One of my first teachers recently died — yet another; I wrote here about Emmett Jarrett a while back — and this one was my teacher early and late, for better and worse, as my problematic relationship with him grew more problematic. Stanley Bosworth was the founding head of Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. I was his student in the late 1960’s and early ’70’s, and he was my boss from the late ’70’s to the late ’80’s, when I left the school and left teaching.
But my connections to Stanley were always, in complex and sometimes weird ways, at least as familial as intellectual, and the familial is always fraught with contradictions, sometimes very rough ones. By way of giving these remarks context I’ll say I was at times, I think, a kind of friend to him (to the extent that he had friends), and I’ll acknowledge that I also had occasion to be his enemy.
But what I want to say about him here is not in that sense personal.
Try this: Love him or hate him (many did both; few were on the fence), Stanley Bosworth was the only persistently radical head-of-school educator of the post-War era.
If the big world doesn’t think so, that’s in part an effect of Stanley’s own sleight-of-hand in constructing himself as a distractingly big personality, and in part an effect of the world’s reflexive cowardice and weakness, which he railed against, and which he warned us will wear down everything good, true, and beautiful unless explicitly and violently opposed at every turn. (That his radicalism was part and parcel of his unabashed elitism probably plays a role too.) The Times obit does its job, but it participates too readily in the whirl of magic and mystery, the hyperbolic, polysyllabic, free-associating blarney in which Stanley cloaked himself and his efforts (always — but increasingly as time went on). Talking about an old wizard and brilliant eccentric tends to obscure the sheer, relentless — outrageous, scorching! — practicality with which Stanley went about reinventing teaching and learning in the ’60’s, ’70’s, and ’80’s. (Sometime in the ’90’s, I think he began seriously faltering; a reason was probably his incipient dementia. Others may justly date that decline differently.)
Stanley did not, in his prime, wave wands. He had methods, and they were rigorous. Spelled out, maybe nobody could tolerate them.
But once you’ve had the realization, as Stanley must have had beginning sometime in the 1940’s, that everything sagely agreed upon by the nice, right-thinking, respectable people who hope to advance and improve the theory and practice of education is wrong, and that the precise reverse of all those agreed-upon niceties is true, and once you’ve had the guts to begin to act on that realization, you’d have to develop methods, and stick to them like glue, sometimes to a fault, or be killed. And for a long time, Stanley and his methods prospered.
I won’t delve into method here, but just for one example, the fact that Saint Ann’s never graded its students has been widely and thoroughly misunderstood, even at times at the school itself, as a reluctance to measure. Nobody has ever been more interested in measurement than Stanley Bosworth. He was a student of measurement and a teacher of it; one might fairly call him obsessed by it.
The reason he refused to grade students is that grades don’t measure anything. Since they purport to, and don’t, they’re existentially fraudulent, poisoning the intellectual relationship between teacher and student, the only place where learning can occur. Some of the learning is of course eminently measurable (the result of adding two and two was never to Stanley a matter of opinion) — but measurement comes in the form of a score, not a grade, and a score is a private thing, belonging to the person scored. The part of learning that isn’t measurable by scores can only be described. Described anecdotally, narratively, at best poetically.
Every institution celebrates itself for having a culture that distinguishes it from every other. That’s what every institution has in common with every other. It was one of Stanley’s great insights that your culture can’t obligate you to define yourself culturally. Stanley defined his operation not culturally but operationally.
For him that would ideally mean, for example (and by way of possible shock value), that a couple of points in the right direction on the bell curve gets you in. The school’s job would then be to teach each kid in that rigorously defined group to the limits of what that kid can learn at any given moment. The institution’s culture would be ever-shifting, in a glorious and possibly scandalous way, because culture only follows upon and remains subservient to the operating principle. The kids are the culture, and the school serves the kids; the kids don’t serve the school. Easy stuff to mouth, but so nearly impossible to do that to begin, you’d have to violate every preconceived notion and foregone conclusion clung to everywhere by so many teachers, students, administrators, heads, trustees, parents, etc.
A contented faculty that feels itself to have a voice in the institution? Satisfied, unworried parents? A board that people consider it prestigious to serve on? Those are not the goals. They’re likely to be signs of failure.
Students wildly turned on to all the languages in which passion can grow and direct itself, developing in a world where their whole selves are nurtured — that’s the goal. The only goal, the only success, guaranteeing permanent tensions, along with freedom for boundless growth, in the only kind of discipline that’s real.
Nobody has to like it. Many didn’t. Certainly not everybody, putting it mildly, would adopt the bell curve as an operational imperative. So adopt another, if you have the guts to make it work by any means necessary. I think that’s the power — possibly tragically missed by focusing on magic and personality — embedded in what Stanley taught. His kind of radicalism wouldn’t necessarily apply only to fostering elites (an assertion that Stanley might in certain moods have provisionally agreed with, certainly in others have scabrously dissented from). If you keep the real goals of education in sight, you’ll find yourself forced, if you’re honest, to stick to something, and to call bullshit, every day, on everything that masks itself as education while serving to destroy it. For “culture” is always there, jealous and terrified, trying to take away what you believe — sometimes, and most insidiously, by pretending to agree with you.
In that context, I think of these lines from “Murder in the Cathedral” (Stanley was a T.S. Eliot fan): “The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” And I think of Dylan’s “To live outside the law you must be honest / I know you always say that you agree …”
More on this elsewhere, someday, maybe. Well, it’s already elsewhere, semi-subliminally, everywhere on this blog — like here – and in everything else I do. Meanwhile, here’s a piece by Nancy Rommelman that, to me, captures the real, human, and startlingly talented Stanley of the late 1970’s, when I’d already started working for him, along the way also capturing something of 1970’s New York, as it was experienced by a certain class of young people (how ofttimes I repine). Good stuff.