A beautiful education

How did I learn what a beautiful education is? It all started with great failure.

I was a straight-A student in middle school. One of my friends used to copy my science work, pulling it out of the pile of submitted work on the teacher’s desk and then returning it before she noticed. He went to Stanford. I went to the University of Maryland. What happened, and why was it the best thing that happened?

It happened because I did not know how to get quality work done in high school, and it was the best thing that happened because I learned what a beautiful education is.

My Experiences in a STEM High School

I chose to apply to an advanced science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) high school (Montgomery Blair High School, picture below) and enrolled, instead of going to my home high school. As a result, I soon realized that the other students in the program were stronger math and science students than I was. After all, the best math and science students in a very large public school district were now concentrated and competing against one another. Each of us had a shot at being valedictorian at our home high school, but in the Blair Magnet program we were in a pond full of big fish.

Instead of working harder in the subjects in which my grades were merely average, I simply continued with my inadequate methods and looked to blame the content or my teacher for my poor performance. I invested half-hearted effort, possibly thinking I would get by on wattage alone, or I simply did not think about, or know, the practices and behaviors that would improve my learning outcomes. So, I would get As in humanities courses and Bs and Cs, and even Es, in math and science courses. I failed AP Calculus because I only studied the night before for major exams while watching television. I ended up graduating with a 3.07 GPA, which put me in the top 20% of my graduating class of about 450 people because of all the honors and AP weighting for my courses.

Applying to College

Because I did all my preparation for the SAT by myself, as well as all of my college selection and application—including typing applications with a typewriter—I applied to the following schools: Harvard, Yale, Chicago, UPenn, Georgetown, Boston and Maryland. I don’t think I was any different from my friends, in the late 1980s you did everything for yourself and let the chips fall. As you can probably guess from my GPA and where I applied, I didn’t get into most of these schools. I had simply assumed that if you were a bright student, you got into the best colleges. Again, this is what happens when you do things on your own and learn for yourself. I still think, in most cases, this is the best way for adolescents to learn.

I was accepted at Boston University and Maryland. If I went to Boston it would cost over $20,000 per year, and if I went to Maryland and commuted, it would cost under $1000 per year. So during my senior year in high school, on December 22, 1988 to be precise, I realized I would be going to the University of Maryland, and I was crushed. I was crushed because only average students went to Maryland in the 1980s (or so I thought), and because I was within driving distance of home. Successful students went to the Ivies or to big name state schools like Michigan and Berkeley, not Maryland. Maryland was more about sports and parties (or so I thought). In 10th grade, as we read through our high school newspaper Silver Chips to see where members of the Class of 1987 were going to college, we would identify the “losers” as the ones who went to community college or Maryland. One year into my college education at Maryland, my views would change, but in 1988 and early 1989, I could not contain my disappointment. It didn’t help when I learned later that the co-valedictorians of my home school, who did not apply or who were not accepted to the Blair Magnet program, I cannot remember—were attending Harvard and Stanford.

In the spring, as I received admissions materials from Maryland, I did nothing. I did not select a date for orientation and registration. I did not submit my acceptance of the offer of admission. I was invited to apply for the University Honors Program, and I wouldn’t apply, fearing a repeat of my high school experience where my options were limited because I chose the more difficult path (or so I thought). I still had not acknowledged that my grades and my outcomes were my own doing, because I did not invest the time and effort necessary to succeed, rather than something that happened to me because of outside forces. But I would soon realize this, and that would make all the difference.

As an aside, I may not have realized my responsibility for my own poor performance because I had been in gifted and talented classes throughout my primary and secondary school years and I had done very well through middle school without working hard. I do not recall scoring below the 93rd percentile on any standardized test, and I ended up in the most advanced and selective high school in the county. I “deserved” Harvard. This was a few years before Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was released. Just before Eastwood’s character (William Munny) finishes off Gene Hackman’s character (the Sheriff, Little Bill Daggett), Little Bill is lying on the ground and he growls at Munny, “I don’t deserve this.” As Munny levels his weapon at Little Bill, he responds, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” If only I had understood this in 8th grade.

So, the spring dragged on, I refused to make the commitment to Maryland until my mom (mothers are always looking out for their wayward sons) made me apply to the Honors program and enroll. I did so, and I was “provisionally” accepted. Who’s going to trust a student with a 3.0 out of high school to be serious and capable? Thankfully, Maryland gave me a spot. I would end up graduating in less than four years, Summa Cum Laude, with departmental and university honors and a 3.97 GPA. I received only one grade below an A in college—there were no pluses and minuses—and it wasn’t in Calculus or Biology or Logic, it was, ironically, in an English course on the American Novel in the 19th Century. I got a concussion playing a pickup game of “touch” football that ended up being tackle, which I didn’t realize until I woke up the next day, and I missed weeks of school as my cognitive functioning returned to normal (if you can call it that), which meant my work in that one class was not complete, so I earned a B. The professor wouldn’t give me a break for missing school, which he probably shouldn’t have.

Finally Deciding to Work, without Excuses

Because I was profoundly disappointed in myself for ending up at Maryland, during the summer after high school I became serious, for the first time in my life, about doing exceptional work in every class. I actually read Edward Gibbon’s entire Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire instead of going to the beach with friends.

So, once college began, I read every book that was assigned, annotating each volume with notes and questions, and writing notes to myself outside of the books. In math and science classes I did not stop working until I understood the material. I finished lengthy papers and reports more than a week before the due date, turning them in before other students even began their work. I studied incrementally for major exams and was so well prepared I made it a policy never to study for an exam the night before. I would hang out with friends on Friday and Saturday nights, but I did all of my schoolwork in a quiet, dedicated study space free of distractions. I am thankful broadband and smartphones did not exist. I don’t think I would have learned nearly as much.

I decided to enroll so late in the spring of 1989 that the only orientation and registration dates left were in late August, the weekend before the school year began. I had planned to be a psychology major, which would have given me a chance to postpone the decision to become a doctor or a lawyer. To register, you went to the registrar’s office, looked at a newspaper Schedule of Classes, entered your course selections on a paper form, stood in line with the paper form, and then handed it to a terminal operator who entered your course selections into the university’s scheduling software. If, like me, you had waited to register until the last possible moment because you didn’t want to be at the University of Maryland, what the terminal operator would tell you is that none of the courses you wanted were open. At that point you would get out of line, go back to the schedule of classes, pick a new set of courses, get back in line, and hear the terminal operator say the same thing. I did this several times until I found, among other courses, two honors courses that were still open, one was a Government and Politics seminar (this would end up being my major) and one was an Honors Program seminar on “The Uses of Education” (this would end up being my life’s work). This latter course was taught by Dr. Jane Lawrence.

The Critical Role of Faculty Mentors

I have given you this extended introduction to introduce Dr. Lawrence and a teacher she introduced me to, Phil Straw. At Maryland,I had a remarkable group of undergraduate professors and courses, and I believe I received the best possible undergraduate education. More than anyone else, it was Jane and Phil who showed me what a beautiful education looks like, and, in doing so, showed me that education could be beautiful. This was powerful, given how different my high school experience had been, and it was why I stepped on to the path of working to improve education in 1989 and have yet to step off. As another aside, I use the term “beautiful” to describe what education should be because that is what it should be. And, Aristotle said the beautiful was the highest goal, and that sounds right to me. So at our school in Ashburn, our aim is a beautiful education. It is not easy to deliver, but it is possible.

My first semester class with Dr. Lawrence on “The Uses of Education” was revealing and wonderful. Dr. Lawrence was an ally and a scholar, we read original works from Rousseau and Locke and others, not watered-down interpretations or summaries by others, and we worked in a small seminar class with other bright motivated students who made rich and active discussion possible. For me, this has been the model of the ideal classroom and the ideal school ever since.

Dr. Lawrence also offered to help me pick courses each of the semesters I was enrolled, and she gave me my first teaching opportunity, in which, as an upperclassmen, I co-taught two freshman honors seminar courses designed to help advanced students make the transition from high school to college.

Jane’s philosophy about course selection was that you should pick the best professors, whatever they were teaching, and worry about major requirements and other similar considerations later. So that’s what we did. “Lawyers and the Adversary System” and “The Literature of Madness” were two examples of seminars she recommended based on the professor. When Phil Straw’s honors seminar on the Vietnam War was scheduled, she urged me to enroll as soon as possible, without telling me anything about what to expect. Phil’s course turned out to be the most extraordinary course I ever took, or ever heard of at any school.

Mr. Straw, Vietnam, and the Best Class Anyone Has Ever Offered

Mr. Straw was a congressional aide and a decorated Vietnam veteran (which he was too modest to share), but not a professional educator. As far as a I know, he only taught this course a few times over several years. The course met on Wednesday evenings in Hornbake Library (picture below) for three hours, and there were about 15 students enrolled. We were assigned one anchor text (“A Bright Shining Lie,” which was the story of the war through the life of one man) to organize the content into a coherent narrative and to frame our discussions (this is the model we follow at our school). Mr. Straw never interjected his opinions or conclusions, and left it to us to reach our own conclusions. These were the ingredients for a great seminar class, but these were not the reasons we raced to class each Wednesday evening, or why we, as students, looked at each other with a mix of awe and gratitude because we knew we were in the middle of something very special, something truly amazing.

Hornbake-Library-University-of-Maryland.JPG

What Mr. Straw did, in the world before cell phones, email and social networks, was to invite the people who experienced and led the conflict in Vietnam to come to class in person to share their knowledge. This was not easy and it took years of repeated requests and dogged persistence. When Henry Kissinger came to our class one Wednesday night, Mr. Straw asked us to ask him why he was there. Dr. Kissinger said he showed up so Mr. Straw would finally stop asking him to show up. When three of the earliest American prisoners of war, aviators shot down over North Vietnam who ended up spending years in the “Hanoi Hilton,” came to speak to us together and talked about how remarkable it was to have a doorknob that opens a door, and how little traffic bothered them, we listened in awed silence. When Lewis Puller Jr., who may have survived the most extreme injuries suffered in the war and wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir (before ultimately committing suicide) came to class to speak along with the officer who single-handedly destroyed a bridge under heavy fire, delaying the Communist forces’ advance into the south for months, we could not imagine a more powerful conversation.

In another class, the former President of South Vietnam shared his experiences as the head of the government the U.S. tried in vain to prop up as a bulwark against Ho Chi Minh’s forces. The biggest surprise was when Norman Schwarzkopf, who was the most in-demand speaker at the time, having just returned from success as commander of Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait, came to class to discuss his experiences in Vietnam. His visit would have created such a stir on campus that we had to keep it secret, otherwise our quiet conversation would have turned into a media circus. The line I remember him sharing was about a ham and egg breakfast, and the difference between a nation being involved in a conflict and being committed: “The chicken is involved, the pig is committed.”

Throughout it all, with all of the celebrated guests, and all of the exciting or emotionally powerful moments, and all of the issues we discussed and all of the ways in which this course changed our lives, Mr. Straw was always the same modest, self-effacing person who never took credit for anything, never shared his opinions of right and wrong, and always gave us credit for making the class great. He always spoke quietly and politely, and always thanked his guests for sharing their stories, while noting firmly that all those who made history had an obligation to share what they learned.

In addition to the guests who visited class, we also met guests on field trips. We met Oliver North and Ted Koppel in the Nightline studio and sat at a conference table as the two of them wrangled from opposite sides of the table while we listened in.

Mr. Straw also gave each of us the name of one soldier who died, so that we would research that person and get to know one story in depth and look up one name on the Vietnam Wall. He also set up individual meetings for each of us to complete outside of class. One student interviewed Ross Perot as they drove around the beltway. I interviewed the former Director of the CIA William Colby at his home. I asked him about Benjamin Franklin’s observation about the sun that decorated George Washington’s chair during the Constitutional Convention. Franklin said that throughout the debates he wondered whether the sun on the chair represented the rising or setting of the new nation. At the end, he concluded the sun was rising. I asked Mr. Colby for his thoughts on this question—was the sun rising or setting on America today—and he said the sun was definitely rising. He recounted how as a child he traveled to east Asia with his father, and Colby would share his experiences by letter with his grandparents on the east coast of the U.S. It would take months to communicate. Colby’s son was in east Asia with Colby’s grandchildren at the time of our interview and he spoke about how he could speak to them in real-time by phone, shrinking months to an instant.

I can only imagine what Colby, who met with an unfortunate end, would say about smartphones and Google and probes flying to Pluto.

Thanks Maryland, Dr. Lawrence, and Mr. Straw, for a Beautiful Education

What our guests in the Vietnam course, and my remarkable professors taught me is that ours is an amazing world full of remarkable people with moving stories to share. With the right people and the right environment, education can be beautiful. It’s what I have been chasing ever since.

If you had spoken to me on December 22, 1988, I would have been entirely wrong about what I would experience at the University of Maryland. Like everything else, I had to learn that for myself, with time and effort. And the reward for my effort was a beautiful education.