Friday, October 23, 2009

Ted Sizer, RIP

Ted Sizer's work has had a profound and tangible impact on my life, and his passing has deeply saddened Jennifer and I.

I remember sitting outside the art building on the Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Connecticut, where I was temping as a department secretary, and I was eating my lunch on a sunny spring afternoon, reading Horace's Compromise, which I found to be a sensitive and penetrating analysis of the real work of high schools, and I turned to the back and read the author credit. Hm. Brown University. Over the border, but not that far away, really. What does that sign on Rt. 6 say? Fifty miles to Providence? I suppose I could just go there, couldn't I?

When I arrived at Brown in 1998, Ted had already moved on, but I was grateful to have many opportunities to hear him speak over the years, and, while I was at Brown, Eileen Landay, Bil Johnson and Larry Wakeford did a wonderful job of teaching us to teach in ways consistent with Ted's vision.

In reflecting on Ted Sizer's work, my mind draws a parallel to Martin van Creveld's comparative study of the American and German armies in World War II, which I've been re-reading. One way of summarizing Creveld's thesis is this: The American army was organized like an industry; the German army was organized like an army. That this doesn't quite make sense to the American reader is exactly the point. Left to our own inertia, Americans tend to see every enterprise as a business; we can literally forget that other kinds or organizations exist as legitimate, first-order peers to commerce, not just chronically defective copies.

So we need people, like Ted Sizer, who can see schools as schools, to periodically come along and explain back to us, from first principles, what "schools" are and why. That they have a logic and ethos and beauty and tragedy all their own which, if we are to have a society, we must grapple with, understand and come to create.

Ted's passing is especially poignant today in Providence, as over the past year we've watched the influence of his ideas in the Providence Public Schools, fragmentary and partial as it might have been, being completely erased. It was Ted's vision which led us to Providence, and his death comes as we realize there is nothing left to keep us here; we are doubly bereft.

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