Fifty years ago, I was part of a group which founded a new, then very small independent school, the Key School, in Annapolis, Maryland.  Its principles, simple but sweeping, were set out in a pedagogical declaration of indpendence titled "The Idea of a School".  Recently, on the occasion of the opening of the fiftieth year of the now far larger and very successful school, I offered this counterpart statement,
"The Idea of a School Today"


THE IDEA OF A SCHOOL TODAY 

Thomas K. Simpson 

Annapolis, Md.
 August 27th, 2007

         It is wonderful to be here today for the opening of another new year at the Key School, and I thank you very much for the invitation. It was apparently some forty years ago that I was present for the first opening of a Key School year, though I’m afraid that one was actually a slightly hectic, though very exciting, occasion, as things were being pulled into shape at the last minute. Today I’m sure everything is completely calm and in perfect order, so we can afford to take a few minutes to reflect together on the idea of the Key School, then and now.

 

THE KEY SCHOOL TODAY

         Many of you may be aware that at the outset of this enterprise a brief document appeared entitled “The Idea of a School”, which set forth some of the basic concepts to which the new school would be dedicated. A year ago some of us recalled that manifesto, and agreed that the school today remains dedicated to that same basic concept of a coherent education which would treat the innate intellectual capabilities of students with respect, and develop the full potential of each student for a rich and rewarding life.

         If that remains true today, is there a need now to revisit that earlier account, and restate the idea of our school? I think there is, and so I propose this morning to attempt a sketch of “The Idea of a School Today”

         In a sense, I think the original Idea of a School told only half the story; perhaps that’s all it could have hoped to do. It envisioned, with a passion, the goals and methods of a rich and coherent teaching program, and I’m sure it saw as a corollary the prospect of the school as an authentic community of learning. What it could not do, however, was to envision the actual form such a community might take: it has needed the hard, creative work of forty years to write that other half of the Idea of a School. We as founders of the school could hardly have imagined the programs in art, music, athletics, drama, field trips and environmental studies, that would accompany, even enable, that academic program. Nor could we have anticipated the intense struggles, on the part of individuals or of the entire school, which would in the end forge the strong school community we have today. So this is the other half of the Idea of a School: a community which is strong and whole precisely because it is dedicated at its core to the idea of a true community of learning. That’s the beacon to which everyone has been in some way responding from the early days of the school to the present.

How important might our project be? I want to make a bold claim for the importance of the Key school today: the Key School has something the world today badly needs! The world has changed over those four decades. The world had plenty of problems, to be sure, at the time our “Idea” was written; but it faces a radically new order of challenges today. Then, we could imagine that a rational world order was evolving, a process to which our graduates could look forward to contributing. Today we see a world torn, fragmented, confrontational, destructive of the planet and at war with itself over the dwindling supply of resources. By contrast with this fragmented world, on the other hand, the Key School is providing children the experience of a coherent, caring community, one which is–despite all the normal problems of day-to-day human life–deeply trusting and whole. It is the memory of that experience, the Key School story, which our students will take with them as they make their own ways in a troubled world.

 

A MYTHICAL VISION OF WHOLENESS

 

         It’s hard to realize the extent to which we live by the stories we tell ourselves; these are the myths which shape our lives. Sometimes we realize we are doing this, and prize our stories; more often we hardly realize the songs we are singling to ourselves, as we make even the most critical choices in our lives.

         Societies often have origin myths, in which the central idea of a group is wrapped up in the story of its founding. Such, for example, are our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution: we look to them in times like the present to remind us who we are. Even our Idea of a School serves in its way as an origin myth for the Key School; it was in its time, and stands today, as a sort of declaration of pedagogical independence.

I want to speak now however about a very special origin myth which has played a central role in the development of our western culture, even contributed to the early foundations of modern science. This is Plato’s Timaeus: I bring it up now because it is not only one of the all-time great origin myths, but it is entirely about the question of wholeness: it is the story of the shaping at once of the cosmos, and of ourselves, as its members, in such a way that we and the cosmos, and all of nature as well, might be one together in a single whole.

          Plato puts it, dramatically, in the mouth of a certain “Timaeus”, an apparently fictional philosopher visiting Athens on the occasion of the festival of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Plato’s Timaeus says some extremely strange things, but then, true wholeness is a rare and wonderful thing, not easy to understand or define! We needn’t take myths literally, so for example Timaeus’ story can’t directly contradict either modern science or anybody’s theology: but this fact only invites us to look more carefully, for underlying connections which may run deep and true.

         You’ll be glad to know, I’m sure, that there isn’t time this morning to look together at the Timaeus in any detail, so I’ll just give a rough executive summary of one of the most curious aspects of Timaeus’ story.

         The universe, he says, is the work of a craftsman, a divine artificer who is no “creator” indeed, but merely uses existing materials to fabricate the cosmos. The primary thing is that this craftsman looks to a model lying outside of time depicting those things which are timelessly good, beautiful and true: his aim will be to craft a cosmos which will itself be beautiful (that’s what the word COSMOS means)–a living image of those timeless principles

         Timaeus’ first move may indeed strike you as outrageous, and offend the scientists among us, for he says that the cosmos must be a living being (his word is ZOON), and his first piece of artistry will be to fabricate its soul.

         Why should Timaeus ask us to believe that the cosmos lives, and thus has a psyche, a soul? It’s because he’s intent on making something which is not just complete, not any sort of machine, however perfect or elegant, but a universe which is truly one. A fundamental difference, he tells us, lies between the ALL and the WHOLE. An “all” as such is mechanical, perhaps even mechanically perfect, yet for all that, never more than the sum of its parts. Such mechanical totalities are easy to design; we make them every day, in our agencies, our corporations, or our computers, and–I regret to say, our schools. They work, but they are assemblages, and can be disassembled; they are totalities, but they are not whole. What can give them true unity? They spring into organic wholeness only when they are stirred throughout by purpose, by devotion to a common goal which–if the bond is to be strong–must be something timelessly true, evident at once to mind and heart: a truth which we in common can “hold to be self-evident”, as our nation’s founding document crucially asserts. Any lesser claim would have made of our nation a political assemblage, but not the living body politic which we prize. Such unity we appropriately call “organic”, and it is this principle of true, timeless unity Timaeus is seeking when he says his cosmos must live, and endows it with soul.

         You would probably never guess the method by which he accomplishes this. His first, fundamental step in giving the cosmos a soul is to make it musical: he fabricates a long string, and then divides it in the simplest whole-number ratios, which are the first of the perfect musical intervals: 2:1, the octave; 3:2, the perfect fifth, and 4:3, the perfect fourth. These indeed sound “perfect” to our ears, and music constructed of them gives us the timeless, transcendent sounds of early music and plainsong.

         Timaeus might have stopped there, but he does not. He goes on to fill the octave with more intervals; but it is a profound mathematical fact, which Timaeus well knows, that you cannot fill the octave with such perfect sounds without a remainder. Yet Timaeus persists, leaving it to us to fill out the tuning, and knowing full well that the result will be all the varieties of the modes–Dorian, Ionian, Phrygian, Aeolian–which will move our souls with intense feelings of love, of delight or despair, of hope and resolution. For Timaeus will go on to commission the making of our own souls as copies, imperfect but real, of the soul of the cosmos: endowing us, and all nature, with full membership in the community of a single cosmos, organic and whole.

         We cannot now follow Timaeus in the much more daunting work of endowing the world-soul with reason: suffice it here to say that he achieves that in a cosmic metaphor which has to be read to be conceived. The result is a complete image–at once of the cosmic soul and of our own–with reason fully in command.          

Iii Necessity: Plato is inventing a story, but he does not understand himself to be inventing a world: rather, he is seeking the right metaphor, or set of metaphors, for the real world, the universe in which he and we live. Therefore he makes sure that it includes exactly the right proportion of randomness, and what he calls “Necessity”, something only partially governable which goes its own way; we recognize it as the intractable principle of the tragic drama. The interesting thing about Timaeus’ account of Necessity is that it is highly mathematical–fully as mathematical in the field of geometry as the tuning of the lyre was in the field of number. Plato’s Necessity rightly reminds us of the blind inexorability of physical laws, as they are conceived in the tradition of Newton–though this is only one of the ways, not the best, of conceiving modern physics.

          

BACK TO THE KEY SCHOOL!

 

         I have offered a glimpse this complex, sophisticated myth as a way of thinking about the wholeness which is I believe the essence of the Key School community. How might this myth help us to understand ourselves? First I think is the realization that the school, though it has many parts in a complex structure, is something far more than the sum of those parts: it has a soul – it lives! –and imparts that life to all who participate in it. Like that cosmos, it is whole because it has one common purpose which all its members in their various ways, do sense, and share. that common purpose is, we’ve suggested, given initial expression in the original Idea of a School.

The word “purpose” is too pale to impart life of the sort we are talking about: like Timaeus’ cosmos, the Key School has music in its soul–is charmed by Apollo’s lyre, and is moved by love: love of that common experience of learning which we are all seeking, at the same time we’re sharing it with the children: we are students of all ages! That spirit of learning as a community is evidenced, I think, by the seminars we’ll be having this morning.

         This is a lovely story, but Plato will not let us rest with it: what is the role of Necessity in our account? First, within the community things we put together do come apart, what is supposed to be harmony sometimes takes the form of friction: we are used to this, and in learning to deal with it we’re learning important things the curriculum does not overtly contain. But most seriously, the terrible, destructive works of Necessity in the world beyond the school demand our attention: we cannot leave the realities of the world which surrounds us out of our own story: it is essential that we study the world beyond the school, that we practice working with it. One laboratory for the study of the world lies on our doorstep: beloved Bay, which is a sensitive litmus test of the pathologies of the earth’s environment. By way of our love for the Bay, and our caring concern for it, we are forming our own understanding of all the factors, economic and political, which impinge upon it.

Timaeus says that we are, finally, members of one cosmos. The Key School teaches us what such membership can mean, and leaves our graduates with a memory which may carry them productively through the travails of a world which has strayed so far from that vision of a human community.


Read more about the Key School at their website.

Read Thomas K. Simpson's original document,
"The Idea of a School."