An Equilateral Triangle: March 2018

A few days ago, I was deeply moved by an email I received from a member of our school community in which he lamented the loss of young lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and shared with me a simple, yet profound piece of music by Manuel de Falla (1876–1946), from which he had tried to take comfort at a time of tragedy.
It is indeed extremely difficult to come to terms with such a blatant disrespect for human life, as was witnessed in Florida on Valentine’s Day, and we can only hope that all of us, parents and educators alike, can instil in future generations a clear sense that our ultimate aim in life is to fulfil our potential and to pursue the common good. The rest is purely incidental.
If indeed the rest is incidental, what is, then, the role of academic ambition in the education of children?
There is a compelling picture from last year’s graduation, where the members of the Class of 2017 are being greeted by our youngest students just outside Jardin d’éveil. To me the focus of this photograph is not so much the self-confidence of our graduates, striding purposefully into the future, as the curiosity and fascination shown by the little two-year-olds who, probably for the first time in their lives outside their immediate family, are encountering young men and women they could aspire to become. This is the symbolic moment in which, without being totally conscious of it, the children embark on a voyage of discovery, where academic ambition holds the key to individual and collective progress.

When we started developing the concept of academic ambition at our school last year, we linked it overtly to Carol Dweck’s seminal work on the growth mindset, which states that it is essential to have a can-do attitude so that we can constantly push ourselves further in order to advance our knowledge and skills. The parallel with the way that a child learns first to stand up and walk, and then to run, is evident. Any process of learning is natural and it is always associated with a will to break our limits and go on improving, thus making possible what hitherto seemed impossible. Rather than reaching a particular end goal, though, the emphasis is on the journey itself, an eternal adventure into unexplored territories where rugged topography and other challenges are met with ingenuity and perseverance in order to be able to move forward.
In recent months, we have written a full definition of what we mean at TFS by learning through academic ambition, and I would like to mention three key elements here. The first one is intellectual curiosity. The learner must be driven by wonder and fascination, by a deep desire to pursue knowledge through a spirit of inquiry. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the acquisition of knowledge. If we have a hundred people in a room who all raise their hands to participate in a discussion on the origin of our species, but who are not aware of Charles Darwin’s work on evolution, the result will be anarchic and devoid of all sense. If on the other hand they have all read Darwin and other relevant researchers, what we will have is a positive conversation in which everyone will collaborate democratically in the construction of meaning.
Mathematics, the scientific method, our cultural history and philosophical questioning are all needed to push the boundaries of human knowledge. It is said that Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), one of the founders of modern political theory, started paying attention to mathematics one day in his early forties, when he came across Euclid’s Elements at a private library and thought that one of the propositions in the book was wrong. He immediately read the demonstration, which took him to another demonstration and then to another one and another one, until he was not only convinced by Euclid’s theories but actually fell in love with mathematical logic. A similar kind of intellectual curiosity is shown by our PK and JK students when they have fun learning the basics of coding through the use of a Bee-Bot robot, as well as by our Level IV and V students in the Scholars Guild when they formally gather several times a year around a dinner table to discuss topics as varied as the parameters of globalization in India, the reasons for the failure of the Avro Arrow aviation project, or the sophisticated marketing tools used by multinationals.
The second element characterizing academic ambition is dissent. In order to comprehend the complexity of the world, it is necessary to develop critical thinking, and the resulting deep understanding of causes and effects might at times lead us to question the status quo. Without Galileo’s brave stance against the beliefs of his own time as set out by the Inquisition, we would still believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Without Einstein’s revolutionary research, Newtonian physics may to this day be unsurpassed. Without Rosa Parks’ defiant attitude and the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott, segregation on public buses in the United States might not have been declared unconstitutional in the 1950s.
Closely linked to this notion of dissent is the need to have an ethical conscience at the root of our being. In this sense, learning is not just about acquiring new knowledge but also about developing the discernment required to be able to contribute, as active citizens, to the betterment of humankind. Unfortunately, history is full of examples of the contrary, and Word War II is a case in point. Let us remember that one of its most infamous leaders, whom I shall not deign to name, was a highly cultured individual who had been a valedictorian for his graduating class and had completed a PhD in Romantic literature. Knowledge without ethics is at best useless, and most often downright dangerous.
Taking account of all of the above, academic ambition could be represented as an equilateral triangle where curiosity, dissent and ethics are at exactly 60 degrees from each other. The more distorted the triangle, the more challenging it becomes to make progress and to put this progress at the service of humanity. At a time when our mobile devices tell us about shootings in Florida and about the erosion of human rights in supposedly democratic countries on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, we need to remind ourselves of the meaning and purpose of education, the education we are building together at our school.
We should also pause on the road and take comfort from the incomparable beauty of Teresa Berganza’s voice as she sings Falla’s Lullaby. May art, as well as science, continue to guide us in our daily lives.

Dr. Josep L. González
Head of School