A few weeks ago I went to my 40th high school reunion in my hometown of Philadelphia. I attended a large suburban high school that drew students from the classic post-World War II bedroom communities that nurtured so many of us Baby Boomers. Our parents selected homes there in great part because of the promise of excellent public schools. We kids grew up together, kindergarten through 12th grade, experiencing, contributing to and benefiting from the pervasive energy and optimism of the 1950’s and 60’s. Inspired by the youthful idealism of President John F. Kennedy, we asked not what our country could do for us. We marveled at the first human forays into space, watching the launches and landings live together in school. We trick-or-treated for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. We learned the lyrics to “Fifty Nifty United States,” as Alaska and Hawaii expanded the union. We watched our elders struggle toward a new era of civil rights, and grappled ourselves with a war that took the lives of tens of thousands of our generation.
So it was not a complete surprise that the bonds forged four decades ago turned out to be deep and enduring to this day. Of a graduating class of almost 570 students, almost 200 came–many, over long distances–to gather again for a fall weekend in center city Philadelphia. What was particularly impressive, though, was the extent to which so many of us seemed to be doing in life exactly what we set out to do. There were the requisite doctors, lawyers, movers and shakers, but also a good many of us working in education and the arts–a world renowned jazz musician, a successful illustrator, a professional historical re-enactor in great demand nationwide, a director of a graduate theater program at a top university, a successful author. And two of my favorites: A former business executive who traded his pinstripes for a pair of comfortable shoes suitable for managing the demands of a third grade classroom, and a former narcotics detective who turned in his badge to catch young people in an 11th grade math classroom instead of at the scene of a crime.
Now, I understand that the people who come to reunions tend to be those who have successfully pursued their life dreams. But it seems clear that the idealism and optimism that launched my classmates and me also helped to some extent at least, to determine the trajectory of our lives. We attended public schools with rigorous academic courses but that also provided the time and resources to study and explore the arts, journalism–even early computers. As high school seniors, we were given the opportunity to design independent study projects for academic credit within the school day, with subjects ranging from science and education to communications and the arts. We took standardized tests to prove our mettle with the traditional curriculum, but also generated our own reports, essays, performances and presentations to demonstrate learning pursued with guidance, but of our own desire and design.
If you are a boomer, did you experience similar heady independence as a young student, and did that help shape your life as an adult? With today’s focus on highly regimented standards across school districts, states and nationwide, do you think students are losing out on opportunities to devise their own learning and thereby develop not only knowledge but the confidence required to continue pursuing knowledge throughout their lives? If so, what are the broader implications for the current generation of students as they become adults? As an educator, is there a way to maintain a focus on standards while also encouraging creativity and independence? Let me know your thoughts, and we’ll continue to explore these in future posts.