John Gulla Celebration Address

John Gulla Celebration Address

Good evening to the greater Cedar House community. I’m honored and humbled to have been asked to address you on this special occasion. When your Principal, Mr. Rumboll, Frank, invited me to be a part of this Evening of Celebration, I wanted to say yes if I found I could possibly make the date work on my calendar. I very much wanted a chance to come back to spend time at Cedar House and see Frank and Debbie and Benita and Gail and Corrine and Hazel and that rookie American teacher who occupies such a special place in my heart. So once I was able to adjust my other commitments to clear the dates, I jumped at the opportunity and told Frank yes! Of course I’d come. Then the mathematician in me began to perform a few quick calculations. Frank suggested I consider a talk of approximately 5 to 10 minutes in length. Even at the long end of this range, I realized that at a ratio of talk time to travel time of about 1:300, this will set a new personal record for me, one that is likely to last a lifetime.

I begin this evening with a reflection on the notion of chance, randomness, serendipity, kismet. About 5 years ago, when I was the Head of School at Blake, I’d applied and was accepted to participate in a two week fellowship for headmasters at the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. Teachers College is where I’d earned my Masters Degree and it was, for 26 years, the university home of John Dewey, perhaps the greatest progressive educator of the modern age. One of the other fellows in this program was Frank Rumboll (along with Randall Dunn, then at Roper, now at Chicago Latin, and Carolyn Chandler of Metairie Park – both of whom are also friends of Cedar House, and known, as well, I believe, to some of you). Clearly your Mr. Rumboll had partnerships on his mind when he first came to Columbia and Frank and I agreed to a Cedar House/Blake School exchange. When Blake first visited Cape Town and Cedar House, my wife, Andrea, and I accompanied the group and we fell in love with the city of Cape Town and with the community that is Cedar House. During the reciprocal visit that spring, our son, Ben, met Frank and his family and seeds were then sown that germinated over the next few years and have resulted in Ben becoming a teacher here at Cedar House.


I can’t help but marvel at the reminder that stories such as this provide me about that which happens but that is really out of our control. For all of our thoughtfulness, for all of our careful planning, for all of our intentionality, it is the element of chance, the randomness of our adventure in this world that is our life or, if you prefer, what happens under the watchful eye of Providence, that so often introduces into our lives great opportunities, great happiness and great loves. We went to that party by chance and there met for the first time our life-long love and partner. It was that beat of the butterfly wing that gave rise to the weather system that became the season of our happiness.


Cedar House is, to use your own words, “education for our time.” Yours is a “proudly progressive” school. This idea gives rise to the second point I’ll touch on tonight. What is progressive education? What is this somewhat hard to define concept that was the life work of John Dewey, which indirectly sparked the chance that led me to meet Frank, resulting in my being here today? What is this philosophy of education that provides such a profound platform for the good and important work at that takes place at Cedar House? What is progressive education? It turns out progressive education has many different definitions to many different people but there are some common precepts. I’ll start by telling you what it is not. In his 1854 novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens begins with the words of his perfectly named character, Thomas Gradgrind, a middle-class businessman and owner of a school, a school that horrified Dickens as it should us. The novel begins:


“Now what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children and this the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, sir!”


This is about as close to the exact opposite a description of progressive education as you can find in literature. This was Dickens in 1854 reflecting a world he knew in London 160 years ago but the specter of such misinformed approaches to education still threatens us today.


Jump ahead 100 years. Seamus Deane, the Irish poet and novelist, was born in Derry Northern Ireland and raised in a devout Catholic family. In his first novel, Reading in the Dark, he described his 1951 math class as follows:


Every morning at nine sharp, the master rushed into the room his cape swaying, his face reddened as if in anger, his features oddly calm. We would be ready with the thick tome of algebra open at the right page and as many questions as possible prepared in advance. He spoke nasally but smilingly. He had tight curls and glasses but for the redness, he could have looked harmless. His name was Gildea.

He sat at the high desk, raised on a platform above the class. He lifted his chin, closed his eyes and chanted:

“Mental Algebra. Ground Rules. Well-known but must be repeated, first for the sake of the brain-dead and the memory-less, who are in the usual staggering majority; second as a warning to those more fortunately endowed, but who take a litigant’s pleasure in claiming that they have not been told, that they do not know, that the rules are not clear. I lie awake at night imagining for those creatures a suitable punishment, yet have failed. Does this bespeak in me a failure of imagination or in them an unanswerable corruption? You may answer the question, McConnelly.”

“I’m afraid I cannot Father,” replied McConnelly automatically.

This was routine.

“Your sorrow is touching. Perhaps you do not realize the importance of the question. Harkin, be so good as to inform McConnelly what a litigant is.”

“A litigant is a person who creates disturbances by abuse of the rule of law, Father.”

“Do you agree with that superb definition, McConnelly?”

“Absolutely, Father.”

“You are not litigious, McConnelly, are you?

“No, Father.”

“I shall test you in that statement. Are you more literate or numerate as a consequence of my loving care, five times a week, forty minutes per time, Mr. McConnelly?”

“I am equally blessed in both respects, Father.”

“Would you say that McConnelly will go far, Heaney?”

“I would, Father.”

“Under what conditions would you say so, Heaney?”

“Under the conditions imposed by the question, Father.”

“Are you conversant with these conditions, Duffy?”

“I am, Father.”

“What’s your name, Duffy?”

“Duffy, Father.”

“Glad to hear it.”


This 1950s math class of Seamus Deane, like Thomas Gradgrind’s fact-base approach, is also not progressive education. Ok, this is what progressive education is NOT. What, then, is progressive education?


It is what you see going on every day at Cedar House. It is an educational philosophy rooted in a belief, according to Dewey, that education is not preparation for life but education is life itself. Progressive education reflects an approach that respects the individual child, that recognizes each child’s humanity, that strives to stoke the fires of each child’s innate curiosities because there is nothing more central, at least in my mind, to the philosophy of progressive education, than creating the desire to know, to understand. We all enter the world as insatiable learning machines programmed by millennia of our collective biological, evolutionary history to want to make sense of this world around us, to see patterns and seek truth and appreciate beauty and a progressive education is one that tries not to get in the way but to show the way, not to beat down or snuff out these natural curiosities but to set them loose and let them soar. I think progressive education is often misunderstood as lacking rigor or challenge or discipline but I believe this is a profound misunderstanding. Progressive education recognizes, and I mean this in a non-sectarian sense, the sanctity of the child and the scared responsibility of those entrusted with the education of the young to create a desire to know, to understand, to appreciate and to act on that knowledge, to do something with that understanding and give voice to that appreciation.


Progressive education believes every child can learn and has greatness within, that every child learns differently which requires successful teachers to teach in multiple manners and that a school should attend to the whole child, intellect and character. Progressive education is experiential; it should be active. Progressive education involves learning by doing. It is oriented toward solving problems, thinking critically and often involves work in groups. Progressive education believes that teachers should know each child’s unique interests and incorporate this knowledge into the approach taken with that child. Maybe, and most importantly to me, it conceives of education as something that is a lifelong pursuit. Progressive educators believe in the importance of intrinsic motivation. By intrinsic motivation I mean a desire to know for its own sake, a sense of accomplishment, the importance of curiosity, the sense of community. Progressive educators believe that intrinsic motivation is purer, more powerful, more effective and longer-lasting than extrinsic motivation such as grades, scores, and awards. I mentioned John Dewey earlier and he was, perhaps, as I suggested, the greatest theorist of progressive education in the 20thcentury, but he built on ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Rousseau. Dickens’ Thomas Gradgrind is the antithesis of Rousseau’s 1762 Emile. When I was a grad student at Teachers College, Columbia University, where I first met Frank, I had a professor, a mentor, my advisor, Dr. Maxine Greene. Maxine Greene may have been the best read person I’d ever had the privilege of knowing and calling a friend. She had a thick Brooklyn accent, was a proud existentialist and a progressive educator of the highest order. She helped me understand that at the heart of progressive education, I’d say at the heart of all liberal arts education, is the ability such an education gives one to see things as if they could be otherwise. To see things as if they could be otherwise.


My current work provides me the chance to visit 75-100 schools per year, schools all around the United States, schools seeking funding for a variety of projects, schools in California, Maine, Alabama, Texas and Oregon. My visits are a source of great hope for me because I meet many people doing good work in many different types of schools. Not all are schools that could be considered progressive but I visit many that are. But, though very hopeful, I am also cautious and urge us all to be vigilant. As the Minnesotan, Thomas Friedman, so prominently proclaimed, our world has grown flatter. As the French economist Piketty suggests, income inequality may be the inevitable result of unrestrained market capitalism. Education cannot be seen solely as preparation for a life of economic productivity any more than parenthood can be reduced to the same goal. We don’t have children to produce workers but as the most sublime manifestation of our most basic biological instincts. Children are a reflection of our humanity and our chance for a better future. A future we cannot, by definition, know. A future no one can accurately predict, though many try. A future that seems fraught with environmental, economic and political challenges and no matter your perspective, your politics, your world view, it is hard not to see education as central to any and all solutions to our collective challenges.


Education, and what I think of as a liberal arts education, what I think of as progressive education, seems to me both a privilege and a necessity. I believe every child should come to know, as Matthew Arnold put it, the best that has been written and said, every child should know art and history and science and a culture other than his or her own. Specialization, professional training, best come later, with maturation, once the child has become an adult and can truly choose for him or herself.


I worry often of the risks of premature and wide-spread specialization in education. It was what concerned C.P Snow, the Oxford master in his famous essay of 1956, “The Two Cultures”. He warned us that scientists and humanists were growing so specialized that they could not even talk with each other. He gave a great example. He said that for someone to proclaim to be well-educated but to never have heard of Shakespeare was the equivalent of not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as central a principle governing our physical universe as exists. Yet few would admit to never having heard of Shakespeare but most roll their eyes at the mere notion of entropy.


So to Cedar House I sing the song of the great poet from my current hometown of Brooklyn, Walt Whitman, “let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.” To this great school in this great city in this great country that has given the world so much hope in the modern age – from the fields of cardiac surgery, to the literature of Coetzee and the recently deceased Gordimer, to the beauties of your landscape, to the idealism of your recent constitution and the lessons your revered and now departed Mandela taught the world, to all in the Cedar House community on this Evening of Celebration, I bring you greetings educational and good wishes from your counterparts in the U.S. I wish you all good things in your studies, guided as you are by such idealistic, progressive, educational principles, and I hold for you a fervent hope that the subtle role of chance in your lives may result in friendships such as those my son, my family and I have found in Cedar House.