“I believe that education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”
-John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed
Spirits of Hopkins
The auditorium at Benjamin Franklin High School is as dim and faded as the community that surrounds it.
The wooden seats are draped with the heavy coats and protest signs brought for the long march ahead.
The crowd, clusters of young and old, leans into the speeches to sort the earnest words from the echoes that chant them back again. A painted outline of the proposed incinerator belching smoke looms behind Kelly Klinefelter Lee, the English teacher at the school as steps to the podium and raises up a spirit from the past.
“The American philosopher and educator John Dewey said, “The only freedom of enduring importance is the freedom of intelligence, that is to say freedom of observation and of judgment exercised on behalf of purposes that are intrinsically worthwhile.”
Lee pauses for a moment, letting the room fill with these words from the past.
Published over three quarters of a century ago, these words by a Dewey, (Hopkins Ph.D. philosophy, 1884) still remain important revelations for our educational system. His ideas can be recognized in new initiatives for project based learning, service learning and community schools.
Then Lee adds her own voice, her own echo.
“When you come to school here at Ben (Benjamin Franklin High School) your teachers work to make you critical thinkers. Yes, reading and writing and calculating are important.. but we are also preparing you to be voters and parents and community members and maybe even someday, office holders.”
“I’d argue that our most important goal as teachers in a democratic nation is to teach you to use your intelligence and your skills to understand your world, to analyze the problems you observe in your community, to evaluate the decisions being made by your leaders and to use your voices to object when you object.”
“There is much to object to in the case of this incinerator. If built it would bring hundreds of trucks of trash imported from other counties and states into this community every single day. That trash will burn and turn out mercury, and lead, greenhouse gases and particulate matter into the air that we breathe. As young critical thinkers, you are looking at this situation and asking the right questions.”
“Aren’t there better and cleaner ways to make power for our city?
Don’t we owe our earth better stewardship?
And why is the incinerator coming to our neighborhood?”
“You students know that the children who will breathe the incinerators pollution are already asked to bear a bigger burden than most.
You know that the children of this community are more likely to be food insecure, more likely to be housing insecure, more likely to be the victims of crime than other children in Maryland. You know that the children in this community have been disproportionately affected by economic crisis and by government cuts. You know that the children in of Brooklyn-Curtis Bay go to under resourced and underfunded public schools and you know, Destiny, you just told us that these children already breathe some of the dirtiest air in Maryland and that their young bodies pay a horrible price for this.
So this is not just an environmental issue. It is a social justice issue.”
“It is a moment when our learning community has to ask our leaders– we must– why does this incinerator belong here, why does it belong here, in this community?”
“This is a cause that is intrinsically worthwhile to which we must develop our minds and our hearts and our best efforts. Students, thank you for sharing your time and passion in the service of your community.”
“We are blessed by your offerings and we are grateful for your leadership.”
As the applause greets Lee back to her seat among the crowd, it is clear that the ideas of John Dewey are alive here. His ideas can be recognized in project based learning, service learning and community schools. Studying stuff that matters. Solving problems in the world.
Dewey viewed education as a social process and the school as an institution which would create social reform.
As students march with their teachers, parents and supporters to the site of the proposed incinerator
their voices ring forward together to protect their families and community.
“Who’s City?” “Our City!” “Who’s City?” “Our City!”
It’s a cold mile march past piles of coal to the chain and barbed wire fence that surrounds the site of the proposed incinerator.
But as students talk about the pollution in their community, the class where all the kids had asthma, and the neighbors who have died from cancer,
there is an echo of another voice whispering from the past. Rachel Carson (Hopkins MA, 1932) pointed out the effects of chemicals on the ecosystem in her book, Silent Spring, a hauntingly beautiful love letter and requiem to the world. She urged us to realize that as part of nature, we too, taste the effects of the poisons we spread.
So when Destiny Watford worries that the incinerator could aggravate her mother’s asthma and when Michael Graham worries that people will be killed for profit, it is clear that these new voices will send their echoes into the future just as Carson did.
Our buildings, roads and universities often bear the names of those who have built and gone before. We travel on and through them to our destinations.
But it’s the invisible avenues of thought, practice and conscience that guide us best through our lives and toward our future.
At the dark end of the road, these voices from our past offer us light and compass to illuminate and choose our path.
They beat within our hearts and connect us hand in hand with those who went before and those who will follow.
The students, teachers and community of Benjamin Franklin High School are learning and marching together, shouting and singing their care for each other and their world.
Who will hear their echoes?