SCHOOL DAYS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I went to a wonderful school from first grade through twelfth grade. It was called The Ethical Culture Schools. Grades K-6 were in Manhattan. Grades 7-12 were on a large campus in Riverdale, the Bronx, NY. The campus was tree-lined and beautiful, complete with tennis courts, football and track fields, swimming pool, art studios, full professional theater/auditorium, science labs, a huge library, etc. It was the nicest campus I ever had. My college and law schools were both city schools with no real “campus” to speak of at all.

The schools were progressive and arts oriented. They were geared to producing ethical, caring, involved citizens. Citizens who could think, analyze facts and express ourselves from a very early age. Citizens with a moral core.

Art, music and theater were incorporated into our curriculum. In addition to having separate art, music, theater and dance classes (some optional), we did lots of creative projects that combined many disciplines. For example, In fifth grade, we put on a medieval banquet, complete with costumes, decorations, and music we learned to play on our recorders.

We also had regular full school assemblies where we would perform for each other – all grades participated. I was in the orchestra in fifth and sixth grades playing the clarinet. I did some piano duets with a friend and sang in the chorus. I also read a piece I had written for my sixth grade graduation. Other performances included musical instruments, singing, dance and some dramatic readings.

Ethical Culture lower school building in NYC

In eleventh grade, I helped write and direct a “History of the Cowboy Through His Songs and Ballads”. It was a joint effort with the history, music, art and theater departments. It was a professional level performance. Tom has heard a tape of the show and was blown away that high school students had done everything in putting that show together.

Ethics was also a big deal in our school. From very early on, we talked about current events in our classes. We talked about the basic issues on both sides of the major issues of the day, in terms we could understand at each level. In fifth grade, a high-profile execution was in the news. We all came down on the anti-capital punishment side (did I mention that the school was also very liberal?) We observed a moment of silence at the time the execution was carried out.

Starting in seventh grade, we had weekly Ethics classes. There we discussed things in terms of ethics and morality – analyzing current issues like abortion, prayer in schools, racial discrimination and the Vietnam War. We discussed the morality of some of these issues before they were front page news on a regular basis.

My school was also very rigorous academically. It was dedicated to teaching us how to think for ourselves. How to research and collect data, how to form an opinion and how to document and defend our position. We had to do critical, analytical writing all the time, particularly in English and History classes. In English class, we had to write essays on different aspects of the books we read, from the character development, to the plot to the writing style. In history we had to learn how to do serious research, using multiple sources, in the library (before computers). I had to do formal footnotes and bibliographies from eight grade on.

We were graded on how well we organized our material, how clearly and forcefully we presented and argued our theses, and how well we backed up our conclusions with relevant data. We not only learned how to think but how to write. For this alone, I am eternally grateful to my early education. Because of this, the high school had a reputation for high standards and got a lot of our seniors into top colleges. That was a major selling point for the school.

We were always told that after Fieldston High School, college would be easy. It turned out to be true. In college, you had fewer classes a week. You also only had one paper and a mid-term and final in each class for the entire semester. In Fieldston, you had classes all day, every day. You also had papers, homework assignments, quizzes and tests throughout the week.

I was a very conscientious student and anxious about getting good grades. So I spent a lot of time on my homework. It apparently took me longer than my friends to finish my schoolwork, so I was overwhelmed, exhausted and stressed throughout my time at Fieldston. Most of my fellow classmates, I later found out, were not.

I discovered much later in life, in my late 40’s, that I had ADD as well as other learning disabilities, all of which I passed on to my son. Had I gone to school from the late 1990’s on, I would have had accommodations from the school for my ‘disabilities’ – like note-takers to take class notes for me, un-timed tests and possibly more time on assignments or shortened assignments. As it was, I just struggled.

Beautiful Fieldston High School buildings and quad

I learned during my tenure at the high school, that my father knew and worked with the founder of the Ethical Culture Schools, the revered Felix Adler. We honored him at “Founder’s Day” assemblies every year. I was in awe.

My father finally admitted to me that he never liked the guy and thought he was an idiot. So much for my school spirit!

I know that my school was at the high-end of the education pyramid in this country. So I didn’t expect my kids’ local high school in Easton, Connecticut, however well-regarded, to be on par with my private New York City school from the 50’s and 60’s. I did expect my kids colleges to have assignments and standards at least as rigorous as my high school. I was disappointed. My kids learned to think and to write in spite of, not because of their college educations.

I was lucky to live in a time and a place where I could be stimulated and taught from early childhood on. Maybe the better academic colleges today still train their students to think and to write (my kids did not go to these schools). For the sake of America’s future, I hope at least the colleges, if not the high schools, still do a good job of training thoughtful, citizens, capable of understanding and responding to our complex new world.

13 thoughts on “SCHOOL DAYS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

    • Ethics began at home with my parents. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time. My Parents have influenced my behavior — over the years, more than I ever realized. I wish they were still here so I could tell them. Mom and Dad would probably just smile at each other. Marilyn and I have been discussing this amid the wave of sexual harrasement stories.

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      • Exquisitely understood, MrA. Not quite the same… a dad, a paternal grandma. And I don’t need them to be here, as they know and smile down on me often. Cardinals come to me, wherever I am. Especially at my hacienda. I more than believe ethics should have been taught since forever… and I come from a long line of teachers (not me). The point always, with them, comes down to hard to do in class because religious differences rear the ugly head… my thought is most just don’t know how to deal with it. In a K-12 situation, without losing face or a job.

        And the sexual harassment schtuff? I am SO DAMNED OVERWHELMED there is not a good place for me to start. Sometimes it makes me want to actually have a blog instead of a lurker. However, I’m y’all’s lurker, so there is that.

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        • Ethics are not religious. You do not need to “believe” in a religion to have an ethical code and know the difference between right and wrong. I have never understood why religion got mixed into this. What you believe is what you believe. WHY you believe it is another matter. But I’m just a stupid old pragmatist.

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          • Agreed, MrsA. I was speaking of the dilemma teachers sometimes face when teaching “outside the box” of the three Rs. It takes a delicate hand to steer an elementary school kid away from religion when in a school setting. Ethics can bring up the darndest thoughts and questions from a kid who is being raised by a my-way-or-highway religious family.

            Should the instructor fail to keep religion from entering into the discussion, or god forbid join in, painful consequences sometimes ensue. Remember I live in a semi-Bible Belt, very Red state. My particular family line of educators came from abolitionists, liberal thinkers, etc, etc. More than one of them was called to the carpet in the public school system to explain to angry parents or superiors why the lesson had taken a turn into a discussion that affronted certain religious beliefs.

            Why does religion get mixed into ethics? Just because you and I know the difference doesn’t necessarily mean all in a public school setting believe the same. And in that setting, we sometimes tie the hands of those attempting to teach. Remember my state? Home of John Brownians, the dreaded Phelps cult, those who wanted to teach Creationism in science class?

            And yes, ethics should be taught at home. The point of teaching the thought process of ethics in the school setting is to teach young minds there’s more than one opinion on ethics and morality, make them think, and learn there’s more than my-way-or-highway out there.

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      • Ethics classes at school should never be a substitute for parental teaching of values. I got that at home in spades. So my ethics discussions in school just reinforced what I was getting at home.

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        • Agreed. All sorts of things should be taught first, at home, by family. And as we also sadly know, many are not. The elementary school system has evolved from three R’s to the point we now start the day making sure kids have breakfast prior to the school day. Quite the challenge to be a teacher these days… I sure wouldn’t want to do it.

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    • I can tell you that all of the people from my school that I am still in touch with are very moral, ethical people. We all have social consciences and big hearts when it comes to caring for others in our society. I think early training in morality is a very good idea! It at least gets you thinking about what is right and wrong and what values you have.

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    • Me too Ellin, sounds like it was the “creme de la creme” of schools. It they only carried on like that, to some degree, in the public schools. Ethics should be a bigger part of our education.
      Leslie

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      • It wasn’t just the discussion about ethics per se that made the difference. It was learning how to think about things that are going on in our world from a moral perspective. Learning how to evaluate public policy as well as individual actions in terms of how they effect other people. It also began a lifelong habit of reading the news and staying engaged with what the government and the society is doing. It made us very aware of the consequences of actions and social trends so we can talk about them both intelligently and morally. It was a great education beyond the purely academic. And it did create caring and involved adults.

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