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Dreamers and Doers Echoes of the Past, Vision for the Future

by Rob Phillips, Head of School
Originally Published in Best of SAAS Volume 17 Magazine

 

I put my foot in cold water and hold it there: early mornings they had to wade through broken ice to find the traps in the deep channel with their hands, drag up the chains and the drowned beaver. The slow current of the life below tugs at me all day. When I dream at night, they save a place for me, no matter how small, somewhere by the fire. -William Stafford
Image: Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869 by Francis Ann Hopkins, Oil Canvas, Collection of Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada

Image, Canoes in a Fog, Lake Superior, 1869 by Francis Ann Hopkins, Oil Canvas, Collection of Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Canada 55.8.1

We eased the canoe towards the willow-covered bank and into the faster current that runs along the outer edge of the river’s turn. We were just a day into a week-long family canoe trip, on a river more than two thousand miles from Seattle in northern Canada, and anxious to set up our first camp. Our eyes were on the river’s edge, looking for a likely camping site.
Photo of Beaver Swimming
I

Which is partially why we were completely surprised by the sudden noise in the water, just a few feet ahead of our boat and towards the main channel.

When we heard the loud “Thwack!” right off of the canoe’s bow, we were all startled enough to send a shudder through the heavily laden canoe, and it took us a couple of breathless seconds to realize that we hadn’t run into a rock or submerged tree, and there wasn’t a bear or moose chasing us.

There was, however, one of the North’s most impressive and prolific creatures right in front of us. A beaver had eased out of one of its hidden canals that connected the river to a beaver pond a ways back in the trees, and had whacked its tail in the water as a warning that we were encroaching on its turf.

We watched for a little longer, drifting in the current, and then we resumed paddling.

A few minutes later, we paddled ashore on an island in the middle of the river, set up camp, and soon had a campfire going on the river bank.

As we sat by the fire, sipping coffee and hot chocolate and talking about the highlights of our day, we all agreed that finding this great campsite was topped only by getting to see the beaver up close and in action. They’re a remarkable animal, and their activities have played a central role in reshaping the landscape and human history of North America.

As my family reflected on our day, I reflected on what I knew about the pivotal role the beaver has played in the exploration of the North American frontier. Beavers were at the center of a complex and lucrative resource-based economic system that was central to both American and Canadian history.

But successful systems have a way of lulling their participants into a false sense of confidence and permanence...and then crashing spectacularly.

That false sense of confidence and permanence was

dashed one day in London in 1854, when Prince Albert decided NOT to wear his ever-popular and classy beaver felt top hat. He selected a silk top hat instead and wore it to a big party. In so doing, he launched a new fashion craze, and within a few short years, the beaver trade was snuffed out like a candle at bedtime.

I thought about how those graceful, industrious, and remarkable beavers that my family had encountered as we paddled serve in many ways as a good example of how entrenched assumptions, trusted systems, and venerated institutions can come crashing down virtually overnight.

And it doesn’t always take wars or elections or advanced technology to bring down our assumptions, systems, and institutions.

Sometimes, all it takes is wearing a new hat to a big party.

Long after my family had gone to bed, I sat by the campfire, drinking coffee and looking out over the river. A little after midnight, the sun dipped below the horizon into the perpetual dusk of the northern summer, and a mist settled over the river.

I peered into the wisps of fog and felt like I could almost see the canoes of the old beaver trappers emerging, heading downriver with bales of fur.

Generations of Native Americans, Canadian Voyageurs, and rugged American fur traders paddled the rivers of the North and West and set up their camps, secure in the belief that they were part of an economic system that was lucrative and completely reliable.

As I sat staring at the river, I wondered what assumptions we have for our kids and their futures that might be similarly flawed. What systems have we placed too much faith in? What questions aren’t we asking that we should be?

II

Beaver furs had long been valued in European civilizations, in large part because beaver fur is uniquely adaptable to being shaped into felt. In fact, in the oldest versions of Cinderella’s story, her slippers were made of felt from furs rather than from glass.

In the late 1660’s, an ounce of gold was not as unheard of as the price for a beaver hat. So as the European exploration of North America continued apace, gold-hungry explorers quickly recognized that the millions of beaver dams dotting the landscape were the REAL gold mines.

And for many of the more than five hundred Native American nations who lived in the land that was being “discovered and explored” by the Europeans, trading in the plentitude of beavers for tools, weapons, food, and blankets was a different but equally alluring and lucrative sort of gold rush.

In fact, a native trapper from the Cree Nation could, at a Hudson Bay post in the 1730’s, trade ten beaver pelts for a brass kettle, twenty iron fish hooks, two hatchets, eight knives, twenty flints for fire-starting, a gun and ammunition, two pounds of sugar, two pounds of tobacco, and one pound of trade beads.

That haul, for a Cree trapper, represented enormous wealth—and all for an animal that lived nearby in abundance.

But once the Cree trapper had staked his well-being on procuring a yearly supply of trade goods by trapping for the specific animals valued by the Hudson’s Bay traders, he had become on many levels a servant of the fur trading system.

Which meant that, whether he recognized it or not, his well-being was tied to the cross currents and riptides of a global economy and—unfortunately—to the whims of European fashion.

For over two hundred years, the circumstances of global enterprise and the whims of European fashion intersected in ways that produced favorable economic terms for the fur trade. The wealth generated by the fur trade was staggering, and that wealth and opportunity was distributed across a wide geographic and demographic spectrum.

Until it all suddenly came crashing down.

Within a few years of Prince Albert’s silk hat debut in 1854, the once politically powerful and eminently profitable Hudson’s Bay Company was in shambles, and the curtain closed on a profitable business and an entire resource economy that had thrived for over two hundred years.

And the individual trappers? Prince Albert’s fashion switch created an economic tidal wave that started in Europe, swept over the Atlantic, and smashed across the western settlements and the fur trading infrastructure of North America.

Hardest hit were the trappers who were the very foundation of the fur trade. “Early mornings / they had to wade through broken ice / to find the traps in the deep channel / with their hands, drag up the chains,” as William Stafford writes in the poem that begins this piece.

The skills they had acquired and honed became irrelevant or of limited value in the new economic contexts.

The resource was played out, and their skills were obsolete.

III

I see a number of discouraging parallels between the trust trappers once placed in the fur trade and the faith that our society asks students and parents to place in the American educational system.

Students collect knowledge and some fundamental skills, not unlike the way trappers were asked to collect furs. Trappers had a very specific role to play in a transcontinental supply chain. Success and failure were defined in concrete and unambiguous terms.

The architects of the modern American educational system were focused on America’s transition from an agricultural to industrial society, with students as the metaphorical products of an assembly line; ironically, students were also literally being trained to work on assembly lines.

The result: a modern American educational system that emphasizes standardized tests, standardized skills and knowledge, and standardized outcomes. And as in the case of the fur trade, success and failure are defined in concrete and unambiguous terms.

While the growth of private and independent schools was often in part a reaction against an educational assembly line aimed directly at industrial era jobs, many private and independent schools eventually accepted a dubious assumption: they accepted the premise that a meaningful education is whatever the most selective colleges define as success.

Many independent secondary schools and many colleges share the fundamental assumption that getting kids into the “best” possible colleges will automatically, magically prepare them for what comes next.

In making that assumption, independent schools haven’t moved away from the industrial era assembly line and its standardized product at all; they’ve merely targeted the assembly line to produce a different standardized product. And that product is determined by whatever the current criteria for college admissions process calls for.

It’s not hard to visualize students as modern day trappers who, after traversing the landscape of kindergarten through college, show up at the trading post with a canoe full of furs—in this case, their canoes are their brains crammed with bales of information gleaned by doing a ton of homework, writing scores of research papers, and taking countless quizzes and tests. They’ve done everything they’ve been asked to do.

A sixth grader who enters Seattle Academy in the fall of 2018 will most likely leave college and enter the work force in 2029. So that’s when they’ll “paddle” into the trading post of the Real World, with a canoe full of knowledge and skills to trade for entry into the job market.

What are the odds that the information, and even the skills, that they arrive with will be relevant and valued?

What will they know that can’t be answered faster by asking Siri or Alexa?

Lest our students and our children fall victim to the same trust in assumptions that befell the fur trade, they need to learn to ask the right kinds of questions–essential questions—about the Present and the Future.

“What’s happening in the world, not just in our backyard?” “What socio-economic fault lines are widening, and why?” “How can we better understand and address the ongoing divisions in our communities, and the deep and real impacts of historic injustices?”

“What is being prototyped in a lab right now that is changing what employers need from their workers and teams and leaders?” “How are robotics and artificial intelligence and virtual reality impacting the world and the workforce in real time?” “What are the jobs that their parents have right now that won’t exist in ten years?”

Those are not questions that are asked, much less well-answered, in most curriculums, on standardized tests, or in private school admissions brochures. And they aren’t questions that students are usually asked to respond to in the typical college admissions process.

 

Photo of Seattle Academy Students in Classroom

IV

We ask ourselves those questions at Seattle Academy every single day.

The rate of change facing today’s generation of middle and high school students upon graduation means that changes are occurring at an unprecedented rate in all facets of human existence.

The changes are not occurring at a constant rate, the way the tides erode a beach, or at the speed that our kids outgrow their clothes, or even at the rate that traffic builds into rush hour.

Seattle Academy doesn’t claim to have the answers to the questions above or to the underlying question, “What does the future hold for our students?”

Photo of Seattle Academy Students


But if we’re going to empower our students to face an unprecedented rate of change—that dynamic and challenging and potentially exciting future—we ourselves must think differently about what it means to educate them.

If our graduates are going to be able to meet the future head on, rather than be side-swiped by it, we must arm them with an array of diverse and meaningful skills that they will have tested and honed in moments of action. They will need to be able to think and act and speak on their feet, which requires a special kind of grace under pressure.

If our graduates are going to have a shot at effectively solving the problems they’re inheriting today, much less the challenges they’ll be asked to tackle ten to twenty years from now, they’re going to need to rely on a collaborative competency. And they’re going to need to be able to act upon a recognition and respect for inclusivity as the most practical and effective way to get multiple vantage points and multiple skill sets into the mix.

We’re going to have to produce a generation of leaders who are adept at rethinking what’s possible and at envisioning and implementing creative, innovative, and sustainable solutions. They’ll need to be able to see opportunities that nobody else has identified yet.

Unfortunately, schools often close rather than expand the aperture on how a student sees opportunities and thinks about what’s possible. Schools do that by defining Talent, Potential, and Giftedness in narrow and conventional ways.

Our schools are filled with brilliant pattern thinkers who comprehend the world on a deep level but who perhaps process traditional academic material more slowly.

So they aren’t considered Talented—by their teachers, their families, or even by themselves.

Our schools are filled with students who make and remake whole worlds with their hands, but who aren’t the type of verbally facile thinkers that schools are oriented towards rewarding.

So the kids who are better at doing than at saying see their Potential discounted.

Our schools are filled with kids who have an emotional intelligence that allows them to truly listen to others, to see a way to bring people together, and to get the most out of any group they’re placed in—but perhaps they struggle with traditional tests.

So their Gifts of emotional intelligence and intuition are either dismissed or at best patronizingly relegated to a supporting role for those who excel in the analysis of ideas and information.

Ironically, those very students whose Talent, Potential, and Giftedness are discounted and dismissed may be the very people who are now and will continue to be best able to see around the next corner: to think about, anticipate, and prepare us all for the future.


The future requires a generation of leaders who are willing to dare, who aren’t paralyzed by a fear of failure or limited by the narrow definitions of success that so many educational institutions have committed themselves to.

V

I sat around the fire long enough to watch the sun peek back up over the mountains in the early morning hours. And I stayed up long enough to watch the beavers emerge from their hidden canals into the river, eager to tackle their morning chores.

As I peered out into the early morning mist and thought about trappers and silk hats and the beavers swimming across the river, my head was filled with mostly unanswered questions.

But as the fire burned down, and as I sat there thinking, one of the beavers again crossed in front of me as I gazed out at the river, as if to say, “What about us? Those trappers are gone, but we’re not. We’re still here, swimming back and forth across the river, building our dams and canals and beaver lodges.”

And watching them steadily at work as the sun warmed away the mist on the river, I remembered that what was most unique about the beaver is how they are eminently at home in their environment. They are capable of adapting as their environment changes. And they can do more than adapt to change—they can shape it, make it, lead it. Beavers are Architects and Engineers. They are Builders and Shapers.

They have Creativity and Resilience in abundance. They are undaunted by challenges; they know what it takes to succeed; they are Doers. And perhaps they are Dreamers, as well.

        So maybe, just maybe...

        ...while they’re building their dams and canals

and houses, they’re also showing us how to understand Creativity and Resilience, and Talent, Potential, and Giftedness; and how to envision the task of preparing our students and our kids for an unknowable but fast approaching future.

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made. 
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say. 
  William Stafford

 

 

Photo of Seattle Academy Upper School Students on the Senior Yukon Trip