Monthly Archives: November 2013

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.

    The New School Talent Show

  • by Virginia Palmer-Fuechsel

    Late fall is my favorite time of the year at The New School. Why? As Thanksgiving nears, students and faculty begin gearing up for the annual Talent Show. It starts with a few announcements, and little by little unexpected talents emerge and converge. Classical strings, modern dance, comedy, original compositions, martial arts demonstrations, poetry readings, Korean karaoke, piano pieces, rock bands, theater skits, African drumming, show wrestling, unicycling,  juggling… the list goes on.  I’m always surprised by the variety of performing arts that come together for the show. But the best shows are those that benefit others.

    My first days as a teacher here were overshadowed by the shock, tragedy, and loss of 9/11/2001. The school became a safe haven for cultural exchange, inquisitive discourse, emotional release, and artistic response. The idea of pulling together a concert to benefit survivors simply provided an impetus for action. After months of rehearsals, fundraising, and preparations, the entire school community crowded into a nearly rental hall for an unforgettable evening of heartfelt performances.

    Talent 1

    A heavily backlit Talent Show singer

    As a musician I have been privileged to work under and with many master artists who believe deeply in giving back and paying forward. A benefit performance fosters individual talent and ensembles. It provides space for faculty, students, and parents to collaborate. Beginners can try out short pieces for proud families. Shy students find courage in larger groups. Stars can shine. Older performers get to share favorites, polish up audition pieces, or risk something new for an audience that is welcoming and appreciative. And everyone is happy when we are able to raise money and goods for the chosen cause.

    My first History of Rock and Roll class decided to learn about the business end of live music by putting on a rock concert/dance in our new gymnasisum. Our first all-school rock concert showcased an emerging professional band as well as school groups and ensembles. Inspired by this event, Michael Denny, then just a Freshman, decided that he could do it better.  He dreamed of transforming our new theater into an intimate through-designed rock club experience. Michael asked me and Billy if we would coach and sponsor him. Of course! The first Yeti Fest was a enthusiastically raucous, rocky experience. Yeti Fests Two and Three demonstrated how Michael and his team were learning and growing not just as musicians, but as entrepreneurs. They put out Facebook pages, designed the stage, produced art work for the space, wrote and published ads, worked out the light and sound, composed and recorded music, made promo videos, ironed logos on yellow t-shirts, rehearsed in and after school, recruited outside bands, sold tickets, schlepped in the gear and spent hours setting up the space, and then worked together late into the night to clean up everything. Whew! The Yetis were not only loads of fun, they raised funds for new amps, drums, and other band equipment. Half of the proceeds went to the Red Cross for Haitian, and the following year, Japan disaster relief. Michael and Co have since graduated and gone on to their respective music studios and colleges, but memories of the Yetis remain to inspire new students.


    Over the years, New Schoolers have pooled their talents to benefit a wide variety of causes, including tsunami, hurricane and earthquake disaster relief, local food pantries, the Peru Club, and even books for a South African elementary school. They have hosted benefit events in outside galleries, rental halls, our courtyard, the old common room, and in the new art room, gym, and theater spaces. I am really looking forward to this year’s Winter Benefit Concert! We are hoping to again collect a vanful of goods for local food pantries, as well as raise as much money as possible for those suffering in the wake of the typhoon that recently battered the Philippines. And I am sure that this year’s crew of artistically involved students, faculty, and parents will produce yet another heartwarming event for the entire school community.

    Schools that Engage Students: How Do We Create Them?

  • by Travis Cooper

    Before you read this post I’d like to ask you a favor. If you’re a teacher, I’d like you to take 30 seconds, close your eyes, and remember or imagine your favorite student. For parents, imagine the kind of student you’d like your child to become. Take a few seconds to think, remember, and smile.

    Thanks for playing along.

    If I can attempt to read your mind, I’d like to describe the student you’re thinking about. The student you’re remembering or imagining is motivated. She is interested in the topic at hand. He thinks broadly and makes connections between class discussions and the outside world. She works hard, collaborates with teachers and students often, and goes above and beyond what is expected of her. In short, these students are motivated and engaged! They represent the proverbial fire in the William Butler Yeats quote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

    Because there is almost universal agreement about the importance of cultivating student engagement in schools, the guiding question for all of us is, “How do we engage students?” Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, suggests that there are three building blocks of motivation when creativity and higher level thinking are required: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Pink defines these terms as:

    Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.

    Mastery: The desire to get better at something that matters.

    Purpose: The yearning to act in the service of something larger than ourselves.

    I think these three building blocks are a great place to start when we think about what kinds of schools are most likely to engage students.


    Schools that put autonomy, mastery, and purpose at the heart of their curricula will have common elements. These schools will maximize student choice, foster a student’s ability to improve at his own pace, and help students identify connections between their own passions and the larger world. These schools will recognize that the responsibilities of learning should be largely placed on students. Teachers in these schools are viewed as coaches that help students improve on skills that both student and teacher have identified as areas for improvement.

    There are also barriers to building schools that focus on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The large size of many schools makes offering a sufficient level of autonomy to create an individualized schedule and pick one’s own classes more difficult. Due to relatively structured schedules and time limitations, mastering academic and social skills at one’s own pace can be hard.

    Heavily structured curricula can also be the enemy of engagement. When students have no say in what they learn, they take a passive role in the classroom. Students in these environments are there simply to receive information, instead of to help create classroom content that offers a unique direction to the class.

    When we imagine the kinds of students we hope to create we must consider the environments and curriculum structures that we hope will cultivate these characteristics in our students. Schools that offer flexibility, individualization, and a platform for students to be purposeful offer the best model for engaging students. If we can build educational institutions that place autonomy, mastery, and purpose at the heart of what they do we can give the world the greatest gift: our favorite students.

    Types of Silences in Class

  • by Matt Willmott

    I like classes that have certain kinds of silences. In my own career as a K-12 student, I remember three main types of silence: the silence of a test, the silence that got covered by the sound of a movie, or, every once in awhile, the particular silence created when a teacher went silent and glared.

    But now, as a teacher, sometimes I experience other kinds of silence. One is the kind of silence that happens when I’ve successfully motivated a lesson and the students dive into an activity with undivided attention and start working. Sometimes I see this and think, “You have no idea, right now, that what you’re doing could be called work.”

    Matt 1

    The other kind of silence is the kind that happens when somebody has said something and everybody has gone silent because they’re just thinking about it. I think I may like this kind of silence the most. Last year, a local tragedy was announced at our morning meeting, and it seemed to affect students enough that I set aside part of my next class to talk about it. It was a math class, but we ended up taking the period talking about life, death, support, kindness, and the things that give life most meaning. Frequently, someone would speak and the room would go respectfully silent as students and I both just sat and thought. I admired that we were doing this, and I said so.

    The students appreciated the day, I believe, and several of them said so. In days that followed, one or two kept asking if we could have another day like that. But, of course, we went back to the math.

    This year I’m teaching a class about heroes, and it has had similar moments. The essential question of the class is “Do we need heroes?” I try to stress that each student is sovereign over his or her own opinion, but I also let them know what I think.

    One day recently we were talking about archetypes. The students identified archetypes like the hero, the comic sidekick, “Ma” and “Pa,” the trickster, the perfect romantic ideal (prince or princess), and more. Before long, though, the conversation started to orbit around particularly modern archetypes that were all darker in nature: the serial killer, the terrorist, the corrupt politician (perhaps not so new), and so on.

    I found the amount of investment the students had in these darker archetypes made me uncomfortable. I am aware that there is a lot of fear in our culture, and more than I remember there being when I was young. I am aware, too, that sociologists have developed a theory of a “mean world syndrome,” whereby it is supposed that people, ingesting scads of negative media, have begun to see the world as being a darker place than it actually is.

    So I pointed out, as I often do when a conversation turns to serial killers, that out of the approximately fifteen-plus billion humans that have ever walked the earth, only an infinitesimal 400 or so are known to have been serial killers. “If so, why, then,” I asked, “should we invest so much time and attention, and nearly endless hours of storytelling in them?”


    One of the students replied it was worthwhile to heed an archetype like that because the impact of a person like that is so great that we need to heed, and even fear, that person’s influence on society. Even a single one is so horrible, the student argued, that he or she deserves a lot of extra attention.

    Let me pause and be clear: I agree — to some extent. I do not think we should ignore the negative, the dangerous, or the potentially harmful. I think we should — to one of the somewhat wide range of healthy degrees — be balanced, clear-minded and candid. Period. But also: “mean world syndrome,” and Dexter, and The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad — and while I’m not outright hostile to any of these, I do note the pervasiveness of the anti-hero, and the temptations, in a complicated world, to be cynical and suspicious and afraid.

    As I was trying to figure out where to go next with the conversation, one of the students made a suggestion. “Maybe it would be interesting hear how each archetype makes people feel,” he said. “And see what that tells us.”

    “That’s a great idea,” I said. And we did it.

    The hero — “inspired,” “brave,” “happy.”

    The romantic ideal — “inspired,” “rash,” “longing.”

    The trickster — “suspicious,” “angry.”

    Then we got to the darker, “modern” archetypes, and the response to each was similar: “fear,” “anger.”

    Those two words, again and again. By the time we got through the end of the list of archetypes I knew how I wanted to drive my idea home.

    “Okay,” I said. “Here’s my point. Suppose you eat cookies all the time. How are you going to feel?” I paused. “And suppose you eat vegetables all the time. How are you going to feel?”

    I got the impression they were with me.

    “Okay, now,” I said. “Suppose these archetypes are a kind of food. Suppose they nourish us just like food. If so, then I just have two questions for you.

    “One: How do you feel?

    “And two: What is your food?”

    That was the end of the class. And the students left in what I took to be that certain kind of thoughtful silence.


    The Challenge of Putting “Technology” in Perspective

  •  By John Potter and Billy Pasour      

    “At the point of encounter there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.”
    Paulo Friere

    In his important July 15th article, “Nothing Can Replace a Good Teacher,” Jay Mathews outlines the plight of Melvin Marshall, whose reading is four years behind grade level, and whose language arts class was taught entirely through the computer. Melvin had little to no interaction with his teacher on a daily basis, and recently a lawsuit has been filed on his behalf seeking to set right the flawed educational practice of “virtual learning.” We applaud Mathews for insisting that education without student-teacher collaboration is not, really, education.


    Virtual learning “solves” two problems; it gives the teacher more time for clerical tasks, and standardizes assessment. Assessment is the real issue here. The argument is that standardized assessment acts as an early warning for ineffective teaching. Parents and politicians are deeply apprehensive of children’s minds being spoiled by overzealous or inept educators, so the methodologies of the teacher in the classroom become diverted from best practices and directed toward acceptable practices. In the case of Melvin Marshall, the teacher was diverted to the point of not actually teaching. This is the unintended and obvious consequence of policy based in fear.

    Learning is a human endeavor. It happens when two or more people with open minds convene in dialogue. Those in such a dialogue must recognize that their knowledge is incomplete, as is that of their dialogue partner, and faithfully work to integrate new ideas into their understanding. This type of dialogue is quite natural among friends, but is largely absent from our schools, where the knowledge conveyed by teachers, textbooks, and, now, software seems absolute and immutable. Learning becomes a matter of memory, yet memorizing is nothing like truly learning. Learning is to delve into the unknown and conquer it through reason.


    Textbooks and their baggage

    To properly teach, teachers must be aware of their own ignorance, and accept that
    it is qualitatively no different from the students’ ignorance. The curriculum and methodologies in the classroom must support an exploratory approach that allows every member, including the teacher, to dialogue as equals, deepening each other’s relationship with the subject and other group members. In this setting, students are not locked out
    of knowledge by assessment, but rather assessment comes from the teacher herself, who best knows each student’s capabilities and contributions. Student and teacher alike are invested in the material, and the all-too-common question – when am I ever going to use this – doesn’t arise.


    “People who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know” P. Friere

    Any educational aid which circumvents, rather than fortifies, the student-teacher relationship is not merely insufficient but altogether wrong-headed, and more attention needs to be paid to what we expect education to be before we try to design a solution to its shortcomings. As adults, former students fondly remember the teacher who touched their lives, not the worksheets that drilled information. What gives the art of teaching lasting value is a partnership between teacher and student forming deep intellectual connections that last a lifetime.