[In a later post, I want to return to goodness as the supposed “enemy of greatness;” for now, my attention is on Lawrence-Lightfoot’s pre-Collins embrace of goodness as indeed, a very good thing.]
“Consciousness of imperfections:” probably the most famous line from this book is in the opening paragraph of her conclusion, which teaches us that the consistent element of widely varying “good schools” is the consciousness of imperfection. The paragraph is so powerful it bears reciting in total:
“The search for good schools is elusive and disappointing if by goodness we mean something close to perfection. These portraits of good schools reveal imperfections, uncertainties, and vulnerabilities in each of them. In fact, one could argue that a consciousness of imperfections, and the willingness to admit them and search for their origins and solutions is one of the important ingredients of goodness in schools.”
I’d guess that this is one of those profound messages that has influenced educators far beyond the circle of the book’s readers; there are probably many who heed these words without knowing their origin. I have seen this embedded in many an accreditation manual, for instance. (Not that it is an entirely original concept, of course.) Accreditation work is a place where I have sought to practice it most consciously. Perhaps the finest of the five schools I had the opportunity to vist as an accreditation team member, certainly the most well established and highest in prestige, disappointed me on my visit the most of any because of its almost-willful refusal to truly reflect, to really dig in, address, and answer self-study questions asking about the program elements are most in need of remedy.
Similarly, this lesson haunted me on nearly every admissions and marketing tour I every conducted for my previous school. As much I wanted to (and did!) show off with a passion and zeal the school’s positive qualities, I also felt a nagging conscience to go out of my way even to acknowledge, even identify or assert, the school’s challenges, obstacles, or areas of necessary improvement. For some visitors, to be sure, this was attractive and inviting; they recognized the ‘goodness’ of my humility. For others, I have to say, they were either just confused (why would he say that?) or even disappointed– they didn’t want to hear anything other than the positive.
In my first headship, a time at which I was deliberately choosing to be a provocative leader, challenging the status quo, I posted this quote in large print over my desk, in an effort to make the point that my ‘consciousness about imperfections’ was only in the service of the institution. (It reassured only a few, I fear). But I do think it is a powerful statement, and can serve schools well when engaging in the self-study or strategic planning process, or when taking time to confront ‘brutal facts.’
Fun for me, in reading Lawrence-Lightfoot’s extended discussion of “The Imperfections of Goodness,” is that her case study is Milton Academy in 1981. Fun, because in 1981 I was myself a ninth grade student at Milton, impressionable and coming into my own as a conscious observer of educational institutions. L-L finds Milton displaying the most “vivid expression” of an orientation toward imperfection, “where the philosophical ideals of humanism invited tough self-criticism, persistent complaints, and nagging disappointments.” (Remember, for L-L, these are good things!). “Criticism was legitimized, even encouraged. The stark visibility of the institutional vulnerabilities was related, I think, to a deeply rooted tolerance for conflict, idealism, and feelings of security.” [I know I am quoting too much, but the book is so good] “In general, the school community saw goodness, frustration, and criticism as compatible responses. In fact, they believed that goodness was only possible if the imperfections were made visible and open for inspection.” As a ninth grader I saw this even in advisory section, where I reacted with great surprise when my teacher, my adviser, was more than willing to express criticism or frustration with school administration. (Never nasty, but respectfully critical.)
Influenced by Milton Academy’s culture or not, I’d like to think that I have invited, or welcomed, criticism and respectful conflict and presided over a culture where there was room for this. It is a fine line though– certainly I know what it is to be frustrated with a culture of complain from certain quarters, certainly I have had moments of defensiveness, certainly I have disappointed some among the population who wished for more protection from criticism, or sought more assertive cultural leadership.
There is still much more in here about “goodness:”
- Control and coherence can be gained by a “visible and explicit ideology.” At Milton, this ideology is one of ‘humanism’ wherein there is a “responsiveness to individual differences, a diversity of talent, and the integration of mind, body, and spirit in educational pursuits.”
- Schools must find an appropriate balance between “the pulls of connection to community against the contrary forces of separation from it.” Build an internal culture that is a separate, safe harbor, but still engage and interact with the wider world. Milton displays a commitment to this balance, L-L writes, by its catalog cover depicting the quiet campus with the Boston skyline looming behind.
- Leadership is essential, and but good leadership displays a redefinition of traditional terms, which includes softer images of nurtrance, relationships and affiliations, and the subtle integration of personal qualities traditionally attached to male and female images.
- There is always in good schools a high regard for teachers and their work, and a consistent, realistic message to them: they are not expected to be super-human, nor regarded as people of meager talent and low status. Teachers are central actors in the educational process; their satisfaction is critical to the tone and smooth functioning of each school; their nurtrance is critical to the nurturance of students. We nurture teachers by offering them autonomy and support, by regarding them as thinkers; by providing them opportunities for colleague exchange and criticism.
- Good schools display “consistent, unswerving attitudes toward students” marked by easy rapport and the “fearless and empathetic regard” of them. “The high school experience can be totally transformed by a vital relationship with a special adult.”
- Finally, goodness in schools is seen in student “intellectual playfulness.” This section of L-L’s book is brilliant, and so essential. “By playful, I do not mean frivolous or trivial.” “Playfulness” for L-L means many things: exchanges which are more spontaneous, inspired, creative; playing with ideas by turning them on their sides and considering them from many angles; and much more, all of it wonderful and much to be sought for in good, 21st century schools.