GUEST: John Sexton
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GUEST: John Sexton
AIR DATE: 09/04/2010
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and if you’re puzzling over the title of today’s conversation, “Charlie and ‘Doc’…Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, just know it’s a bit of an indulgence for both my guest and for me.
For each time New York University President John Sexton has joined me here – whether to talk about his unique legal experience as law clerk to US Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, and then his years as the brilliantly successful Dean of NYU Law School … or about his leadership role in developing the idea of a global university…each time there has very definitely been what I can only call a major Sexton “nudge” about “Charlie”, so much so that after our last Open Mind, I finally said, “OK, John, I got the point, and next time we’ll do a program about your ‘Charlie’ (‘Charlie’ Winans, my guest’s beloved high school English teacher at the Jesuits’ Brooklyn Prep)”.
Of course, I shrewdly added that our program had also to be about “Doc” (Irwin S. Guernsey, MY beloved history teacher at De Witt Clinton High School).
And to be sure, our program title’s reference to James Hilton’s unforgettable novel, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, reminds us that the “Charlies” and the “Docs” of the world are all too rare…and need very much to be identified and nurtured.
Indeed, I’ll bet anything that each of you watching today can remember your own “Charlie” or your own “Doc”.
Happily, Charlie Winans is now celebrated in a wonderfully touching new book titled “Charlie’s Prep” edited by Richard Barbieri, another of Charlie’s students.
And “Doc” Guernsey’s formative role in the lives of so many DeWitt Clinton High School students is saluted in Gerard Pelisson’s and James Garvey’s extraordinary recent history of “The Castle On The Parkway”.
But, before John Sexton and I break into our old school songs, let me ask my guest about Charlie Winans and “Charlie’s Prep” … and perhaps about teachers and schools in America today. What do you say when you get over your nostalgia?
SEXTON: Well, I say first of all that you, you’ve hit an important point. We as a society have to value teachers. I remember … and it’s the reason I’m here today … I remember when, in a tenth grade classroom, in a Jesuit high school … this, this, this huge presence … I mean somebody once described Charlie as, as having the body of Orson Welles, voice of James Earl Jones and the soul of St. Francis of Assisi.
And, and it really was a very good description. If you want a visual image of him … when he wore a white suit, which he frequently did to complement his white beard and his white hair … even in his thirties … he looked an awful lot like Colonel Sanders.
SEXTON: And when that, when that, when that figure leaned out over that, that tenth grade desk and looked at us … we were an all boys high school … and said, “Boys, consider teaching, it’s the worthiest thing a human can do.”
It called on us. And, and from that moment, really, on … I mean you could look back in my life and I was always the one on the street that, that taught kids to ride the bike or to play stoop ball. I was the one that trained the altar boys. So, so maybe there was a seed in me.
But from that moment on I knew I would be a teacher for the rest of my life.
And, and I think one thing we have to do in our society is honor our teachers more … at every level. You know K through 20 in the research university.
Probably most, most importantly K through 12 because the single most important thing that happens in the classroom is the expectation set by the teacher and whether the teacher is able to, to … in a poetic way … evoke a response from a student. For you it was “Doc”, for me it was Charlie.
HEFFNER: You’re really saying we don’t do that, we don’t respect those.
SEXTON: I, I … we … we as a society, I think, have, have not honored teachers nearly as much as we must. And we haven’t honored learning … that’s … which you and I have talked about before … nearly as much as we must.
We haven’t honored thought, which you and I have talked about before, nearly as much as we must.
But the gravaman of it is to begin to honor the teacher.
HEFFNER: And what do we do, what steps do we take … are there any … or do we just shrug it off as “woe unto us”?
SEXTON: No, no … I, I don’t … we, we can’t shrug it off. I, I think first and foremost as many of us as possible have to take to the bully pulpit and talk about the importance of education. The primary importance of education because it drives everything.
The importance of thought. The primary importance of it. Because it is what makes democratic governance go.
And, and, and in the process we have to talk about the importance of, of teachers.
Now this does not mean, mind you, simply honoring a person because he or she has a title. Okay. So part of the process, I think, is, is beginning in a serious way to distinguish between those teachers we have now who deserve honoring and honor them. And then draw more and more of the high talent young people in, in the country into, into the profession of teaching.
Because it is honored and because if you’re good at it, it means something. So I … there are, there are things we have to do as a society which will determine, I think, where this nation is a hundred years from now. And they very much have to do with the way we treat teachers.
HEFFNER: Let’s go back to Charlie’s Prep … the school and then the man. What, what was the source of the influence upon you.
I know, from reading “Charlie’s Prep” that Charlie taught you how to be a great debater. Or at least he brought out in you those skills, that ability, those interests that made you a great debater. What about the school and what about the man?
SEXTON: Well, I, I think the, the setting is hard to imagine for, for students today or anyone younger than us. For me the cultural setting was extremely important.
So, my setting, by contrast to yours was, was Brooklyn as you can tell from this carefully preserved accent. And was Brooklyn Irish Catholicism. And Brooklyn Irish Catholicism in the forties and the fifties, so, you know, the Brooklyn that was dominated by the Dodgers and, and the church.
A Brooklyn in which Joseph McCarthy, not Gene McCarthy, but Joseph McCarthy was considered an icon. And, and where it could be said in a classroom … that same … probably the next class after the class I just described … in, in the tenth grade was taught by an extraordinarily progressive Jesuit priest.
If I said his name you would say “My heavens, a hero of the Left”. And I remember that “hero of the Left” later to be ordained as such writing on the blackboard the words “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” “outside the church there’s no salvation”.
And I remember going up after class and saying to this Jesuit priest, “does, does that mean that my best friend Jerry Epstein can’t go to heaven?”
And he said, “Unless you convert him, he will not go to heaven”. This was a very closed world.
HEFFNER: Then how did Charlie fit into it?
SEXTON: Well, there’s the thing … into, into this world in … walked this man who had, you know, gotten his graduate degree in English at Columbia who had dated Dorothy Day and, you know, was part of the Catholic Worker movement. And in he walks in 1953, two years before I got there in 1955. And the, the Jesuits … they’re such brilliant educators … I think the greatest educators in the world … and, and they, they didn’t know what they had in Charlie, but they knew they had something special.
And they began to, to encourage that. So essentially … I mean he took a group of us starting as, as … I start with tenth grade because in, in these days they were moving kids through the Catholic schools so quickly that some of us began high school in January. They, they just got us there in January …we were told to catch up by September, to be ready to be sophomores.
So we really didn’t start high school until that September when we got back after this breathtaking kind of do, doing a whole year of high school in about six months.
And, and then Charlie appeared and, and they gave a group of us, about 12 of us to him and, and for our sophomore, junior and senior year we studied with him in a course they just called “Charlie” because they didn’t know what to name it.
And, and he started off with the cave paintings of Altamira and percussion music. This is the 1950s remember. No one had ever, at this point, talked about multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary, or whatever you, you want.
And, and he starts doing history, literature, art and music down through the centuries.
HEFFNER: But he didn’t talk about that, he just did it. Right?
SEXTON: He just did it. He just did it. And, and … and, and it, it opened out minds dramatically.
You and I have done some shows on the move in NYU’s law school that was made … you know, which was simply, really noticing that American legal education was highly ethno-centric … that we never thought of anything but … in fact we trained people to take state bar exams, right.
And, and it was around the time that a claim was beginning to pour … in the mid-nineties … you know, I’d been Dean for seven or eight years … and people were beginning to notice what we were doing and they were turning from derision to praise. And I, I was, was in Mexico with my daughter then … about nine … and we’re climbing the pyramid of Teotihuacan and, and about halfway up, as I’m fighting my fear of heights … I hear Charlie’s voice coming back to me … from 1957 … we had read the “Book of the Dead” and he had the slides showing the pyramids at Giza on the classroom wall and he bellowed out to us, he said, “Boys you will never see these pyramids, because you can’t drive to them”.
You see we were mostly poor kids; we couldn’t get on the Queen Mary or a plane.
“But there are pyramids south of here, built by a great civilization. You just haven’t heard of these pyramids because the damned British didn’t rob these pyramids for their museums”.
So here he is already talking about the provenance of art, Euro-centrism. Or … and it just … this is, mind you, before the Vatican Council happened. This is before the Civil Rights, before the Women’s Movement, before the anti-War Movement.
And, and in this environment which was so closed and, and he just blew it apart.
HEFFNER: John, a question occurred to me as I read “Charlie’s Prep”. Did you go from there to here in a straight line in the sense … did Charlie resonate for you, always, from that first class? As “Doc” did with me.
SEXTON: Look, I … my career, as you know, is very serpentine and …
HEFFNER: I don’t know what you mean by that …
SEXTON: Well, well, serpentine in the sense that it moves and avulses and, and so on and, and it’s inexplicable except by tracing the straight line of Charlie’s influence.
I mean you mentioned, you mentioned the first and single most important thing which was about a month or two into that tenth grade he took me aside outside the classroom.
He said, “Boy, you must stop studying so much”. Now to have the teacher you respect most say to you “stop studying” … you know I, I was perched like at number two in the class with my 97 average, behind an extraordinary person Sean O’Connell, who never got anything wrong. He was at 100.
I mean Sean is a, a remarkable man. We remain in contact to this day. He’s the only living being, as far as I know ever to swim around the island of Bermuda.
So I mean he’s … when he sets to do something, he, he does it, you know.
And Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to get anything wrong”. So he said, “Stop studying so much” and he said, “Do something else with your mind.” And he was the one who suggested debate.
But then when I got to Fordham as, as, as a freshman … the natural thing would have been for me … Fordham had a very good college debate program. It would have been for me to debate in college … do what my parents and Father Tim Healey, who had recruited me, intended me to do …which is, you know, do well in school, become a Rhodes scholar, continue to move out of this kind of closed, closed environment.
But instead I wanted to be like Charlie. And I went out to this girl’s high school in Brooklyn, where my sister was a student and started a high school debating team there and started doing with them what Charlie had done with us.
So, it was not just a high school debating team. Monday night we did the history of art and music, with the same kind of slides that he had bought from the Chelsea Hotel.
And Tuesday with the great books. And every Wednesday we went to a museum and, and then we did debate. But then in, in … when June came … again Charlies appetite to experience … he had this phrase … “play another octave” of the piano.
If you haven’t played certain notes, play them. By which he meant, if you haven’t tasted the food, taste it. If you haven’t seen a place, try to get to see it.
“As long as it’s legal and moral,” he would say, “Do it at least once”. And … so I would take my society … I called it … the debating team … we’d get in the van in June and we’d go out for six weeks into the parks of the West … and go down into the Grand Canyon. Just doing what Charlie had done.
So it, it … you know, I can trace back … now, you know, there was a choice there. As, as, as you know, NYU students delight in the fact that they have a President who had a college grade point average of 2.1.
But I was out in Brooklyn with my society, 100 hours a week, if you included the travel over the weekends. And, and this was all playing out his value system in a way.
My father had died when I was young. My parents had kind of liberated me and believed in me and Charlie became the dominant influence.
And you can draw that straight line right through. I mean there’s a way in which I’m nothing but a Charlie knock-off. And proud to …
HEFFNER: I had that feeling, but I wouldn’t have put it quite that way … “nothing but a Charlie knock-off”. Very proudly so.
You know, we started by talking about the unhappy fact that we, as a people, don’t have that kind of feeling in general about our teachers.
You think that’s … the times you talk about the fifties, I could have talked about the thirties when I went to high school and “Doc” had his great influence …
SEXTON: Is that really true? I’ve always thought we were contemporaries.
HEFFNER: Oh, come on, John. Come on, John.
HEFFNER: Just because I’m so young looking. Look, I’m always the pessimist in the crowd and think those days are past. And I really ask you seriously, not about what we should do … what about whether it’s possible, whether you talked about before … what we value and don’t value … whether the past, past … not past perfect, but whether we … it’s too late in the day … the great teachers existed in my time, existed in your time.
But even then your school was closed, for crying out loud. “Charlie’s Prep” shut down. What do we have left? Where do we nurture what you say is needed? What happened to our educational system? I know something did.
SEXTON: Well, they’re, they’re, they’re two different questions here and let me focus on the one that will bring you to more optimism.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Try, please.
SEXTON: Let’s not talk about the educational system because that we really have addressed and we have to, in a way, decide as a society to, to re-orient ourselves and value it more, as I’ve said earlier.
But the thing that gives me great optimism is one, one can feel in, in, in the current generation of students and I’m talking about students here, students of extraordinary talent and when I say “here” I mean in the United States. And students around the world who, increasingly, are getting access to education.
And, and right through to higher education at the most advanced level.
And, and I detect in them an extraordinary altruism. And not just …
SEXTON: Yes. And not just latent. And, and it … they are, they are magnetized in dramatic ways toward service and, and towards a notion of a global civil society that is, is really inspiring. Both at NYU where we have literally hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteerism going on every year.
And I see in the spirit of our students a desire to go out into … whether it be “Teach for America”, which is overwhelmed with applications now or, or, or into ways of using their talent that provide, I think, a very different kind of balance than I saw in students even as recently as ten years ago.
But both at NYU in New York and then as we’ve begun to develop NYU in Abu Dhabi I’ve seen magnetized NYU-Abu Dhabi. Students literally from around the world … some of them out of tribal villages where they’ve educated themselves.
I mean one of the students who’s going to start there in September … home schooled himself to the age of 12 in his tribal village, walked to Addis Ababa, to beg for a formal high school education. Was only a year in the school, found he was living by himself in a cardboard box that he had built for himself, has not seen his family in six years, placed at the top of the Ethiopian National exams. And when you talk to him about what he intends to do, if he’s given a chance to go on to a college and graduate school education … it’s, it’s … the, the, the kind of inspiring hope for a life of service that I think bodes well.
So, I … you know, I think we’re going to see more and more of our young people moving into teaching. And as they do, I think we will see the system change. And change much for the better.
HEFFNER: You mean the system will provide room for Charlies and Docs?
SEXTON: Yes, yes. And you see some of that. I mean I’ve just had a young man … I’ll give you a story.
There’s, there’s a terrific Trustee of New York University by the name of Tony Walters and he and his wife Bea, who came out of Bed-Stuy and were Fresh Air kids, when they achieved success, the first thing they did was create Camp Dogwood. Which was a camp for kids that came from challenged backgrounds to, to come … they got tutors that worked with them right through high school and the first Camp Dogwood kid to come to NYU Law School was a young man named Rafiq.
And Rafiq became the, the head of the student bar association, the President of student body at NYU Law School. And could have gone anywhere. What has Rafiq done? This September he’s opening a charter school here in New York. And he’s heading a charter school. Now that’s the kind of young man that I think will change the system.
HEFFNER: I don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm and, in fact, I know darn well I couldn’t, no matter what.
Is there room in our schools today for Charlie? Where would he be today? Now, don’t give me the optimism and I won’t give you the pessimism. Where would Charlie be today?
SEXTON: Well, you know, I, I think of this …
HEFFNER: He was a maverick.
SEXTON: He was a maverick. He was a maverick. And, I mean I think of the fact that I, as a 17 year old first year teacher was teaching young women who were 18 and getting in a van with them and driving off with them on weekends. And, you know, being a positive influence in their lives.
But, would that happen today? Could that happen today? You know …
HEFFNER: What’s the answer to that?
SEXTON: Charlie, Charlie traveled with us … yeah … I mean you talk about him being a maverick … I mean he would take groups of us … we all knew his address … 212 Lincoln Road … it was four blocks … and, and he would post outside the teachers room the, the extra poem or book you had to read as admission to 212 Lincoln Road. And then when you got there, you never knew what it was going to be. It could be Verdi opera that would be on or a poem that would be analyzed. Or you could be piling into his car. We once got seventeen into his car, including … I was one of the four in the trunk …
SEXTON: … to drive over to the village to go to Felix’s restaurant on 13th Street where the waiters sang opera. It was the first time I had ever gone out for a meal.
And so could that happen today? You know, I, I, I hope so, but there, there are very good reasons why our society is wary.
HEFFNER: Very good reasons.
SEXTON: Some of them …
HEFFNER: Tell me.
SEXTON: Well, I mean …
HEFFNER: In the two, three minutes left.
SEXTON: I don’t, I don’t know that I would send my daughter off with a 17 year old young man driving around the country, going to debate teams, if, if she were a 16 or 17 year old. Because we know more about the dark underbelly of what appeared to be the establishment.
So there are rules. On the other hand, we have to find a way to unleash the Charlies.
HEFFNER: How did Charlie get away with it? How did the Jesuits let him do ….
SEXTON: Well, because …
HEFFNER: … he wasn’t a priest.
SEXTON: … because they knew and they made a judgment and they had the courage to do it. You know, this … and, and, and … it was manifest how effective and transformative he was.
I think what we have to do is recognize the possibility of that and not get caught up in, in, in the rules of it. As if … I’m going to give one story … it will serve many purposes just as we close.
I arranged for Charlie to be the first non-Jesuit to be in the, the Senior Care facility that the Jesuits have up on the Fordham campus. And God bless the Jesuits for taking him in and accepting him …
HEFFNER: At the end of his life.
SEXTON: At the end of his life. And I was … yeah, I would go up and have mass with him in the community up there. And spend time with him, virtually every weekend I was in town.
And one weekend a little bit earlier than this time of year, I was wheeling him around the Fordham campus … beautiful flowers. And he, he stopped me and he looked up and said, “Johnny, I’m going to invite you to a religious practice that I began myself 70 years ago.” Here he’s in his mid-eighties.
“I decided that no one of my limited capacity could commit a transgression that was worthy of God’s attention.”
So I decided I would stop confessing sins of commission and begin confession only sins of omission.
And I think in part that’s an answer to what you say. We, we’ve got to worry about the sins of commission and, and the evil-doers will be out there. But we’ve got to allow the Charlies, the creative, to, to express their creativity.
HEFFNER: John Sexton, what a perfect way to end the program. I got in one word, I think, about “Doc”, but your words about Charlie are so wonderful . Thanks for joining me today.
SEXTON: Thank you for having me, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.