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Story 02: Education of a Dropout

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Sidebar: Parallels

Written by Mike Spock

I've thought about all the thematically-based stuff we did at The Children's Museum. Even my going to Antioch with the work study program, using classrooms and being out in the real world on jobs was also somehow or other part of the same education that started with the program at Fieldston. In the last decade I've been going back and looking at what was there that was so important.

One of the our parallel institutions was the Exploratorium. In the '60s and '70s, The Children's Museum and the Exploratorium® were doing very similar things—on opposite coasts. Their focus was on the intersection of art and science. Ours was similar but more focused on younger kids. If we were exhibiting the Giant's Desktop, for example, it was fun but it was also about issues of scale. If we were doing an Algonquin wigwam, it was about comparing similarities and differences in another culture, including changes in technology: How you would clothe yourself in a wigwam versus how you would clothe yourself today in a New York street? Even the playful things were thoughtfully put together and well researched, and always based on real and important things to learn. It was not just, "Let's have fun." It was fun, but that wasn't the reason for them.

I got to know Frank Oppenheimer, who was the founder of the Exploratorium. We were in contact from time and time, compared notes and admired each other's work. I have to confess it was only about three or four years ago that I remembered that Frank Oppenheimer went to the same Ethical Culture Schools that I went to as a kid. I thought, of course, there it is. We both went off on parallel paths because that was the way we both learned in a well-conceived and well-run school.

Having this incredible insight that Frank Oppenheimer and I went to the same kind of schools then drove me back to thinking about what went on there. How was I able to function in a school without the capacity to read? How was that program a theoretical construct for the work later done at museums in Boston and San Francisco? Frank and I were educated in such powerful ways that we replicated those experiences at The Children's Museum and the Exploratorium.

So I started to ask for help from Fieldston. They said, we don't have a lot to send you, but there's a paper that was written by the retiring founder, Mabel Goodlander, of the Fieldston School, which was one of the three Ethical Culture schools in New York. She wrote it in 1938. It was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Workingman's School, founded by Felix Adler and one of his colleagues. The Workingman's School became an Ethical Culture school. Goodlander quotes some of the things that Felix Adler talked about at that time. He based the school on a very strong commitment to a social justice and equality. It was called the Workingman's School because it was a free school for kids who weren't being served very well in the public schools. Fulfilling a social mission was also part of the ways we operated at both the Exploratorium and The Children's Museum.

But the really profound thing that Adler talked about was that Workingman's School kids, whose destiny was to become working-class people, working only with their hands, would not be fully educated unless they also were educating their minds at the same time. On the other hand, he said, people in traditional schools on track to become college students and professionals, their learning was all based on how to use their minds. There seemed to be no need to give them any training in working with their hands in the real world. Felix Adler had an extraordinary insight that a whole person had to have both, and that not only did you need to have those capacities to be able to operate in a democratic society, but you also had to have them to operate in a technologically sophisticated, scientifically-based society. For example, he said science is based on creating an idea—a theory—of why something happens in the real world, and then figuring out a way—an experiment—to test that theory, by using your hands to make something happen and then observing it. In that sense, he nailed it: to be fully educated, you had to have both things. I could do the parts of my grade school education that involved weekly craft activity. Even if you couldn't write, you could talk successfully and convincingly, and argue and ask questions in a group setting. We would all work collaboratively, because there was always somebody in the group who had skills or talents that could be contributed to the project we were working on. We'd divide up the responsibilities. Everybody had to do some of everything. The most gifted person made the biggest contribution to the solution of the problem, but the solution was almost always multidimensional. You had to use all these different skills and talents. Much later, Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences explained that same thing. Everybody has different capacities but fortunately in all of my learning experiences you learned to massage them and use some of them particular well.

Frank Oppenheimer was a physicist who in the McCarthy era had to leave the University of Minnesota. He worked on a ranch—with his hands—and then worked in high schools and created laboratory settings where kids had to use their hands to do experiments and things like that. That's why the Exploratorium looked the way it did—because he was in charge. The content of the whole place was the intersection of perception and art in the service of science and personal expression. In other words, science and art combined to form the natural intellectual playground of the Exploratorium, and also on the East Coast for a somewhat younger audience at The Children's Museum.

So there it is. There it is.

Excerpted from the interview, "The Roots of It All," January, 2006.

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