By Craig Gemmell
Head of School
Twenty some-odd members of Brewster’s faculty and staff, young and old, gathered over coffee and cookies on Wednesday evening to discuss Malcolm Gladwell’s recent David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.
The book begins with a description of scholarly perceptions of the tale of David and Goliath. To scholars, Goliath presents as a diseased, myopic target for an intrepid and ultimately far more deadly David. The scholarly take thus disabuses us of the easy narrative of David as perceived and actual underdog who gets lucky and prevails as a result; and it thus complicates our sense of what distinguishes a winner from a loser. In the process, scholars morph the tale of David and Goliath from trite allegory into full-on metaphor, one that helps us understand more fully the power of apparent disadvantage in giving shape to a meaningful life.
Put a few dozen or so educators in a room to talk about, well, anything, and thoughts will veer not so slowly toward the subject of the day’s implications for teaching and learning and the culture of a school. And thus, it was not surprising that a battle between two very different sorts in ancient Palestine informed quickly how we are thinking about Brewster Academy in 2015.
Conversation during this gathering was both spirited and celebratory. Brewster’s magic became clearer when explored using the lenses Gladwell provided, but my mind had trouble grasping the complexity of the overarching message that emerged from the conversation, until I sat this morning to write this missive and was reminded of history teacher Jon Browher’s insightful recognition that Gladwell’s thesis was, at best, elusive.
The passage of a few days allowed me to recognize that Jon was right: Gladwell didn’t have a thesis – he had a host of them, and each resonates with one of the hypotheses I’ve been forming about Brewster Academy.
Here are at least some of Gladwell’s theses and one person’s take on what these theses elucidate about our school:
Capable people emerge from all sorts of experiences; they only need will and attention
Gladwell points out that the “powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak” (page 268) and helps us to understand that superficial indicators – previous performance, standardized testing, and the like – might obscure the deeper realities of kids, the deeper promise of kids. In fact, some struggle might be galvanic in a life.
Brewster’s resident soothsayer, Lynne Palmer, describes “the good kid factor” as the critical element of a successful Brewster student.
Good kids. Some with high SSAT scores, others with more modest SSAT scores. Some who have had easy childhoods, others hard. Some with learning challenges, others who naturally achieve at high levels in school.
I’ve come to hypothesize that part of the magic of this place lies in our purposefully throwing lots of different sorts of good kids together for one or a handful of years, meeting each where he or she is, and supporting and challenging as needed. Again and again, good kids leave here as great adults, and the very heterogeneity of the student body is the perfect context in which all students can grow.
Capable people become more so with a taste of success
Like mythic David, students need to have both substantial self-knowledge and an equal measure of self-esteem if they are to confront and prevail against life’s challenges. Recent advances in evolutionary biology and neuroscience seem to corroborate what we witness at Brewster throughout each year: self-knowledge and self-esteem emerge most substantially when students are helped to find an appropriately challenging path, supported as they stretch to encounter challenges, and celebrated when they achieve.
A few weeks ago, I watched my first exam period at Brewster. You can imagine the picture. Study sessions happened, kids seemed a bit more focused, and after the busses departed, I picked up stray flashcards in various places around campus.
But in the midst of exams, kids seemed to get their sleep. Almost none of the students appeared to struggle. They were prepared for their battle.
I asked student after student how exams went. Not once (!) did I hear the word failure. Not once did I get the sense that students had given up. In fact, students appeared to head off into the break that followed ready for a bit of rest but not broken.
Again, I hypothesize: Brewster has done some remarkable magic in creating a context in which students strive, struggle, and seek support as needed to surmount obstacles in a culture in which success is an almost inevitable outcome if, to paraphrase Laura Cooper, they work for it.
Excellent and Elite are different things
Gladwell explains, “We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.” (page 36).
Is Brewster elite? We argued some about this. Some took “elite” to mean truly excellent; others suggested that “elite” implies exclusive, unattainable by most, self-satisfied, and self-informing.
Perhaps “elite” means all of the above.
Six months into my tenure here, I’m convinced deeply that my final hypothesis is correct: the most profound magic of this place is the simple fact that Brewster is elite in all of the positive ways and nary few of the negatives. True, not everyone who would like to attend Brewster is fortunate enough to do so, but what we do here can and should be done in all schools; all students are entitled to being met where they are and to being supported and challenged in the process of becoming adults.
Brewster Academy is, as I keep saying, quite a place. And reading Gladwell’s book and talking about it with smart colleagues convinces me yet more fully that Brewster is the way education should be. I think Gladwell would agree.