Monday 18 May 2020

Education and Free Will

In 1903-04, the future great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler, who were born a few days apart, both attended the same lower secondary school: the Realschule in Linz, Austria. (There is even a surreal class photo that purportedly shows both of them standing barely a meter apart, though there is some dispute among scholars as to whether the young Wittgenstein has been correctly identified.) The intriguing question therefore arises: how can the intellectual and moral influence of an educational establishment simultaneously help to shape such a brilliant and essentially benevolent mind as Wittgenstein’s, and the twisted, malignant mentality of the individual whose name, more than anyone else’s in the history of mankind, has become synonymous with evil?

Consider, in this light, Boston Latin School, the oldest (and first) public school in the United States (1635). It happened to be the alma mater of one of Ecolint’s founders, Arthur Sweetser – an indefatigable idealist in the field of international education, who moved heaven and earth not just to launch our school in 1924, but also to keep it afloat in the subsequent decades. (Later he also founded the United Nations International School of New York). Following his years at Boston Latin School, Sweetser went on to study at Harvard, and eventually became an enterprising and fearless journalist, covering the horror of World War I at close hand – on occasion, in the trenches. He subsequently joined the League of Nations in Geneva as Director of its Public Information Section, and later was a member of the U.S. delegation involved in establishing the United Nations. By all accounts, Sweetser was an exemplary, selfless human being, animated by elevated values. His memory is dear to Ecolint, and anyone who has charted his life and the photographic record we have of it will recognize him with a twinge of tenderness in the photograph below.

Arthur Sweetser (2nd row, 5th from the left)
Joseph Kennedy (back row, centre)

(This photograph was unearthed in Boston recently by another Ecolintian of distinction, who shares Sweetser’s status as a Boston Latin School alumnus: Dr. Burton Melnick, a scholar and author who taught English and Theory of Knowledge at La Grande Boissière for over three decades.)

This photograph of Boston Latin School’s baseball team in 1906 also features, intriguingly, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. – the future father of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Edward Kennedy. You could scarcely find a starker contrast in values, ideals and ethics than the one that existed between Arthur Sweetser and Joseph Kennedy. To state that Kennedy senior’s fortune was amassed by means of dubious business practices would be a colossal understatement. Worse still, as U.S. ambassador in the United Kingdom from 1938 till 1940, he advocated appeasement towards Hitler (in contradiction with the inclinations of his own president, Franklin D. Roosevelt), and he maintained anti-Semitic views all his life, arguing that the Jews in Europe had brought their misfortunes upon themselves. Later he became a friend and active supporter of the notorious witch-hunting senator Joseph McCarthy. Kennedy’s personal life betrayed the same abysmal moral standards and absence of scruples; he went as far as having one of his daughters lobotomized (without even consulting his wife about the decision), sent her to an “institute for backward youth” and never visited her again.

One may reasonably wonder how Boston Latin School fostered the humane sensibilities and altruism of Arthur Sweetser, and at the same time moulded the ruthless egotism and callousness of his exact contemporary, Joseph Kennedy. This is the same question that arises with respect to the above-mentioned Realschule in Linz. One could imagine that in the early 1900s both schools implemented a traditional XIX Century pedagogical mindset, emphasizing rigour, discipline, conformity, class-consciousness and a competitive, self-centred approach to academic achievement. If this assumption were correct, it might explain how the potential for megalomania and cold-bloodedness in certain children or adolescents was exacerbated by an educational system that emphasized relentless individual success over solidarity and compassion – but then we would have to wonder how such an environment could give rise to a Wittgenstein or a Sweetser.

Still, it would be facile to blame schools retroactively when some of their alumni eventually develop into deeply flawed human beings – or worse. Regardless of the prevailing prejudices and ideologies in a given historical period, no doubt the vast majority of teachers in both Linz and Boston were decent individuals who sought to inculcate attitudes and principles that we would recognize today as essentially ethical. Human beings are endowed with free will and – some degree of conditioning notwithstanding – ultimately bear responsibility for the decisions they make. Nevertheless, schools equally have a crucial responsibility to maximize their beneficial influence during a young person’s formative years.

Ecolint has a proud track record in this respect. Since it was created by high-minded educators and League of Nations officials in the wake of World War I, with the novel purpose of educating for peace, it has subordinated academic excellence only to its top priority: nurturing in children and adolescents key moral values, so that they will eventually become kind, compassionate and sensitive adults who never lose sight of the equal value of all human beings. It would, of course, be imprudent to claim that among the tens of thousands of young people who benefited from an Ecolint education there is none whose life was subsequently less than exemplary. The exercise of free will can lead any of us (no more than occasionally, one hopes) to betray the values with which we were raised. Nevertheless, what particularly stands out in the wonderfully diverse community of Ecolint alumni are the benevolence, humaneness, broad-mindedness and geniality that characterize its members. Anecdotal evidence may not be conclusive, but in the aggregate it is nonetheless significant: as the beneficiary of an Ecolint education myself, and an Ecolint teacher for more than 30 years, I have known thousands of our students and am intermittently in touch with hundreds of alumni. From this perspective, I have no hesitation in affirming a synonymity between an Ecolint alumnus and a decent human being. I can think of no nobler claim for any school.

Alejandro H. Rodríguez-Giovo
Foundation Archivist

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