Intro Video


    But it’s easier to tell you about our trip with excerpts from my daily iphone log and two of our first videos for the Easy Languages channel:

    Our day in Cologne (Sunday, April 6)

    We arrived at the Köln Hauptbahnhof with German punctuality at 11:29 AM. After finding a comfortable café for today’s home base (Starbucks, in the hopes of better wifi access), we talked through the day’s schedule and video shoot assignments. Our team of 5 American and 4 German students then left our gear with Janusz Hamerski, our Video Meister, to see the sights around the Kölner Dom. After a brief glimpse inside the cathedral (we couldn’t go in, due to Sunday services), we walked to the train bridge over the Rhine. I don’t know when this “locks of love” fashion became the vogue, but we found the high, heavy-duty wire fence separating the pedestrian walk-way from the train tracks completely covered with every sort of decorated padlock that you can imagine. All colors and shapes, inscribed with countless names. We inspected them closely as we walked across, then under, back up, and over on the other side of the bridge spanning the Rhein. The views of Cologne and the river were simply splendid on this fine day. Before heading back, we decided to attempt the climb up the cathedral tower. Needless to say, I wasn’t the only one who needed occasional breathers while struggling up the 533 (!!!) steps to the observation gallery around the pinnacle’s base. The views were incredible! When ready, we walked carefully down the seemingly endless steep, narrow and stony, spiral stairs. As I later told the kids, we’ll have memories and bragging rights for life.

    Once back at our Starbucks base, we packed up our gear and got to work. Today we split into 3 teams. Janusz took Brian and Nikolai to finish our political Easy-German video, asking passersby, “What should Obama do?” The girls (Käte with a local friend joining her for the day, Vi, Valentina, and Queenie) shot imaginative footage for a “Verbs in Aktion” video. Lennard and Anil had a great time working together under Vince’s camera direction on a very funny but instructional video, “Doing Verbs in Köln.” I followed the boys and sometimes Janusz, capturing images of them at work on camera and “film.” It was good to see how much they learned from our video shoot in Hamburg yesterday and how well the German and American students are working together.

    Here’s one of the first results from that day (including footage from our shoot in Hamburg):

    Obama question video


    But, as we learned during the next few school days, video production is a time consuming and tricky business. Four days were impossibly short for the amount of footage we had to process.

    Video Workshop with Janusz Hamerski, Day 1.
    Technical Difficulties.

    Yesterday’s session started later than planned, because we couldn’t get in the media lab. So we hung out in a corner bakery and enjoyed German breakfast pastries. TD #1. What? No phone signal? Argh. Once we were all there, Janusz gave us his standard introductory lecture: relax, have fun, stay focused, be professional, and don’t forget Murphy’s Law. Prima.

    First off, he got Queenie and Vi going on their project. Anil was next. Brian worked on storyboarding a mini Film Noir spoof for Janusz’ pet project, a local video contest for students. I was frustrated with TD #2; I can’t open my video footage with iMovie, as planned, which means that I’ll have to try out Adobe Premiere, which I bought in January, but haven’t had time to use yet. Poor Vince. He didn’t just have TD#3, it was a Total Fail. His video files from the Köln shoot just wouldn’t read. We tried all kinds of decoding solutions, but nada. Janusz said that’s the main difference between the amateur and a pro. The pro’s been burned badly like this before, and is very careful to make sure that it never happens again.

    Despite numerous glitches, Queenie, Vi, and Anil were able to make the first raw cuts. The next phase went to the German students, who pitched in after lunch together. Vince took a crew out to the park and a playground to re-shoot their video, “Doing Verbs.” We continued cutting, with breaks for silly YouTubing and making music with Janusz’ guitar and keyboard. The girls swapped hosts for the night; little by little tired students left for home.

    Enjoy the video that Vince, Lennard, Anil, and Brian made that day:

    Doing Verbs Video


    There’s so much more that we could tell from our jam-packed trip. Our students also enjoyed visiting their friends’ English classes and sharing common teenage activies, such going out for lunches in nearby bakeries and pizzerias, getting snacks in a corner grocery, taking walks in the park, singing favorite songs, exchanging selfies, playing video games, and shopping  downtown. Münster is known as the bicycling capital of Germany (with easily three bikes per car), so on Wednesday I took a group out for a tour of the former city wall, which is now a beautiful park and promenade.

    Bicycling in Münster

    Our time went by swiftly, and there were a lot of tearful farewells at the train platform that Thursday evening. Now we’re back to e-mails and Facebook posts, and hoping that everything works out for the next phase of our exchange. We’re really looking forward to introducing our new German friends to our school, DC, and NYC in the fall!

    IMG_1049 IMG_1051 IMG_1052 IMG_1053

    Engaging Students in Meaningful Dialogue

  • by Alan Villarreal

    I usually teach junior high English and history, but every year or two I like to step out of my comfort zone by teaching a high school class. I enjoy the high schoolers’ maturity and ability to deal with adult-level material, although they can sometimes be harder to win over, at least initially.

    This year I am teaching a US history course on the American West,w02_RA524337which focuses primarily on the 1800s and how various peoples have seen the West as a land of dreams, sometimes despite hard truths and messy realities. Our main “text” has been the PBS documentary The West (1996), produced by Stephen Ives. This is a remarkable documentary, not only because it is visually stunning and provides an easily accessible narrative, but also because it focuses on many different perspectives and individual stories. On most days, we watch a segment or two of the documentary, the students write impressions or questions in their journals, and we have short discussions about what we’ve seen. In addition, I often add background information and have them read and analyze primary source documents, usually in small groups.

    I planned and taught this class four years ago, and it went so well that I decided to repeat it this year. But as any teacher will tell you, every class has its own dynamics and develops its own identity, depending on the students who are “creating” it with you. Even the time of day and the room have their effects. This year, I haven’t had as many outgoing contributors to discussion, and so I have sometimes wondered how intellectually and emotionally engaged they have been with the material. And yet, something beautiful happened yesterday.


    Little Big Horn

    During the previous class, we had finished watching Episode 6 of The West, which deals with the Indian Wars of the 1870s: the Battle of Little Big Horn; the forcible transportation of the Plains Indians to reservations, where they were dependent on unreliable government food rations and supplies; the flight of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull to Canada; and most moving of all, the story of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, one of the most memorable Indian leaders in history. For those who aren’t familiar with it, here is the story of the Nez Perc in a nutshell (Good Words).


    The entire history of Native American contact with Europeans is a tragedy, and the events described in Episode 6 are particularly hard to take. If you care about people and human rights, and you also want to love your country, watching this part of the documentary is a punch in the gut. How could a country that professes to believe that all men are created equal, and which had recently freed its slaves, treat Native Americans like less-than-human aliens in their own land, destined to be swept aside, penned up, and forgotten? I could see the gloom spreading among the students, and I was worried about their getting too depressed to see what an amazing story of human resilience this was and how Chief Joseph’s life also represented hope for reconciliation.

    So I decided to begin the day by asking the students to recall the story of the Nez Perce, who after fighting well and leading the US Army on a wild goose chase across half of the West,


    The Nez Perce’s ill fated flight to Canada and Sitting Bull

    were herded onto a train and sent to a bleak reservation in Oklahoma. I asked them to imagine what American citizens might have thought of these events if they had read about them in the newspaper. One student responded that the newspaper stories were probably biased, and so most people probably thought the Indians had gotten what they deserved. Another student said that he might have admired the way the Nez Perce fought, especially how they didn’t attack civilians or desecrate bodies, as other rebellious tribes had done. Then I asked them whether they thought some people might have felt that the Indians had been treated unjustly, reminding them that some Americans had joined Abolitionist groups prior to the Civil War because they thought slavery was immoral. A few people nodded their heads and said they could imagine that.


    The Nez Perce delegation in Washington

    At this point, the entire class was awake and engaged. Next, I asked them to read a remarkable speech (IV) given by Chief Joseph in Washington, DC, two years after the Nez Perce had been defeated.

    In the speech, Chief Joseph says that he cannot understand why so many promises have been broken, and why, despite meeting the President and hearing sympathetic words from various government officials, nothing was being done for his people. He says he knows that the Indians must change, but that they ask for nothing more than to be treated as men, and to be judged equally under the law. After reading the speech, the students went off to discuss the document in small groups, and then returned to their desks to write a short interpretation of its meaning and significance in their journals. Finally, they shared their interpretations out loud and we had a general discussion.

    I was so impressed with the students’ thoughts. Here are a few of their responses:

    “This makes me so angry! This is my country, and this makes me so angry! I mean, we weren’t there when this happened, but the US was acting just like a bully–this is our land, and you Indians better get off it or else.”

    “Why haven’t we been taught about this? Why don’t people talk about this? We hear about the Civil War and slavery but not about this.”

    “I was shocked by how Chief Joseph spoke about equality and equal treatment under the law. I thought that’s what the US stood for, but the Indians weren’t treated that way and he’s pointing that out.”

    “Did this prick the Americans’ conscience? Was anything done after this?”

    “What’s happening with American Indians today? Are they still living on reservations? [Yes, but conditions aren’t good.] Well, they can leave, right?”

    There are good days and bad days as a teacher, but this was a good day. The true significance of these events was sinking in and having an impact on the students’ thinking. Tomorrow, we will watch more of The West and read a story entitled, “How Standing Bear Became a Person,” which is about the first time an Indian was recognized as having legal rights in 1879–ironically, the same year that Chief Joseph gave his speech.

    What is Educational Ownership?

  • by John Potter

    Typically, when students enter The New School, they have had few, if any, conversations about what it means to take charge of one’s education. They understand “education,” they understand “ownership,” but educational ownership? How do you own something as intangible as education?

    In these United States, where homeownership, car ownership – the mere notion of ownership – is so important, it’s puzzling why talk about educational ownership is so worryingly absent from our national discourse.

    At The New School, we believe that educational ownership is the foundational habit of mind of a quality education; and after 25 years, we understand, too, that it’s challenging teaching students to self-advocate and approach their learning from the concept of ownership. They’re just not used to it.


    Making a point.

    A good case in point is incoming ninth graders. The majority of our new high schoolers have been steeped in an educational culture where the school does the owning – where the student’s curriculum is prescribed (English 9, Biology 9, etc.), where assessments are based on the memorization of facts and teachers’ opinions, where students are not even present at parent-teacher conferences. In contrast, our pedagogy and values make the student the center of his or her education. We allow students to choose their classes; we insist that students participate and add value to classroom learning through direct investigation and dialogue; and we require students to lead their academic conferences, with parents and teachers asking thoughtful questions.



    Indeed, ownership is largely derived from dialogue. This is not to say that there are no other contributing factors, but active, ongoing respectful dialogue between students and teachers in the classroom is crucial. Equally crucial is that students feel their ideas are valued. The classroom must carry a sense of egalitarianism (notwithstanding the fact that the teacher is in charge). This is one reason why students here are on a first-name basis with the faculty: it’s an equalizer, and it’s a factor that makes students colleagues, rather than passive participants, and brings them closer to the notion of ownership.



    If a woman owns a house, it’s safe to say that she chose that house; if a man owns a car, then it’s understood that he chose that car. It’s not hard to imagine how we would feel if the state dictated those kinds of ownership. We certainly would be far less invested in the state’s choice of car or house than if we made those choices ourselves. Translated into educational terms: giving students control, e.g., allowing them to choose their classes and giving them a space for their voices to be heard, results in them having a greater investment in their work. There’s nothing particularly radical about this idea; it’s the bread and butter of liberal arts college programs.

    Ownership 4

    Problem solving

    Clearly we have to take means into account.  For an adult purchasing a car, it’s about money. For a student, whether in our program or that of a liberal arts college, it’s about motivation and acquired skills. Some may venture to say it’s about smarts as well. So in helping our students make choices about what they learn, we have to take their means into account. And that we do. The stage is then set for the student to develop his or her sense of ownership to a higher level. The higher it is, the easier the transition into college becomes.

    In a broader context, this sense of ownership can be incredibly powerful and often leads to empowerment and improvement in other parts of a person’s life. Ownership is a key component of educating the whole person in addition to preparing them for college. Ownership for young people is about growing up and having agency in their own lives.

    Moby Dick: “Then” and “Now”

  • One of the more striking discrepancies that I have encountered in the classroom caught me by surprise this quarter. It seems that my larger perspective on life is conflicting with the less complex perspective of my students…hard differences to resolve. Here’s the conundrum: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).  I have taught this class before, and the two primary tasks in the class are to read the Leviathan-like novel and to write a critical analysis research paper.

    The beauty of the novel, for me, as a reader and as a teacher, is that it is so full of symbolism that the reader cannot help but trip over foreboding clues from the Old and New Testament, find signs of American nationalism and discover multiple comparisons to the Romantic literary movement.  And, the book is just so beautifully written.  When Ishmael, in the Old Testament, is found wandering the deserts, whereas in Chapter 1 he is found wandering towards the docks, and when Rachel, in the Old Testament, is searching high and low for her son, while in the Epilogue the ship Rachel is found searching the seas for her lost crew and comes across Ishmael, wandering the seas alone as “another orphan,” there is not just a finality to the plot, but also closure to the symbolism. If there had ever been any doubt about Melville’s intentions, it is totally erased by now.MD This specific Bible referencing, by and large, works well in class. One of the students also pointed out that Ishmael of the Bible is an archer, and Ishmael of Moby Dick, though not a harpooner, is on a whaling vessel that employs harpoons. But some of the references are not as neat and clean.  Captain Ahab’s blood is not “licked by dogs” as it is in the Bible. Furthermore, is the non-Biblically named ship Jungfrau intended to mean virgin or young woman?  Fortunately, most of these inexact comparisons can be glossed over without class debate; students are willing to accept my take on Melville’s intentions, for better or worse. But, enter the Pequod,  Ahab’s ship. Named after the Connecticut indigenous Pequot people whose very existence was considered exterminated in the first half of the 17th century, the ship sails under a very dark cloud. Immediately on the scene is Elijah, the prophet, who warns Ishmael away from the despot Ahab and his “soulless boat.” OMG! What could possibly be more portentous? front Alas! Not so fast! My students discover that Wikipedia reports, “Pequot numbers grew appreciably—the Mashantucket Pequot especially—during the 1970s and 1980s.” So, the Pequot people were not decimated and their numbers continued to grow! They may have suffered at the hands of the English colonists as did all of the other Indian nations, but they certainly weren’t destroyed. How was I to explain that? I tried. After various, admittedly vague, attempts on my part, I found an answer that struck home. But to get to it, we had to go back in time, and in order to do that, we had to erase all modern-day knowledge and drill down deep to 1851: What did Melville know? What was the common belief?  Most importantly, how did Melville think the word “Pequod” would be interpreted by his audience of that time? Knowledge then was based on traditional or older, historical representations; today’s knowledge is often based on the most up-to-date findings about our current world. But where does one find the older perspective?

    Pequot Pow wow

    It takes extra work. The first set of search keywords often proves to be ineffective. After all, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has had 160 years to rebuild, reform and raise awareness of their current existence ( Today’s information surplus provides too much data: students have to ignore information and the usual methods of inquiry they have come to rely upon. Only then can they use the historical data available at that time and take on the necessary perspective. It turns out that it is not absolute truth we are searching for, but relative truth. Easier said than done. But, things happened in class: it was discovered that the Pequot were believed to have been destroyed.  And, perhaps Melville’s use of the word Pequod is a slap at the early colonists’ unjust treatment of the group; after all, Nathaniel Hawthorne changed his name to spite his ancestors and alleviate his shame from their behavior in the Indian Wars of the mid-1600s. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to him.  Maybe that’s not so much of a stretch, for now we have letters between the two authors and the connection between them is solidified.

    But, our connections can never be as perfect as we want them to be. Each of us carries our own present-day baggage; it is next to impossible to leave it all at the door. Understanding the historical context and the intended interpretations of a work surfaces in all my American literature classes. Whether it is the satanic black horse and carriage in William Austin’s “Peter Rugg, the Missing Man” (1824-27) that flies down the post-road at a supernatural 12 miles an hour, or the preacher’s trip from Boston to Salem in an impossible 15 minutes in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (1835),  today’s reader’s interpretations must be dependent on “then,” and not on “now.”

    What Exactly IS a Liberal Arts Education?

  • By John Potter and Steve Roushakes      

    We describe The New School as a unique liberal arts education, but I sometimes wonder how people interpret the term “liberal arts” and subsequently envision our school. The term certainly does not mean an art-focused education, and we are not, then, an art school (though it’s true we have a reputation for excellence in the fine and performing arts). Rather, the liberal arts comprise a variety of disciplines that, together, form a foundation for higher learning. For us, it’s about creating a whole, thoughtful person with an agile mind. Let’s take a closer look.

    In the original sense, in classical antiquity, the liberal arts were those disciplines one studied to become a freethinking, “liberated” individual who is capable of independently responding to the world, and therefore fit for participation in civic life. Although the discipline make up of the liberal arts has changed over time – from classical antiquity, through the medieval and renaissance periods, to today – the term has always signified a broad, multidisciplinary basis of knowledge. Mathematics, science, art, and language are, together, the common core of the liberal arts.

    Today, the term liberal arts is most commonly used to describe undergraduate college curriculums that focus on fundamental skills of critical thought and informed expression through the study of the sciences, the arts, foreign language, and humanities. Liberal arts colleges also tend to have small classes and a faculty dedicated to teaching first, rather than research and publishing.


    Socrates: an icon in the Pre-Dawn of Liberal Arts

    It’s with this liberal arts college model in mind – small classes, dedicated faculty, a broad curriculum encompassing mathematics, science, art, foreign language, and the humanities – that we like to call our school a unique liberal arts education.

    It’s the approach to the disciplines that makes the distinction; in a liberal arts education, the skills and competencies of each discipline are studied on their own terms, but they are treated as part of a larger goal of developing a well-educated individual. This difference is evident in virtually every aspect of our curriculum.

    In our view, a liberal arts education teaches a person how to think critically, how to analyze, synthesize, rearrange and integrate ideas and priorities. We feel that approaching liberal arts the way we do initiates the process of freeing a student’s mind to begin to realize its fullest potential. We feel strongly that our curriculum gives our students a very strong start in transitioning to college, particularly if it is a college focusing on the liberal arts.

    Constantly encouraging students to think and learn across disciplines is the core of what we do. Encouraging critical thinking, independent thinking, and applying reason through dialogue provides students with a range of skills that ultimately should be the foundation of all professions — particularly in a complex and rapidly-changing world.