M-T History Page 6


(Center for the Study of Alternatives, Hofstra University)

June 21, 1980

I begin with a bit of history that brings me here.

A month ago, I received a call telling me that I was to receive some sort of certificate or award here today.  And I was asked whether I was coming or wanted it mailed. I said that I would be here (not just because it seemed the least one could do under the circumstances, but also because that’s an occasion to be savored and enjoyed). Well, a week or so later, John called and asked, "You wouldn't mind saying a few words, would you?"  And I said of course not. Two days ago came another call: "We’re not sure you've got it quite straight yet, Mary Anne. You are the Graduation Speaker this year."

I tell you this so that if ever you receive a call about whether or not to mail the award you’re getting, you’ll understand what the choices are.

But my history with Maslow-Toffler goes back a good deal farther than that. I can remember an evening about seven years ago when John Sherin and Milt Siler came over to the house to share the plans they had put together for a new school and a new kind of education. I can't remember much of what we said that night, but I do remember their considerable excitement about what they had put together and the promise they both saw in it. You have been the fortunate beneficiaries of that promise. I think you have received what is in some important ways one of the finest high school educations Long Island has to offer.

I am sure you know that this is a time of great trouble for the American High School. It is a period when, for the first time in a hundred years, the public high school is being seriously challenged as an institution. They are asking, that is, whether secondary education can be salvaged -- whether it is even possible for the high school to pull itself together and to do well what needs doing. I think most of us here today can testify that it is possible. You have been fortunate to be a part of a program that (1) Recognizes the humanity of its students and its teachers -- which does not treat them as IBM cards, but as human beings who need the support and encouragement and reward that comes from significant association with other human beings. All of you, I suspect, have learned a great deal about relating to others during your time here.

(2) You’ve been fortunate, too, to be a part of a program that has offered a larger variety of things for you to learn about than do most high schools. (It may seem surprising that a small school can do that, since one of the arguments for the large school -- the comprehensive high school -- has been that getting all that under one roof makes it possible to offer a varied curriculum.) But you have been offered the opportunity here to acquire knowledge that most high schools do not try to impart. You have been given a chance to take courses that are not offered elsewhere, and very importantly you have been encouraged to find in all your learning a dimension that most high schools do not even explore -- Yourself. An M-T student showed me this, and its significance, several years ago in one of my classes to which a group of you came. The Maslow-Toffler students had been trying to tell the people in my seminar on alternative education what M-T classes were like. My people had been asking a lot of questions which one of them finally tied together with the statement that what was being described really didn't sound so very different from classes in conventional high schools -- yet the students seemed so positive about them. "What..." came the question, "...is so special about M-T classes?" There was a real pause, and finally the young woman being questioned responded very slowly and thoughtfully: "Because in every class you learn something new about yourself."  It’s a tremendously important kind of learning -- and one that can and should continue for all of our lives. You are fortunate to have received the encouragement and help to begin that sort of learning. It is a response to Socrates' dictum to "Know Thyself" that few high schools have undertaken.

(3) You have also been fortunate to attend a school that realizes that growing up is a matter of coming to take responsibility for one’s own actions and decisions -- and that the only way to learn how to do this is to be initiated into doing it. For many, this kind of learning, then, must come all of a sudden, and with little support and guidance, when we find ourselves "on our own." You have been fortunate to have lived within a setting here that has helped to initiate you into this opportunity and responsibility, because it is one which some of you will be assuming quite fully as of tomorrow.

I could extend the list of why you are so lucky to be sitting here today.
But I think you all realize that, so I’m going to do something else instead. I am, as you've heard, very interested in alternative education. I think it offers the best promise on the horizon for reforming secondary education and reversing the public’s loss of confidence. (And that is important because I think schools remain the best hope of realizing a better society for all -- and the only hope for the children of the poor and the disadvantaged). So I have been trying for several years to obtain support for a venture I want to describe to you. I was informed this week that the government has agreed to give it initial support, so I’d like to share with you a little about the plan -- and if I am successful with it, you will be hearing more about it in the next couple of years.

My plan is patterned on a study of high schools done many years ago, in the 1930’s. It was known as "The Eight Year Study" and it remains today the largest, most elaborate and systematic study of high school education ever undertaken. It is also often cited as having made the case of innovative, non-traditional education. The investigators took 1,500 students involved in experimental programs and matched them carefully with 1,500 students in conventional programs (being sure to match each pair for things that could affect how well they did -- intelligence, past school achievement, family background). They followed these students into college and then examined their comparative success -- and not solely on grades but also on critical thinking ability, social and artistic sensitivity, and personal and social adjustment. The results were absolutely clear (unlike a lot of subsequent educational research):  the graduates of the non-traditional high schools equaled or excelled the others on every single measure. Moreover, the more non-traditional the school -- and the further the departure, then, from conventional practice -- the better its graduates did.

So the Eight Year Study made the case for non-traditional education. It was also a model involving a large number of schools, and the people in them, in a study which they cared something about. And it was a sufficiently careful study that its findings have never been subjected to serious challenge. Now I want to do something like that for alternative schools, probably over a period of several years. Six or seven major educational organizations have agreed to be participant sponsors and, as I said, as of this week, the National Institute of Education has agreed to finance the first phase of the study. Thus, in five or six years, we hope to have some irrefutable information on which schools work best for which young people -- and to have laid the groundwork for extending the kind of benefits you have enjoyed at M-T to a far larger number of high school students across the country. Wish me luck. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to tell you about it -- and there is something very fitting in the fact that this first public announcement of the project is being made here, at Maslow-Toffler. For M-T is the place where I really began to learn about alternative education. It was the first alternative school I came to know much about -- and I imagine that is a "first" I share with most of you.

Now as I am sure you know, Graduation Ceremony addresses are supposed to contain advice. So before I conclude, I want to share a bit of advice. It comes from "Ziggy," the newspaper cartoon, and perhaps you may remember it. It was a Sunday color strip that I have hanging on the door of my office. In the first frame, Ziggy approaches an old sage with a white beard and asks: "Tell me, old wise one . . . What is the meaning of life?" The sage replies: "Ah, yesss . . . The meaning of life . . Life, my boy, is doin' stuff." Ziggy questions him further but walks away perplexed and a bit let down. Yet the wise one was far wiser than Ziggy could recognize. Life is, indeed, "doin' stuff." And the kind of stuff we choose to do, as well as the kind of stuff we avoid, defines the kind of life we shall lead and the kind of person we shall become. As the old hymn puts it, "What we choose is what we are . . " This is the human predicament which Existential philosophers talk about: "Existence precedes essence." We are here and exist as physical beings before the essence of what we are to be as persons is shaped. We are what we make ourselves, and this making occurs through our own choices.

You stand at a critical -- and scary -- point in your lives because the choices you must make have suddenly broadened and come to appear to have more far-reaching consequences. You’re right; they do. But you are probably better equipped to make them than are the graduates of most high schools. I salute you on this big day in your lives, and I wish each of you well. May the sun shine upon you.

Mary Anne Raywid is retired from Hofstra University, where she had long been a Professor of Administration and Policy Studies and directed Hofstra's Center for the Study of Educational Alternatives. For the last two decades she has specialized in school change, reform, and restructuring -- in the several roles of researcher, evaluator, and developer. She has been active in educational organizations, has served on the editorial boards of more than a dozen professional journals, and has published extensively.

For those readers who wish to pursue Dr. Raywid's work, some helpful links follow:

(Photo: Mary Anne Raywid)