Tuesday, July 10, 2012


It is summertime, and the days for me in Cincinnati are wonderfully lazy right now. A heat wave has just broken, I have lunch plans today, movie plans, maybe a little time at the YMCA, some time reading…those are the plans for much of the summer here in Cincinnati.

I take a sabbatical from the blog every summer, although the sabbatical usually begins right after I make an assessment of the school year and state how I think the school is progressing. Three weeks ago the summer began for me in Jordan when the last of the meetings wound up, the wedding for Chris and Ruba happened splendidly, and I jumped on a plane bound for 10 days in Italy.

But I never got that final blog entry done. While the lazy summer days almost always win out, I did want to ruminate a little on how year 5 of this school project felt. Of course each school year seems a little different, but given a few weeks removed from Jordan it is indeed interesting to think in what direction I believe the school is moving at this point in time.

The other day I was reading one of my hundreds of book samples on my Kindle, a sample about the building of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. I came across this quotation that made me chuckle: “The story of the U.S. Capitol and the city it commanded is in many respects one of grand conception, questionable judgment, and spotty execution. Every good idea was matched by a corresponding mistake—caused by indifference, bad taste or a ruinous compulsion to do it on the cheap.”

As I trudged up and down on the stairmaster, I chuckled because this observation about the building of the U.S. capitol in the 19th century seemed very much like the building and execution of my school in Jordan of the 21st century! It certainly has had a grand conception, and over the years, some questionable judgment and some spotty execution. But how couldn’t a grand conception have some corresponding mistakes???

However, as I look back at year five, a smooth and steady year in the life of the school, much of why the school was founded became clearer and surer to us this year. As I have mentioned numerous times, our Headmaster and Dean of Students have navigated this sometimes unwieldy ship masterfully, righting the course when it seems we might move in some dangerous waters.

This March, while travelling in Belgium for the Harvard Model Congress, I got caught up on some of my news reading. I read an obituary of a man, James Q. Wilson, the eminent social scientist, whose work really inspired Julianne, our feisty and savvy and hard-working Dean of Students. When Julianne arrived at KA, the school had grown in numbers of students twice in two years, quadrupling the original size of the school…which certainly lead to some “spotty execution” moments. Julianne employed one of Wilson’s best known ideas, emphasizing his “broken windows” theory on how to reduce crime (Wilson’s idea was to reduce crime—Julainne’s hope was to reduce truancy and other crimes!). This strategy, which contributed to this generation’s reduction in crime rates in many major American cities, was Wilson’s most tangible legacy.

But this broken window theory (essentially=fix the broken windows always and immediately) was only a small piece of what Wilson contributed to the world, and he did not consider it the center of his work. The best way to understand the core Wilson is by borrowing the title of one of his essays: “The Rediscovery of Character.”

Even though it’s a lazy summer day, let’s learn a little about this Mr. Wilson. When Wilson began studying social policy in California and then in Chicago and then at Harvard, most people, he said, did not pay attention to “character.” He later wrote about the various schools and what the trends were at the time in graduate school: the Marxists looked at material forces; Darwinians at the time treated people as isolated products of competition; policy makers of right and left thought about how to rearrange economic incentives. “It is as if it were a mark of sophistication for us to shun the language of morality in discussion of the problems,” Wilson once recalled.

Wilson worked within this tradition. But during the 60s and 70s, he noticed the nation’s problems could not be understood by looking at incentives. Schools were expanding, but another sociologist, James Coleman, found that the key to education success was the relationships at home and in the neighborhood. Income transfers to the poor increased, but poor neighborhoods did not improve; instead families disintegrated. The economy boomed and factory jobs opened up, but crime rates skyrocketed. Every generation has an incentive to spend on itself, but none ran up huge deficits until the current one. Some sort of moral norms prevented them.

“At root,” Wilson wrote in 1985 in “The Public Interest,” "ín almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be law-breakers or voters or public officials.” When Wilson wrote about character and virtue, he didn’t mean anything high flown or theocratic. It was just the basics, befitting a man who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1940s: Believe in a balanced way. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions. Cooperate. Be decent.

Wilson did not believe that virtue was inculcated by prayer in schools. It was habituated by practicing good manners, being dependable, punctual and responsible day by day.

Wilson lived in what is deemed an” individualistic” age, but he emphasized that character was formed in groups. As he wrote in the 1993 piece, “The Moral Sense,” “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”

Wilson set out to learn how groups created good order and why that order sometimes frayed. He worked patiently and meticulously. The phrase “we don’t know” rings throughout his writing. He was quick to admit ignorance in the face of knotty social problems.

When Wilson started talking about social character, he was surprised that many in the academy regarded him then as an archconservative. Why should character talk be conservative? In “The Moral Sense,” he investigated the virtuous sentiments he said we are born with and how they are cultivated by habit. Wilson’s broken windows theory was promoted in an essay George Kelling wrote called “Character and Community.” Wilson and Kelling didn’t think of crime primarily as an individual choice. They saw it as something that emerged from the social psychology of community. When neighborhoods feel disorganized and scary, crime increases.

Over the years, Wilson argued that American communities responded to the stresses of industrialization by fortifying self-control. Thanks to the temperance movement of the 19th century, for example, adult per-capita consumption of alcohol fell from 7.1 gallons a year to 1.8 gallons a year between 1830 and 1850.

But American communities responded to the stresses of the information economy of the 20th century by reducing the communal buttresses to self-control, with unfortunate results. Occasionally, when there was sufficient evidence, Wilson recommended policies that might reverse this slide.

Wilson was not a philosopher. He was a social scientist. He just understood that people are moral judgers and moral actors, and he reintegrated the vocabulary of character into discussions of everyday life. KA is at its best when it follows this same model—when faculty and students work as teams, seeking ways to practice the guiding principles and expectations of the grand conception of the school. Our success as a school comes when we emphasize the relationships—I continue to marvel that Eric Widmer deemed it important enough to end the mission statement of the school with the urgent command that we seek to “cherish one another.” As head of the faculty appraisal system I am keeping in mind the same social psychology of community. Julianne does the same thing as she works to root out problems in the school.

Year 4 of the school seemed pretty sure and steady too—but I felt we always had our heads looking back to see if the steadiness was real or imagined. We always had our fingers crossed. Year 5 had a certainty that these values are solidly grounded. A school never seems perfectly safe, of course, perhaps that is one of the most exciting things about working with volatile adolescents and idealistic and real-world adults in a school—it can never be totally predictable…but, the work of this Wilson guy has indirectly inspired this school in Jordan to make character and community major forces in the conception, judgment and execution of the school.

Five weeks from today I will arrive back in Jordan, sad to say good-bye to those lazy days of summer, naturally, but ready to embrace Year 6 of this project. As long as we don’t stray too far from James Wilson’s ideas, we should be successful in striving for the impossible and achieving the improbable.