The Crazy Wisdom Interview with Jim Robert of Pioneer High School by Maureen McMahon

An Inspired Teacher's Use of Socrates' Call to Action: "The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living"

Interview by Maureen McMahon | Photos by Edda Pacifico 

“I wonder if we have ever asked ourselves what education means. Why do we go to school, why do we learn various subjects, why do we pass examinations and compete with each other for better grades? What does this so-called education mean, and what is it all about? This is really a very important question, not only for students, but also for the parents, for the teachers, and for everyone who loves this earth. Why do we go through the struggle to be educated? Is it merely in order to pass some examinations and get a job? Or is it the function of education to prepare us while we are young to understand the whole process of life?” –J. Krishnamurti

Pioneer High School social studies teacher Jim Robert is known to many, including his students, simply as “JR.” At age 58, he has been teaching for 25 years, 24 of them at Pioneer. In 1996, while teaching a philosophy class to seniors, he began to develop an innovative curriculum idea: how could he create an experience for students to explore self-awareness and self-examination in an academic setting, especially as our culture moves toward test results driven measures of success? Inspired by his belief that “the search for an authentic self is one of the primary tasks of adolescence,” his new curriculum would require a classroom model that fosters a supportive, trusting environment for seniors to navigate life’s philosophical questions together. His hope was that such a class could help students build compassion and strength of character — in his opinion, far better indicators of a senior’s success.

Robert began to refine a disciplined dialectic approach in which the class would spend a few weeks establishing trust, and then begin what he calls the Council process. Each period, a different student would read a personal statement to the class and then spend the entire hour answering questions posed by the others to encourage that student’s “journey to the authentic self.” Homework would be to write a thoughtful, positive commentary to that period’s Council participant. Their charge, as a class and as a supportive community, would be to answer Socrates’ call to action: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Inspired by his belief that “the search for an authentic self is one of the primary tasks of adolescence,” the curriculum fosters a supportive, trusting environment for seniors to navigate life’s philosophical questions together.

What began as an experiment has matured into a legendary and popular elective at Pioneer called Senior Passage. Robert named his dialectic process The Council of Philosophical Inquiry, or “the Council” for short, referring to the tradition of the tribal council. As of 2013, over 4,500 seniors have participated in the Council’s exploration of identity and purpose among small, confidential groups of seniors. I heard Robert describing Senior Passage in a TEDx Talk he gave at U-M and was moved by his unique approach to education. He agreed to meet with me and collaborate on a Crazy Wisdom interview.

*** 

I met JR on a busy Friday afternoon at Pioneer. Finding him meant navigating bustling hallways of teenagers until I spotted his door adorned with signage and artwork. Walking into his classroom felt like entering a curiosity cabinet. Dozens of well-worn armchairs and couches faced forward. Tibetan flag streamers, portraits of students and original artworks, hockey sticks and other student memorabilia lined the room’s perimeter. Iconic images were lovingly placed, many playing off each other (soccer Bob Marley standing next to Amma comes to mind). Compared to the frenzy of the hallway during a passing period, the energy here was calm and focused; the feeling suggesting something extraordinary had been going on in here.

Once we got acquainted, JR smiled at me, gesturing for me to pick an armchair. A little weary at first, he rubbed his hands through his hair and revealed that, just moments before I arrived, a Senior Passage class had collaborated on one of the more moving Councils of the semester. I began to ask him questions, and as he retraced the ideas and origins of the class, his face brightened and his momentum picked up, especially when articulating the amazing gifts Senior Passage had bestowed on him and his students.

–Maureen McMahon

***

Maureen McMahon: How did the Senior Passage class come about?

Jim Robert: Oh my, where to begin? I could say it came about because of my brother’s unexpected death the summer before my senior year of high school, and this class is therefore the class I never had but really needed. I could also say it has its origins in Professor Richard Mann’s Psychology of Religion course I took at the University of Michigan that deflected the course of my life down the path that has led me here to this classroom. But I suppose the more practical answer would see its origins in my own attraction to the “Great Conversation,” entailed in the field of philosophy.

I remember doing a project in one of my education classes back in the 80’s. I don’t remember the class or even what the assignment was, but I do remember doing this project on using “The Socratic Method” as a pedagogical practice, a modified version of the Socratic dialogue, the purpose of which is to help students think for themselves as they come to grips with whatever subject is being taught. The Socratic Method has become the signature pedagogy in every class I have ever taught. So I suppose that might be the best place to start.

As of 2013, over 4,500 seniors have participated in the Council’s exploration of identity and purpose among small, confidential groups of seniors.

When I was first hired at Pioneer High School and began employing this Socratic pedagogy in my 9th and 10th grade history classes, one of the immediate and most surprising outcomes was the atmosphere in the classroom it created. From the very beginning, my classes have been a cradle for discussion; a place where the facts of history became secondary to the ideas embodied in these facts, and that my task as an educator was to help my students learn to grapple with these ideas and connect them to their own lives. Making my students’ voices the center of the classroom, and helping them find their voices and confront the fears that prevent their voices from being heard, became foundational to my educational philosophy. I can’t even imagine what a class would look like without these voices. There is nothing that can compare to the electrically charged atmosphere of a classroom of young minds exploring for the very first time the great ideas of history and then recognizing their connection to the present — their own individual lives. Helping students become self-aware, critical thinkers has been my central mission as an educator.

It was clear early on in my career that a 53-minute history class period was not going to suffice for many of these students to quench their thirst for meaning and for delving deeper into the world of thoughts and ideas. In 1994, the “Pioneer Philosophy Club” was created with the help of a former colleague, Aaron Pollock, and in the short span of a couple of years, it grew from its original membership of about 10 to well over 75 students. We would meet once or twice a month outside of school, usually in a café, to discuss various readings and ideas, and it was here that my Philosophy Class planted its roots. The Philosophy Club reminded me of my own longing in high school for something more meaningful than what the standard curriculum offered. By 1996, the curriculum was completed for, what turned out to be, a standard introductory philosophy class and, under the guidance of my then principal Bob Galardi, I was able to pilot the first class. I believe the first couple of semesters we covered the history of Western thought from the Pre-Socratics to the Existentialists.

Today, the class is technically still an introductory philosophy class, although its current format might make some of my former philosophy professors roll over in their graves. To really understand the evolution of this class into its current format, it’s important to see it in terms of the structural changes that were taking place in public education after the passage of Proposal A in 1994, which changed the way public schools were funded — basically shifting control from the local to state and, eventually, federal levels. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the growth in popularity of this class and its evolution into a Senior Passage class runs concurrent with the increasing homogenization and standardization of the high school curriculum that was a by-product of this change. In certain respects this class became like an oasis in the otherwise dry and desolate slide into our current status as an over-regulated, high-stakes ‘testing-to-death’ servant of the state. This is not to say there aren’t other course offerings countering this trend at our school, because there are, but they’re certainly getting squeezed out by the exponential growth in state mandated graduation requirements and other top-down controls implemented by the state. So in this sense, the evolution of this class, from a traditional introductory philosophy course to its current Senior Passage, was a reaction to the “one-size-fits-all” curriculum that was taking over our high school, and has since become the status quo.

“The Socratic Method has become the signature pedagogy in every class I have ever taught.”

Under these conditions, students coming into this class in the early years made it increasingly clear that they were looking for something more. There was a hunger to explore each other’s ideas and to better understand themselves. Questions such as “Who am I?” “Where have I been?” “Where am I going?” “What does it mean to be a human being?” “What is this life all about?” — these were the questions that were in the hearts and minds of the students signing up for this course.

From an educational perspective it was simple. They didn’t want just another depersonalized academic class with readings, discussions, and more tests. They didn’t want to just read about philosophy, they were looking to do it. I think it was this realization that sealed the evolution into a Senior Passage class, and from there the path began to open up, and who better to turn to for advice than Socrates for both his time-tested model — the dialectic — and his equally relevant maxim, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

If one believes, as I do, that our youth have a unique wisdom that they bring to experience, in order to tap into this wisdom, we cannot avoid, in fact we must tap into their personal experiences. Instead of making the history of philosophy the curriculum, my students and their life experiences became the backbone of the Senior Passage class.

And if you believe, as I do, that philosophy should be more than just an attempt to help young people understand the history of ideas, but should also help them find their place in this world, and more importantly, feel at home here, I knew I was going to have to create a completely different kind of classroom; one that would facilitate the examination of the personal experiences my students were bringing into this class; a space that was both comfortable and inviting but, most importantly, a space that was safe. Again, this is not to say that other classrooms aren’t safe, but to do the work we were going to do, an environment of trust and security would need to be cultivated.

Maureen McMahon: Now, after 18 years, the Senior Passage class has blossomed into a highly regarded and sought after elective. How many sections do you teach?

Jim Robert: As I mentioned, the first section was piloted in the fall of 1996 and over the course of the next few years a couple of sections were added each semester. From 2000–2011 my entire teaching assignment of 10 sections (5 per semester) was devoted to this class. By 2012, with Skyline High School — Ann Arbor’s third comprehensive high school — fully up and running, enrollment has gradually declined to its current level of 5 or 6 sections a year, which I’d like to believe reflects the decline in enrollment at Pioneer and not the loss of relevancy of the class.

Maureen McMahon: Who takes the class? What kinds of kids are taking this class today?

Jim Robert: The class is designed to encourage the enrollment of as broad and diverse a cross-section of the senior class as possible. I specifically did not want it to become an AP class, which typically has a much more narrow and homogenous sampling of students. Since the curriculum is student centered, the more diverse the background of the students, the more diverse the experiences brought into the class, which, in turn, adds up to a much richer curriculum.

Today the class is a true representation of the rich multi-cultural climate that remains one of the great strengths of Pioneer High School. Students taking this course represent a broad spectrum of academic ability, class, gender, and cultural backgrounds, including exchange students from all over the world, along with a steady enrollment of the young men from all over America who make up the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. In this great mix of culture and diversity, the one common ground is they are all high school seniors — one step away from one of the most important life transitions we have all been asked to make.

MM: Please explain more about the Council and how is operates.

JR: The Council is the heart and soul of what this class has become. I think if you were to poll my past students, this is what they are going to remember most. During a Council, each student is required to sit before the class and, for one entire period, have their worldview examined by the class through a disciplined questioning process. Originally, it was an attempt to provide some thoughtful high school seniors the opportunity to “do philosophy,” to experience first hand a multidimensional approach to philosophical inquiry and make it come to life. It requires each student in the class to become actively engaged in an ongoing process of philosophical exploration and discovery, through disciplined observation, questioning, listening, thinking, feeling, and introspecting. The senior year of high school is such a transitional period in life that it’s an opportune time for them to do this kind of work — to carve out some time and step back from their busy school day for some reflection and perspective. Because the very process of critically examining the views and perspectives of others enables us to critically examine our own, the Council process provides an opportunity for each student in the class to take the Socratic maxim to heart, and examine themselves and each other at this critical juncture in their lives.

“Making my students’ voices the center of the classroom, and helping them find their voices and confront the fears that prevent their voices from being heard, became foundational to my educational philosophy.”

Each Council begins with a random selection of a student in the class. Members of the Council (the class) sit in a semi-circle of chairs and couches around this student, who then reads their briefly written impromptu response to the question “Who Am I?” out loud to the class. This “Who Am I?” statement was written earlier in the semester and stored in a folder in the classroom. For the remainder of the 53-minute class period, this student fields questions from the class regarding anything and everything having to do with their life: who they are, how they look at the world, where they have been, what they have done so far in their life, their beliefs, values, political and religious inclinations, character strengths and weaknesses, talents and abilities, hope, fears, struggles, accomplishments, influences, and ultimately where they think they are going and what the future may hold for them. You can only imagine the terrain that gets covered from the kinds of questions occupying the minds of most high school seniors.

Students are expected to take notes of this collective inquiry in their journal. From these notes, each student will then produce a written “Positive-Truthful-Insightful Paragraph” (P-TIP) about each Council that is written to the student whose worldview was shared during the Council. The P-TIP is not a recapitulation of the Council, but rather each participant’s unique interpretation of the entire Council event. The purpose of these writings is to either generate an insight in that student or to inspire them in return for opening up and sharing their life to the class. These paragraphs are submitted to the class website for evaluation, and at the end of the semester, each student is provided a copy of these anonymously written paragraphs. It’s truly a beautiful document to receive on the last day of the semester, bringing closure to the entire experience.

MM: You talked about creating a classroom space that is comfortable, inviting, and safe. Trust must also be a critical factor for the Council to work. How is trust established among the group?

JR: You’re absolutely correct. Ultimately, it is confidentiality that turns the public space of a classroom into a private space where trust can grow, and once this begins to happen, the closed becomes more open, the hidden becomes more known, and the fearful becomes more secure. Without trust and confidentiality, controversial, alternative, and conflicting views cannot be openly expressed, examined, and questioned. Thus, creating this atmosphere in the classroom is both the key and the real challenge of teaching this course. It requires a complete 180 for most students who take this course, because there aren’t many classes asking them to do this kind of work. In a sense, I’m asking them to create a truly open and democratic learning community that paradoxically is also both safe and secure — but that’s the real challenge in any democratic society — creating a community that is both free and secure. In a sense, it’s the great American social experiment in miniature.

“…I knew I was going to have to create a completely different kind of classroom; one that would facilitate the examination of the personal experiences my students were bringing into this class; a space that was both comfortable and inviting but, most importantly, a space that was safe.”

So the first month or so of each semester is dedicated almost exclusively to reducing fear in the classroom and to building trust. Virtually every assignment and exercise during this period is designed to further this process along. Students are gradually introduced to each other at increasingly deeper levels. In-class exercises require that they begin the process of getting to know each other, which naturally also requires that they gradually allow themselves to become known. It’s always a two-way street. I walk them through various introspective exercises. We learn to meditate together, which has become an important component in our class building process. Little steps become bigger steps as they learn to safely exit their respective comfort zones. Because each class has its own unique dynamic, the actual requirements for creating this atmosphere will vary according. Slowly but surely trust and confidentiality begin to emerge.

Helping this process along is the fact that it is an elective course and most students who sign up for the class have already heard something about the Council process. So from the very beginning, the majority of the class is already prepared and willing to buy into the process. But this dynamic between freedom and security is never perfect, and when you’re dealing with thirty-plus high school seniors from all different walks of life, there’s always going to be some resistance, but the resistance usually begins to fade once a daily rhythm emerges and the Councils begin.

MM: What are some of the rhythms of the class, especially in terms of the students’ ease of interaction? I would imagine the students become more skilled at participating in the Council process with practice and that the first few Councils are much different from those closer to the end of the semester?

JR: The Council process always begins with a teacher. Each class reaches a consensus on the teacher in our building they most want to come in and kick off the process. This allows us to have one Council where the entire class can relax and begin to feel our way into the process together, without the awkwardness of one of the students having to give up his or her Council to accomplish this important initial step. This is always a wonderful day and it’s simply amazing that I have so many colleagues at Pioneer who are willing to come in and sit before a class of thirty seniors, many of whom they’ve never had in class, and have their life examined. My last four principals have all come in and done a Council. There are some teachers who have come in multiple times through the years. But this is how we begin the Council process.

“[The Council] requires each student in the class to become actively engaged in an ongoing process of philosophical exploration and discovery, through disciplined observation, questioning, listening, thinking, feeling, and introspecting.”

The next day we’ll debrief the teacher’s Council and talk about the writing component. The actual first student Council is always a volunteer, but from then on it’s a random draw, no one knows when his or her Council day is. Each Council is a dynamically unique event. The class definitely gets more skilled at working together as the semester progresses, but the process is also always changing throughout the semester. The first few Councils of each semester are always fresh and filled with excitement as students become introduced to the process, but the middle third and the final third have their own unique emergent qualities. I think if you ask the students, they’ll tell you there is no one time in the process that is better than another to have a Council — it’s just too fluid and dynamic.

MM: You mentioned earlier that originally the Council was just an attempt to allow students to “do” philosophy. How has the Council process itself changed over time? You expressed to me beautifully that the Council goes beyond getting to know each other; that the true value of the class is not only that students gain self-awareness but that they practice listening and withholding judgment, as well; that, collaboratively, the group moves from anonymity to empathy and compassion, and even beyond, into interconnectedness. Please comment more on that.

JR: Sure, I’d be happy to, but this is where it gets difficult to explain, unless you’ve participated in one. The Council certainly has become much more than just a process of “doing” philosophy. It’s taken on quite a life of its own. I think the key ingredient that really began to transform the process into something more than just an exercise in philosophy was the rule that during the Council process, only questions can be asked. So for the entire fifty minutes, students are forced to withhold judgment, at least openly, and are allowed to only ask questions to the person sitting in front of the room. No comments, judgments, or expressions of agreement or disagreement — none of those kinds of interactions are allowed during the Council.

“…A sense of belonging is one of the most powerful and persistent hungers in an adolescent’s life. If addressed and developed in a sensitive and thoughtful way, this sense of belonging can later in life blossom into a healthy sense of community that is so vital to our democratic society.”

This is an enormous challenge for most students who are used to discussions, where answers to questions are supposed to be challenged; where viewpoints are to be argued for and against; where unsupported statements of fact are expected to be critically examined. What this means is you have to learn to accept on face value what you hear, and then use more questions to dig deeper into what gets said. It means you have to remain open and accepting of the beliefs and views that get expressed, which in turn requires that we learn to really listen to each other. If you’re no longer worried about having to challenge, comment, or agree or disagree with something that is being said, and instead you use the power of attention and more questions to penetrate deeper into each story, acceptance gets cultivated from acquiring a more comprehensive understanding of the background, contexts, and life experiences behind the views that get expressed. This becomes an incredibly positive and rich experience. Consideration moves into empathy, which often times opens the door to compassion. Not only does the student in the Council chair feel he or she is really being listened to, but also, members of the class who are really paying attention begin to see, and most importantly feel, a sense of interconnection that didn’t exist before.

Because we are dealing with real lives and with real human experiences, the real-life stories told during the Council become a fertile ground for cultivating empathy and compassion. Difference becomes less threatening and more welcomed. Each Council experience leaves a powerful imprint on the class. It’s not difficult for these seniors to see themselves in each other, and as the semester progresses, the sense of community that grows inside the classroom becomes tighter and more meaningful. The stories that unfold before our collective hearts and minds create something that’s hard to put into words.


“We need to understand that most of the problems we face on this planet today were created, wittingly or unwittingly, by highly educated individuals with important titles after their names, who went to some of the best high schools and universities in this country.”

There’s a tipping point in the process where our shared humanity begins to outshine the differences that divide us. It becomes easier for students to put aside the previous assumptions and judgments they carried into this class about their classmates. And the more this happens, the more open and free the process becomes. It really becomes an exercise in Mindfulness — where each and every student is called upon to be fully present, to the best of his or her ability, and in their questioning and listening, a new mindset is created that is more free and open.

The great Indian sage J. Krishnamurti once said, “If you can listen in this way, listen with ease, without strain you will find an extraordinary change taking place within you, a change that comes without your volition, without your asking; and in that change there is a great beauty and depth of insight.” And that is exactly what happens. Beauty is the word most often expressed from my students when we talk about the Councils. There is a Beauty in each student who sits in that Council chair and often times that Beauty is obscured by the trappings of growing up and/or muddled by the pressures of adolescence, but it does come out during the Council. It’s a truly remarkable experience.

MM: As the only teacher facilitating every Council, I imagine it must be a challenge and a learned skill to stay grounded on days when you participate in five different Councils. Part of the effectiveness of the dynamic is your emotional investment, right? Another must be your having a measure of detachment so that you can lead effectively. What’s that process like for you? How does it affect your energy?

JR: Some days it’s a challenge to stay grounded. We finished a Council just before you arrived, where the young man was describing to the class his experience of witnessing the death of his grandmother and primary caregiver, after being hit by a car. As the class took him deeper and deeper into this experience with their questions, he spoke about the changes this forced upon his own life, and it became clear how it rippled out into his views about life and death and the meaning he is searching for in his own life. Yeah, it’s hard some days. We all carry around these kinds of experiences buried within us. Some of us carry them around our entire lives, and for some of these kids, the Council may be the first time they’ve ever really talked about them, or explored them openly with others, and you can’t listen to all of these experiences and not be affected by them. So plenty of sadness and suffering comes out during the Councils, but there is also great Joy and Beauty. Tears and belly laughs — we can move from one to the other in a blink of the eye, and it’s truly amazing how sensitive and skillful they become at doing so. We get to cover the entire spectrum of human emotions each and every day through this experience. It’s raw and unpredictable.

Sometimes I think I’m way too invested in this process; it’s still too much a part of my everyday experience to step far enough away to see what it has really meant. It’s always a struggle to find the words to talk about this experience, but I do know that in teaching this class, the window it has afforded me into the hearts and minds of high school seniors has been priceless and so very precious. I am so thankful to have had this opportunity to see beneath the surface of my students’ lives; to know them on an entirely different level; to feel this connection. I, too, have seen a part of myself in each student who has ever sat in that chair. It’s difficult to process, so naturally it’s going to be difficult to interpret and explain. In the early days of teaching this class, detachment was difficult if not impossible. I’d take this class home with me every night, and my wife has been such a rock in helping me stay focused and committed to this class. I guess, in the end, I’ve grown very familiar with this particular stage of human development — this transitional and confusing senior year of high school. I don’t know what else to say. It’s truly a time of great Beauty!

MM: You mentioned to me that your children went to Pioneer and that some of them took Senior Passage with you. How many children do you have? What was the Council experience like with your children who participated in the class?

JR: I have three children, ages 34, 24, and 20. The oldest graduated from Community High School but came over to Pioneer to run track for Brian Westfield, and my other two children both graduated from Pioneer. All three took the class. Wow, what was it like to have them in this class and to experience their Councils? Well, my wife is very jealous that I got to see them in this light. For all three, I offered the option of leaving the room for all or part of their Councils, but all three wanted me there for the entire hour. I must say it was delightful to see them speak so openly and frankly about topics we had never broached before. Remember, most kids by the time they are high school seniors are already engaged in the process of detaching from their parents — some a little more skillfully than others. So much of who they’ve become by the time they are seniors is not always evident to parents, who oftentimes continue to view their son or daughter through a middle school lens. I certainly was guilty of this, so it was eye opening to watch my children operate in this atmosphere of openness and respect, and to listen to my own children field an hour’s worth of questions that forced them to disclose aspects of their own inner worlds that I had never seen before. I learned so much that otherwise would have been lost. The classes were sensitive to keeping the questions focused on them and not on me. I was very moved and honored, like I am with all the Councils.

MM: How have parents and administrators responded to the class? Was there a backlash against this curriculum when you tried to get it introduced?

JR: Surprisingly, parents have been very supportive of this class, although there have been exceptions through the years. Because of the sensitive nature of the class, there’s bound to be some push back, but I think most parents are supportive of the class. Senior year is a tough time for students and parents alike, so any efforts aimed at getting everyone through this volatile period are appreciated. At least that’s how I felt about my own children.

Every year we have what is called “Curriculum Night” when parents come in and walk through their child’s daily schedule. They get to spend about 15 minutes with each teacher. I always tell the parents exactly what’s going to take place in this class. I urge them to look at the short film made about the class that is online, and to listen to my TEDx talk if they want a more comprehensive understanding of the experience their son or daughter is about to go through. And after listening to a detailed description of the class and the Council process, the usual response is that they want to take the class too.

With respect to my colleagues, I think early on many of them were skeptical about the class and they certainly had issues with the physical space being created. But now, as I’ve become one of the senior faculty at Pioneer, I think my colleagues who know me respect what the class has been trying to do through the years, and the younger ones who are new to the building, well, I imagine they probably see my class and me as strange curiosities. But I’m really not sure.

And with respect to administration support, I’ve been fortunate through the years to have had students whose parents were central administrators and members of the board of education come through the class. Likewise, some of the principals I’ve had along the way have also had their own children take the class, so on that front, it’s never really been an issue. What takes place in this class is not as subversive as it might appear at first glance. We’re really just exploring life in hopes of discovering something a little more permanent and lasting than one is used to finding in other classes.

MM: Do you believe there is a greater need for this kind of work in the public schools?

JR: My gut response is to say yes, and there are two reasons why. First, a sense of belonging is one of the most powerful and persistent hungers in an adolescent’s life. If addressed and developed in a sensitive and thoughtful way, this sense of belonging can later in life blossom into a healthy sense of community that is so vital to our democratic society. The skills most needed for a healthy sense of community — learning to understand and embrace a variety of perspectives, becoming comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and the realization that our differences are just as important and necessary as our similarities, are all important skills that need to be cultivated and given more attention in our schools. The Council experience is just one of many possible ways to help students acquire these skills.

Second, the search for an authentic self is one of the most important tasks of adolescence, yet so little time is carved out of our students’ days to do the hard work required in this undertaking. It takes place piecemeal in other classes to be sure, but I do believe there is a place in our schools for a class, maybe not this exact class, but certainly some kind of class that can help students navigate this journey to a more authentic sense of self; something that could help them see through all the shiny surface enticements and mass-media induced imaginings of what it means to be an authentic human being; in short, something that can help them grow more comfortable with themselves in a world that seems almost designed to create a false understanding of who they are. It just doesn’t fly anymore to say that this kind of work is better done at home or in religious institutions, because after teaching this class for 18 years now, I can attest that this just isn’t happening.

The information explosion taking place in our young people’s world — the sheer volume of information available at the touch of their fingers — does not come with any instructions on how to process it; how to make meaning out of it. Knowledge is not Wisdom. It’s so much easier today for a young person to lose themselves completely before they even get a chance to begin the search to find themselves. So in this respect, yes, we have to find a way to carve out some time to help our young people with these tasks. My experiences as an educator have taught me that the more at home we are with ourselves and our own inner life, the more at home we become with others and the world.

But I think an even more important and urgent consideration with respect to your last question has to do with the purposes of public education in general. I truly believe we need to do something we’ve never done before in this country, and that is to sit down together and have a vigorous discussion about what we want from our public schools. This is something I’ve had to do on my own and something all teachers have to do on their own once they enter their classroom. What do I ultimately want my students to take out of this class and from their formal education in general? In the early days, I really struggled with this question and with the social pressures that my class wasn’t rigorous or academic enough. Like most teachers, I’d been conditioned to see education as an entirely “head” experience — where concepts, facts, and theories are more important than values, human beings, and community. We still operate our schools under the misguided industrial-age assumption that “rigorous” means lectures, tests, and measurable learning outcomes; as if education is about filling up empty vessels with knowledge. It’s difficult to step away from this perspective, to see education through a different set of lenses. Moreover, the pressures against doing so are increasing rather than decreasing in the current climate of “educational reform.”

Today’s high school seniors are inheriting a very different world than the one we inherited from our parents. I don’t need to enumerate the incredible political, economic, social, environmental, and cultural challenges facing this new generation. We need to understand that most of the problems we face on this planet today were created, wittingly or unwittingly, by highly educated individuals with important titles after their names, who went to some of the best high schools and universities in this country. So the question isn’t whether we need more or less of this kind of work in our schools, but rather do we as a society have the courage to take an honest and thoughtful look at public education, at what it really is, and then decide what we want our students to be like when they graduate from high school. We need a national dialogue that goes much deeper than the quick fix solutions being offered today. And because we’ve never had such a national conversation, the corporate world has been more than ready to step in and offer its own purposes — testing and more testing at an earlier and earlier age. I’ve yet to meet a parent who wants this for their children, yet this is what is happening today in our public schools. Is the purpose of education merely to help our young people conform to the patterns of the accepted social order, or is there a deeper and more meaningful purpose?

MM: As a teacher of 25 years, with 18 years of working on this class, will you be retiring soon and will the class continue after you have retired?

JR: My days are definitely numbered, there’s no getting around that. I’m 59 years old in June and the energy required to operate at the level needed is not as easy to muster as it once was. I think in many ways, the Council process has kept me young, but in other ways, it has aged me prematurely. One of the problems all aging teachers confront is the distance in time between them and their students. When I first started teaching I was about 17 years older than my seniors. Now I am 40 years older than them. The expanse between us grows more distant each year and it requires greater and greater effort on both our parts to bridge that distance. I suspect there will come a time when it becomes impossible, but as Bob Dylan put it, “It’s not dark yet but it’s gettin’ there.”

I’m also feeling the urge to do some writing; to put some distance between myself and the Council process and see if there is something meaningful I could write about — something that could help both parents and high school seniors navigate that final year of school with a little more grace and light. So there are other things I still want to do with my life. But right now, I still love what I do and as long as I can continue to maintain connections with my students, I’ll keep it going.

As far as what will happen to the class when I retire, well, I haven’t really thought about that very much. Perhaps one of my former students can slide in and take my place and keep it going. We’ll have to wait and see on that one.

MM: Many thanks, JR.

See below to view Jim Robert’s TEDx talk and the documentary Council: A Senior Passage, a short film made by one of his former students.

Council: A Senior Passge 

Talia Glass, director; Evan Jake Cohen, director of photography and editor 

Jim Robert's TEDx Talk


Posted on August 28, 2014 and filed under Interviews.