When I was United States Commissioner of Education, Joan Coney, the creator of Sesame Street, came to see me and said that the Children’s Television Workshop wanted to create a new program on Science and Technology for junior high school students so they could understand more about their connectiveness to the natural world. It subsequently was fronted and called “Three Two One Contact.” You may have seen it. Doing background work for that project, Children’s Television Workshop surveyed some junior high school students in New York City, and they were asked such questions as “where does water come from?” and a sizable percentage said the faucet. And they were asked where does light come from, they said the switch. They were asked “where does garbage go?” and they said down the chute, which was better than “out the window”. I think its not unfair to say that the sense of connectiveness for most of our students goes about as far as the VCR and the refrigerator door and the light switch on the wall, which is a dangerous and ignorant relationship to the ecology of our planet. I’m suggesting that with all of our differences, every single one of us is inextricably connected to the natural world, and all students during their days of formal learning should explore this commonality by studying the principles of science, by discovering how technology has profoundly shaped their own lives, and above all by learning that our very survival on this planet means not only understanding but preserving the uniform we share together.

Finally, all people on the planet, regardless of their unique heritage or tradition, are, I am convinced, searching for a larger purpose. We all seek to give special meaning to our lives. We cannot be, in an ethical and moral and spiritual sense, disconnected. Reinhope Neibuhr put it precisely when he said “Man and woman cannot be whole unless they be committed. They cannot find themselves unless they find a purpose beyond themselves.” And when all is said and done, a truly educated person is one who establishes values and beliefs, or to state it in an old fashioned way, as my Grandpa might have put it, “someone who has convictions.

During my study of the American High School I became convinced that we have not just a school problem but a youth problem in this country. I was struck that for far too many teenagers they feel unwanted and unneeded and unconnected to the larger world and without guidance and direction they lose their sense of purpose at a very early age.

Rachel Lindsey wrote on one occasion, “It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull. Not that they sow but that they seldom reap. Not that they serve but have no God to serve. Not that they die but that they die like sheep. The tragedy is not death. The tragedy is to die with commitments under-fired, with convictions undeclared and with service unfulfilled.” And with all of the controversy that surrounds it, I remain convinced that if school is the place where values are examined, not that answers are dictated, but it provides a climate that makes honorable request. I also am convinced, as I look back on my own schooling, that the search for meaning was not taught so much in the curriculum, but it seemed to be taught most effectively by great teachers who modeled values in their own lives.

Several years ago I couldn’t sleep and instead of counting sheep I counted all the teachers that I’d had. There were a few nightmares in the bunch but I can tell you there were three or four, or more, I remembered with great reverence because they profoundly changed my life. I remember a university professor in a Shakespeare seminar who used to read Shakespeare aloud in class – King Lear and Mac Beth – teaching me that literature is not an ancient language, its an inquiry into the deepest yearnings of the human spirit. I remember Mr. Whitlinger, a High School teacher who said one day after class “Ernest you’re doing very well in history, if you keep this up you just might be a student”, which was the highest academic accolade I’d ever had. You mean I’m not a cowboy, I’m something Mr. Whitlinger called a student. I remember my first grade teacher who on the first day of school said “Good morning class, today we learn to read.” Fifty years later I wrote a book on High School, I had a chapter called the centrality of languages, it occurred to me it wasn’t just an accident, it was the influence of an unhallowed first grade teacher at Fairview Avenue Elementary school whose influence lives on for ever likes ripples of a pond. “What made these teachers truly great?” I asked myself one day, and it occurred to me there were four characteristics that we all share in common, even though they were very, very different. Every teacher I had was knowledgeable and well informed. There was something there to teach. But that doesn’t make a great teacher or one whose influence is enduring. I’ve had teachers who were knowledgeable but were terrible in their teaching.