Stanley Bosworth, 1927-2011

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.

9 thoughts on “Stanley Bosworth, 1927-2011

  1. Everything you write makes enormous sense to me. I will add- Stanley required and was right to require that the Saint Ann’s teachers and students have their own opinions and their own passions. What a gift in this bland age of demographics and averages and majorities and lowest common denominators! And of course- how complicated and exhausting- because that meant we didn’t always agree with him or each other. But after experiencing the form of education you describe it is hard to imagine anything else as good- not only for the “bell curvers” because who knows who might be a “bell curver” in some way not yet imagined?- given the sort of chances and demands that Stanley gave.

  2. Bill, you were a great teacher, among the best I ever had. That I remember every book we read in 1979 is testament to that. Stanley allowed you to be passionate and instill that passion in us. However, I can’t help but feel you are giving him too much credit. Perhaps his courage and vision had been over shadowed by pecadillos and affrontery by the time our paths crossed. If that is the case then I thank you for letting me see the great man behind the grandiosity.

  3. Bill, thanks to your encouragement and kindness, reading & writing became a comfort and sometimes a steam valve. Writing’s a big part of my consulting profession, considering the audience, writing directly to them.

    Came to you from an uptight English teacher who insisted that what I was reading, Heinlein, Tolkein & Heinrich Böll… were ‘NOT LITERATURE’, forcing us with British society novels that, to this day, I can’t seem to read…. I read to the end of the page and realise that I’ve understood nothing and have to go up to the top again. Gave up on English Lit. until, one day, discovering John Mortimer.

  4. Mr. Hogeland, I really enjoyed your essay, which was forwarded to me by another alum. However, I have to disagree with you on a one point. The NYtimes obit did not do its job. Stanley’s strange, adversarial, slightly pornographic personality is easy to write about, but it is not what made him worth writing about. Perhaps, as a former teacher you are being a bit shy. Or maybe this particular truth is just too simple and boring: Stanley’s genius was his ability to gather, retain, and set loose profoundly talented teachers. It is not easy to teach a person to worship ideas and discourse. It is much easier to celebrate the idols of grades or degrees. I wish the NYtimes obit had said something about Stanley’s true importance, which I saw reflected in Mr. McShane, Ms. O’Rouke, Mr. Marchioro …

  5. I appreciate all these comments. For whatever passes for a record, regarding Robert Wagner’s comment I’d like to note that when I was an English teacher, I did teach classic English lit and didn’t teach Heinlein or Tolkein. In fact, if memory serves, and it well may not, it was in my first ninth grade, when I was 22, and I think RW was my student, that I first tried to teach “The Return of the Native,” to what I recall as literally no effect. But to his larger point, I did hope to encourage reading whatever beckoned, just for the sake of reading it, and my colleagues of the period, all slightly older and wiser than I, did the same. Re tom g’s comment: Not usually shy (in this medium anyway), and while I more or less agree about the Times obit, I really think “its job” in every case is pretty much just to get an obit out the door — not thoroughly assess the subject in a nuanced way. The same writer had an obit this week about a guy from the Lindsay administration who had a long and complex career, but whose most colorful exploit dominated the piece: in the “long hot summers” of the 1960’s, he roped the Gallo crime family into a scheme to keep Italian-American kids from engaging in racial violence. Good story — and funny (although as a Brooklyn boy of the mob-wars period, I remember Joe Gallo being known as “Joey Gallo” and “Crazy Joe,” never as “Crazy Joey,” as the writer had it) — but if I’d known the man, I might have read the piece with resentment, not enjoyment. If it bleeds, it leads, and the SB obit leaned heavily (way too heavily for me, and maybe truly unfairly) on late interviews. But it’s something of a theme of my post that big, “colorful” personalities may tend to set themselves up for having their real contributions trivialized and obscured. And maybe there’s nothing to be done about that, since those contributions might never have gained any traction at all without attendant mythos. We’ll never know. I do think that if SB hadn’t been ready, willing, and able to tell a lot of people to fuck off, he never would have made the kind of school he made. That lesson can be oversimplified and overapplied (as I’ve had occasion to learn and keep learning), but where people are committed to avoiding that position at all costs, can anything valuable happen? Thanks, all.

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