Ethos

Ethos

This talk was given at the opening of Wildflower Montessori School by Sep Kamvar in January 2014. Wildflower Montessori School was the first school that implemented the Wildflower approach.

There is this wonderful quote by Frank Lloyd Wright, where he said: “I never design a single house without envisioning the destruction of the current social order.”

And while that was the kind of bombastic statement that Frank Lloyd Wright would say, there is an important truth to it, which is that it is useful to have a vision for the world even when designing something as small as a house, because that house will become part of the world.

So I’d like to talk about the school, but I’d like to begin by talking about the world.

And I’d like to start with a little personal story. Early in my time in graduate school, I went on a 7-day hike in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, right outside of Yosemite. I remember on the third day, the woods opened up into an alpine meadow, and it was breathtaking. The meadow was covered with wildflowers and butterflies. The birds were singing. There was a family of deer on one end, a crystal blue pond on the other end, a big sky above and mountains in the background.

I remember having this wonderful feeling come over me, one that was tinged with a little bit of sadness. You see, at the time I was living across the street from a strip mall with a big parking lot. So I saw this vision of a beautiful world that was possible, and there was a gap between that and the world that we have built.

And really, I saw that day as a metaphor for something I have been feeling for a long time. I see the problems that we face in the world: our wholesale degradation of the environment, a perpetual state of warfare, a sexism and racism that still pervade large swaths of our society, and a system that leaves 14,000 people living in poverty in this city alone. And I can’t help but imagine a more beautiful, a more peaceful, a more verdant world.

And if there is one wish I have for our children, it is that they grow up in such a world.

When I think about each of these problems that I describe — warfare, inequality, pollution — I feel that they are all related to one another, and that they are symptoms of a deeper illness. It’s difficult for me to describe that deeper illness, but I think I can do a better job describing its opposite:

A number of biologists that I respect say that the world is best described as a single organism. No individual or species can live in isolation, in the same way that no cell in my body can live in isolation.

I believe this to be true. And I believe that this truth has broad implications. It means that I am not separate from you, any more than my right hand is separate from my left hand.

And I believe that a society that acts according to this truth will understand that any aggression is self-aggression, any destruction is self-destruction. A society that acts according to this truth will understand that healing others is healing oneself, and helping the children of others helps one’s own children.

Which brings me to Wildflower. I’d like to start talking about Wildflower by stating something obvious: that every institution has values. This is true especially for those institutions that don’t say that they have values. An institution that doesn’t put its values front and center ends up slipping to the lowest-common-denominator values, giving primacy to those things that are easily measurable: like money, or position in a hierarchy, or ranking, or grades.

At Wildflower, the value that we hold most dearly is that everything, and everyone, is connected.

And I think it’s important to remember that values are not abstractions. In the same way that it’s impossible to become a good soccer player by thinking about soccer, we can only live our values by constant practice.

So we will practice this value, in all the little things. We will not meet our children’s misbehavior with punishment. We will lead our children, not by coercion, but by tapping into their natural inclinations to be peaceful and curious and good. We will do the same for the adults, not creating a hierarchy within the school staff, but allowing the faculty to operate in a network of peers. We will seek to serve and support all segments of the community, including and importantly, those most underserved by the traditional social system. And we will never see other schools as “the competition”, but rather seek to help all children, by publishing our research and open-sourcing our materials, and by helping other families to create schools like Wildflower.

There will be times that it is difficult to do these things, and we will welcome these times as a way to practice our values. Because if our children see us striving to help one another and others, day in and day out, over the next three years, they will understand, in a deep way, that everything is connected, and they will develop the compassion and courage that arises with that understanding.

And for me, that’s much more important than learning long division (although we will teach them that too.)

In college I was a chemistry major, and one of the things that fascinated me was the process of crystallization. You could put just a tiny drop of solute in a large amount of liquid and it would start a reaction that would eventually encompass the whole.

And sometimes, in my more euphoric moments, I feel that the big problems in the world don’t need grand solutions. That a small drop of the right thing can propagate.

And I don’t know if this is true, but I owe it to our children to try.