Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein… the Bard at Bard

VTR Date: June 27, 2010

GUEST: Dr. Leon Botstein


GUEST: Dr. Leon Botstein
AIR DATE: 06/26/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And for many years now I’ve tried to think of a special occasion involving my guest today – one on which I could firmly peg an invitation to join me here for one of our weekly conversations.

But seizing upon any ONE of those many occasions in which he has been in the public eye just seemed beyond me.

As when he became President of Franconia College in New Hampshire in his early Twenties.

As when, not yet Thirty, he became President of Bard College in New York…remaining so to this day.

As when he became Music Director of the American Symphony Orchestra, then Music Director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra as well.

As when he won many honorary doctorates, served on many boards, guest-conducted many orchestras.

As when he wrote books, reviews, articles galore…many having to do with importantly innovative and challenging thoughts about teaching and learning, such as his “new high school” and “early college” ideas…which he has gone on to put very much into practice.

And, of course, as when Leon Botstein, my distinguished guest today, received the Carnegie Corporation’s $500,000 Academic Leadership Award, described by Carnegie President Vartan Gregorian as designed for educational leaders who “See the university as an integral part of their communities, and view the health of K-12 education as central to the future of higher education.”

Indeed, today I would first ask my guest just how go his “new high school” and “early college” ideas…which he and Bard have now made important realties for so many youngsters. How do they go?

BOTSTEIN: Well, they’re doing very well. We have two public high school early colleges here in New York, one on the lower East Side and one in Queens. And we have Simon’s Rock which has been around a long time, which is more of a residential, private institution.

And we’re applying to the Federal government, believe it or not, to make this a national program. We were very pleased when the President, really a year ago during the summer, singled us out as something that is worth looking at as a model in his speech to the NAACP 100th anniversary.

So, these high schools here in the public sector, they’re not charter schools, they’re really public schools, do very, very well and on the basis of that performance we feel it could be really a national model. It could be replicated around the country.

HEFFNER: You know I, I warned you that I was going to say this, I was amused in reading back the last century … one of your many writings … something that you wrote in the New York Times and I wondered whether this was basic to your … “let’s get rid of that last year in high school, let’s start them in college early” idea.

You wrote: “Adults should face the fact that they don’t like adolescents and that they have used high school to isolate the pubescent and hormonally active adolescent away from both the picture book idealized innocence of childhood and the more accountable world of adulthood.” Basic to your activities?

BOTSTEIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean I think we live in a very hypocritical and puritanical environment in which … first of all, no parent tells the truth about his or her adolescence to their children. Which is a basic form of mistrust. We don’t have any parents who actually tell an 18 year or 17 or 16 or 14 year really what they did when they were 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.

I’m not suggesting they should, but it’s a basic recipe for mistrust. Second of all, people don’t like, especially in this culture, getting old. And so they resent the flower of youth. Childhood is okay and we love to segment childhood, this happened in the 19th century into the sort of Lewis Carroll, Peter Pan generation, where children were innocent.

Freud cam along and said, “Well, they’re not so innocent. Eros is part of human development; there is kind of a sexual motor, if you will.” People were horrified, scandalized by this idea. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, I’m not a sociologist. But we would love to keep that innocent, wonderful, problem-free little child all by itself.

So we have something called an elementary school, but we’ve developed a middle school which takes the cusp of puberty out of any danger of contaminating these wonderful, beautiful, innocent little children.

And then we segregate them into the middle school or junior high school which is a complete catastrophe. Then we A) segregate the high school student and we make a wall between them and adult responsibility.

Something which was unknown in the 18th century. In the 18th century people of 14 and 15 were apprenticed. They go real employment, real skills. They took responsibility for families … father died, mother died, they were really adults and very good adults.

People went to college at 15, the great composer Roger Sessions went at 15 to college. This was not that unusual.

In the upper classes people didn’t’ go to school at all. They just started university at an age which was reasonably appropriate.

What we’ve done is we’ve sort of pushed the adolescent out of view. We don’t know what to do with them. One day they’re an adult, one day they’re a child. They make us uncomfortable; they remind us of our worst selves …

HEFFNER: Our own (laughter) …

BOTSTEIN: … Right. We don’t remember our own adolescence, so they remind us of our worst selves. So we segregate them into this terrible thing call the American high school, which is a total failure.

And has ruined the ambition and the capacity of many young people. So in a way we’ve created a school system which shields us from the responsibility of doing something intelligent with the adolescent.

HEFFNER: And your “solution” to the problem?

BOTSTEIN: It’s one solution. The solution is to get the young person early to realize that learning is enjoyable, that’s part of their self-definition … can really make them powerful and important people.

That what happens in this country is that the adolescent is totally consumed by popular culture. Everything that is vulgar. This cuts across race and class. It’s not only poor that are disadvantaged by what we do, but the rich as well.

And so, even though the consumer industry knows that the adolescent is an important factor … in fashion, in entertainment, in lots of things … in education we treat them like large children. They need to be exposed to people who really love subjects, are really engaged in learning.

We do this in music regularly. You know, a young kid who is 12 … can play well, sits next to someone who’s 25 and plays … no one cares how old he or she is.

They only care how well they play. They get a sense of real competence. We do it in sports to some extent, too. There we do give young people responsibility. It’s one of the things we do well. Get a young sports team in high school and train them and they do well. That’s great. It happens to be only sports, but we could do that in science, we could do that in all the areas of learning and study that are important to the economy and to the nation.

Young people deserve to be taught at age 14 and 15 by real professionals, real physicists, real mathematicians, real biologists, real writers, real historians.

Not people who went through an Ed School program or in the business of “managing” an age group. And get rid of the age segregation. Nothing would do a 14 year old more good than being together with a 30 year old who’s lost his or her job and is going back to school, with someone who really understands the value of education.

We used to have that when we had very large families. Where the older children took care of the younger children. And they had adult responsibilities. We don’t do that any more

HEFFNER: Have you got a tinker’s chance in hell of putting that into practice beyond the schools you at Bard have established?

BOTSTEIN: I believe so. Because I would never have given it a bat’s chance in hell, as the phrase goes, to do it in the public sector. I was so amazed when Harold Levy and Mayor Giuliani asked us; I was so amazed when Chancellor Klein and Mayor Bloomberg asked us to do a second one.

These are not charter schools. These are not specialty issues. These are public schools and they came forward with the ideas … can you do a public high school/early college? Can you make it work? We’ve shown it can work in the largest urban school system in the United States. It can work all over the country. And there are a lot of programs beginning now that do something like it.

I think we have the best model because we give the young people two degrees. So the young people actually save the society a lot of money. The kids that graduate our school end at the end of the twelfth grade with a junior college degree. And that means they can cut two years out of their schooling and most of them go to public institutions. Both high school and in college. So it’s a very efficient response.

You know, the Right Wing always wants us to know that you can solve social problems by throwing money at them. Well, this is one case where they may be right. The number of years of public schooling, we do too little for too long. We could make them shorter and more effective.

HEFFNER: If you had to criticize your own ideas, what would be the major criticism of this approach?

BOTSTEIN: The two criticism are that how do you get young people ready for it earlier, so it’s a little bit … a segment … you know, at the end of a process. So you have to select the young people, but you can’t select them by test. I don’t believe in the standardized test as a judge or a predictive instrument.

So you have to get the people in and you have to see what’s their motivation. Now they may have gone to a bad middle school. So there’s the problem of getting young people ready at age 14 and 15 to do this. That’s one problem.

The other problem is that, you know, you’re, you’re entering the situation late. The best thing to do would be to try to re-think the whole teacher training process.

This is one solution that depends on a very good supply of Ph.D.’s and young people who really want to teach. The weaknesses are we don’t train people in graduate school very well to teach, especially go to graduate school in, in many fields, such as in the sciences, we don’t actually do a terrific job in training them how to teach. We have to do that. So there’s a weakness there and finding enough people to do this well.

You also, there’s a weakness in making sure you have partners. Now Bard has two of them. Getting other colleges and universities to sign on …

HEFFNER: So that’s a key.

BOTSTEIN: That’s a key. You have to have people saying, you know, a department of physics at a university in Houston, or in Kansas or in Chicago or in California … say, “We should be doing this”. Convincing the liberal arts colleges and the universities … not the “ed” Schools … but the …

HEFFNER: You really …

BOTSTEIN: … faculties of arts and sciences ….

HEFFNER: … you really have it in for the “ed” schools, don’t you?

BOTSTEIN: “Ed” schools are … they were a very good idea in the 19th century, they don’t work any more. There is no real science of education. We should train teachers the way we train doctors, where they’re trained by master teachers on the job, clinically. But the things they should study are the subject matter.

A young person who teaches mathematics to an elementary school kid who doesn’t understand mathematics will create math anxiety. Kids have math anxiety because their teacher doesn’t understand it. He or she just has the work book.

Teaching the fundamental things about mathematics and science are the hardest things to do. The same is true of music. You know Feynman the great physicist who won the Nobel Prize is reputed to have said, “If you can’t explain it to a freshman in physics, you don’t understand it.”

So, it’s explaining something to a child, what is a number? How does a number work? What’s the magic of numbers? But the people teaching arithmetics don’t, don’t know that. The same with the geometry.

So the problem begins much earlier because we don’t train the teachers by the subject, we train them by the age they teach … with an elementary school degree.

HEFFNER: Is there nothing to that …

BOTSTEIN: (Huge cough)

HEFFNER: … is there nothing to the notion that there is such a thing as teaching how to teach?

BOTSTEIN: There is something. But that’s only the way you teach surgery. You don’t learn surgery simply, simply from a text book …

HEFFNER: Mean try it.

BOTSTEIN: You have to …under the supervision of somebody who can prevent you from killing the patient. The same is true of baseball. When you have a young, talented kid who learns to play baseball, you don’t tell her or him to study the rule book and memorize it. They learn the rules by playing, by hitting the ball, by running to the wrong base. They run to third base instead of first base … they’ll never do it again because they know … they’ll discover it’s wrong in a real situation.

So we need to train what we know about teaching well in a practical circumstance. But the study in the classroom, the B.A. and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees that we give educators, should they not be in educational methods or philosophy … but in subject matter.

You know, for me to train someone or someone to train me and get around the peculiarities of my own learning … not everybody learns the same way … nobody … not all people retain information the same way. Knowledge is mostly an approximation … different kind of approximation.

So how do you get around every kid’s ability, especially with computers now … where you can individualize things … how do you get around the kids ability to understand or not understand something?

If you understand the subject very well, you can try to explain it different ways. If you just have the workbook, you don’t know how to solve the young person’s inability to understand the situation.

HEFFNER: Why do I have the sneaky feeling that what my friend Leon is suggesting here is going to lead even to more of a sense of elitism, that he is aiming at … not aiming at … he is inadvertently going to create there … he’s going to further the gap between the rich and the poor …the rich intellectually and the poor intellectually.

BOTSTEIN: It’s a very good and the most important question. And the tragedy is that I believe what I’m arguing for will close that gap. It’s the exact opposite.

The sticker of elitism that the Liberals or the Radicals put is actually a little bit of both racism and snobbery.

HEFFNER: Explain that.

BOTSTEIN: The truth is that the reason that poor and the minority populations perform poorly is they’ve been given bad schools, bad teaching and not the serious opportunity. If you give them the opportunity to really gain a serious education, they’ll perform as well as anybody else. The notion that there’s a conflict between equity and excellence is actually a terrible conceit which is not right.

What we are arguing is that the educational malaise is not race or class based, it cuts across all classes. The rich aren’t doing well, our private schools are not good. And the kids that go there are not necessarily inspired to do the things the country needs.

We’re not producing enough engineers, not enough scientists … the economy of the future depends on knowledge and on creative capacity to think and to innovate in very sophisticated areas. We’re not training those people, either among the rich or the poor. The school system is broken across those lines.

So the argument that we’re trying to put in very high standards of inquiry, or curiosity, of learning … every child, poor, Black, White, Hispanic, immigrant, native borne is capable. There’s no evidence there’s any difference.

So what we are doing is saying that the most inspirational thing, even for the poorest person, is actually the highest quality education.

We have one proof. We run the largest prison education program in the country …

HEFFNER: I was going to ask you about that.

BOTSTEIN: You should see … they’re primarily African American men … the quality of what they do, the quality of their level of work and inquiry matches any privileged undergraduate. These are the poorest, most disadvantaged men who entered a field of, of crime as a young person. Got arrested. Convicted and sent for long terms in prison. You should see the quality of their intellectual work … the command of language, of mathematics. They’re not learning a trade, they’re learning the liberal arts, the highest end.

So it seems to me that this is not creating elitism, in fact elitism is a word which is used, I think, to shied real opportunity from those who have been blocked from that opportunity. What we are offering in these high schools, is a reconciliation of excellence and equity.

Because our schools are not all White. Our schools are not all rich. Our schools are public schools that mirror the demography of the City of New York.

HEFFNER: How goes it in other nations in the world. Where are we in relation to that?

BOTSTEIN: This is a, an interesting question. I think we do reasonably well because we attempt to have a democratic system. Poor as it is.

What’s happening in Europe is that they have a tradition of segregating kids at an early age, 11 or 12 …


BOTSTEIN: … so a very small percentage of their population ever gets to have access to the university. So if we compare the elite of Americans with the elite of Europeans, we do very well.

We do the aggregate just … we, we don’t do well because we are actually trying to do something which the Europeans have never tried to do, which is have a uniform educational system. That doesn’t segregate at an early age by so-called “testable ability”. Doesn’t have different “tracks” for different people. Some of which don’t end up in the university track.

So we have a much more democratic system. So we compared ourselves to other democratic systems, it would be interesting to see how well we do. We could do better. But we also have a different agenda.

We’ve always believed, American always believe that the educational system is an integral part of training for democracy. That’s why we have a common school. Now we haven’t done a very good job, we have more degree holders out there, more people have graduated high school and college, and the quality of our political debate has never been worse. So I’m not persuaded that there’s a direct correlation between how long people stay in school and the quality of the political conversation.

But, our school system needs to be compared only with those school systems where there is a real democratic effort to, to reach all the population in a mixed way … in an integrated way. We don’t segregate at 11 or 12.

HEFFNER: And the question of … here you write “The real problem in American education in my point of view is the way we deal with adolescents …” you made this point. “For all the talk of early childhood and pre-school, the real locus of crisis is from the onset of puberty to the early 20’s. There is … that is a kind of black hole for everyone except the very gifted and talented … even with them, we’re not doing as well as we could. We haven’t figured out how to inspire real ambition and a love of learning in the adolescent group starting with middle school through to the … really, to the end of college. It is this love of learning …”.

You re, return to this many times in what you, in what you write. You, you, you write here, “Education for citizenship and the development of civic virtue are best realized by placing the joy and obligation of a serious education unto the individuals during the early years of adolescence.”

Then you write, “The overwhelming and deadening uniformity of mass culture, the thoughtless appropriation of language and opinions through instruments of mass communications and the increasing inability to distinguish truth from fiction need to be counter-acted.

What do you mean by that “the inability to distinguish truth from fiction”? Who are we? What are we …


HEFFNER: … that that we can’t or don’t?

BOTSTEIN: This is a … a larger …

HEFFNER: In the five minutes we have remaining.

BOTSTEIN: … there is a larger cultural issue. You know we live in a time … the last 30 years … where the thing people value most is fame and money.

HEFFNER: Different from other times?

BOTSTEIN: No, I don’t … different … I, I wasn’t around. You know I’m not a person who suffers from nostalgia. I’m around now, so I’m critical of what happened now.


BOTSTEIN: I don’t need to criticize by saying “It used to be better.” I don’t believe it used to be better. I hate people who hammer us with “I remember when …”, well, it was never so good.

I can’t imagine a time in the past … I would prefer to live, if I even had a choice. I can think of what the Era of Concentration camps, the era of the First World War, the era of slavery. I, I have no romance with the 18th century or any past era.

But for our own era there is a tremendous amount of short term thinking. About fame, about money, about gratification. There’s a kind of narcissistic spin to our definition of success. And the attention span is very limited. So, in that context, teaching people to love the conduct of science, to have real inquiry, to, to entertain themselves with things that don’t move so quickly as, let’s say, the Avatar film.

Things like that, in other words where there’s a real engagement with one’s imagination and capacity. We’re wonderful machines … human beings, filled with imagination, things that are unexpected. And the creative possibilities that we have are underutilized and therefore we suffer anger because we’re bored.

You know much of anger and violence, in my view, derive from a sense of boredom and meaninglessness. And we have all the equipment to develop meaning … why do we do it so rarely. And if there is a revival of meaning, it’s in a kind of standardized religiosity and spirituality which has its downsides as well. So it seems to me …

HEFFNER: A concern of yours?

BOTSTEIN: Deep concern of mine. And so, it seems to me that the confidence of the human capacity to invent the sense of the sacred which we have … if there were a God … to do things that are, really of our own making through the use of our intelligence. That requires training, training already from childhood and a real idealism, discipline and ambition. And that’s in short supply because we’re in the fast track … make it rich quick … be famous briefly … environment.

Where, you know, we can’t remember the names of anybody but the gold medal winner in the Olympic competition, when in fact, most of the people competing are fantastic at what they do. And they’re unhappy because they suffer anonymity. Why is this kind of mass stardom something we admire. Why do we follow the rich and famous?

HEFFNER: Now, we have a minute left. You can answer the question that you just asked.

BOTSTEIN: I don’t know. It’s because …

HEFFNER: How are we going to get out of this?

BOTSTEIN: By example, I think. I think that … I, I learned the example of my own parents and grandparents. I saw people who were truly happy using their minds.

HEFFNER: Leon Botstein you must see that up at Bard College, too.

BOTSTEIN: We try to foster it.

HEFFNER: And you must see it as you conduct your orchestras.

BOTSTEIN: We hope to.

HEFFNER: Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

BOTSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

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.”

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.