What We Don’t Know: Uncertainty and Fairhaven School

(The following was presented by Fairhaven School staff member Mark McCaig at the 2011 Fairhaven Sudbury conference and then again last Friday for parents in the Chesapeake Room at Fairhaven School. The talk opens and closes with a video clip of former United States Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin reading a poem and answering questions posed by Bill Moyers.)

W.S. MERWIN: That must be “The Nomad Flute.”

You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget
do you hear me
do you still hear me
does your air
remember you
o breath of morning
night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it
but I know better now
than to ask you
where you learned that music
where any of it came from
once there were lions in China
I will listen until the flute stops
and the light is old again

BILL MOYERS: “I have with me all that I do not know. I have lost none of it.” What — how do you carry with you what you do not know?

W.S. MERWIN: We always do that. I think that poetry and the most valuable things in our lives, and in fact the next sentence, your next question to me, Bill, come out of what we don’t know. They don’t come out of what we do know. They come out of what we do know, but what we do know doesn’t make them. The real source of them is beyond that. It’s something we don’t know. They arise by themselves. And that’s a process that we never understand.


So the topic that’s been inspiring me ever since I saw this interview is the very idea of uncertainty, what Merwin calls “what we don’t know.” This evening I just want to spend a few minutes looking at what we don’t know and what that might mean for us as parents and students at Fairhaven School.

This idea has been growing on me and in me for, well, about 49 years. When we started Fairhaven School in 1994, however, I wasn’t too burdened by the notion. In fact, I knew it all: I had read Summerhill, all the SVS books, I had visited Sudbury Valley, and I had been teaching for ten years by then. I knew everything I needed to know, and was happy to tell people how it would all play out in Fairhaven School just as soon as we could find a building.

Eighteen years later, and man has it been easy. A piece of cake. Thousands of JC cases, over a thousand admissions inquiries, thirteen staff elections, two dozen Assembly budget meetings, two buildings built, maybe ten school plays, one flood, one mythical cougar, hundreds of sharks teeth from the stream, I think five police cars on campus, one heart attack in the parking lot,  one poisoned well, one Sudbury conference hosted, and now a grant for a poetry series. I stand before you tonight, somewhere on the other side of knowing, and that’s okay.

My sense is that all of the elements of our school rely upon a certain agnosticism: a not-knowing. Our bedrock commitment to academic and intellectual freedom springs from not knowing what is best for each of our young people. Likewise, although it is dependent upon ground rules of procedure and process, our commitment to democratic decision-making is ultimately also a commitment to not knowing how things will turn out. The age-mixing of students? We support that because we do not presume to know who should associate with whom as they grow and develop.

My experience as a staff member at Fairhaven often feels like the more I know, the less I know. How do people grow and develop, really? A former colleague likened the process to alchemy. Brain chemistry, nutrition, psychology, genetics, screen time, mammal behavior, divine intervention: people are studying education and human development more than ever, but still so much remains a mystery.  Thank goodness. The inexact nature of people is surely why we defy the curriculum-driven model churning out students all around us. I submit also that life itself is suffused with uncertainty, and letting our students become comfortable in an atmosphere of relative uncertainty is our overarching gift to them. Now I say relative uncertainty because, of course, our schools are democratic, not anarchist. That’s a whole different, and very interesting, topic. So far, we have agreed to the relative uncertainty of democratic process.

I’m going to interrupt this vague look at uncertainty for some analysis of what we do know. With apologies to anybody with mathematical training or inclinations, here are some axioms to underscore what we do know:

Twelve Formulae

1.    Trust +Time = Increase In Trustworthiness/x. The longer students are here, the more amazing they become. In your mind’s eye, compare long-term students to the one and dones. There is usually a significant, qualitative difference. The x factor is parents, so all positive growth in students can be divided by parental concerns.

2.    A Rise in Number of Students = Positive Growth in School Culture

3.    Corollary One: One wrong student (what someone called Johnny Toxic from a previous Sudbury conference) can exponentially decrease growth in school culture. Corollary Two: one wrong staff member decreases school culture on another whole order. Think poisoned well.

4.    The number of students who say they’re not coming back next year is not equal to the number of students who are actually not coming back. This formula has considerable variation, but is so far always true, especially in February. (On a side note, can we just strike February altogether? At least here, it seems always to be cold, gray, and wet, with giant heating bills, JC busier than usual, School Meeting referrals, and plenty of students and parents grumbling about not coming back. On a side note to my side note, here’s all you really need to know about education philosophy: (I know some of you have heard this before from me) barometric pressure is the number one short-term indicator of school culture. If I were a data person, I’d have already run a program to cross-reference number of JC cases as compared to low pressure days and high pressure days. I can guarantee some synchronicity.)

5.    In terms of formula: The higher the barometric pressure, the lower the number of JC cases.

6.    The lower the barometric pressure, the higher the number of JC cases.

7.    Staff/Student ratio at Fairhaven School is not a real number. Often, classes are one-to-one, maybe three-to-one. A Capture-the-flag game can be 30 to zero.

8.    The number of budget meetings is infinite, because you can (and will) always add another one.

9.    Boys + electronics at school= worried parents.

10.    Number of student feet minus the number of shoes worn is greater than zero, often much greater than zero.

11.    Number of students embracing freedom at Fairhaven School is greater than the number of students embracing responsibility at Fairhaven School. Fortunately, this number is never fixed, as students are taking on more responsibility daily.

12.    Number of people who completely get Fairhaven School is, thus far an empty set. Myself included.

And this is precisely because of the uncertainty factor…

Here lately, the economy is also an enormous unknown. Ditto the environment. Given these enormous questions, what do young people need to know in order to become successful? We think they must, first and foremost, know themselves. Each student becomes an expert, by way of experience, in their strengths and their weaknesses. As they grow here, they deal with both. If they’re an artist, they get to improve their art. Bakers bake more. Writers write, and musicians play. Likewise, if they have gaps, they work on them. Math a problem? Darned if they don’t eventually work on their math. Can’t throw a frisbee? Get in the game and improve. Trouble keeping friends? They learn the complexities of relationships through trial and error. Shyness holding them back? Slowly they come out of their shells. The blank slate of Fairhaven enables all of this, driven by burgeoning self-awareness.

Sometimes the temptation for parents is overwhelming in all this uncertainty, and nowhere does that manifest more than on the touchy subject of classes. To be clear, we are not anti-academic here. classes at Fairhaven can be amazing. Still, our experience has been universal: students do best when parents resist the natural impulse to reduce the uncertainty and suggest that their children take classes. Maybe just one…In my classes, I can almost always tell when a student is there because someone else wants them to be there. The difference between students who are taking a writing class by choice and students who are taking the same class because of coercion is unmistakable and qualitative. The reminder here is to trust the process. The more we let go, the more our young people assume responsibility. Is it difficult? Yes. Does it matter? Absolutely.

My colleagues and I come into work every day not just for what we know, but for what we don’t know. Think about it: all those students—what will they do today? School Meeting, JC, all of these components having “play” in them. Here at Fairhaven, we had our largest graduating class ever, a remarkable class of calm, solid citizens. Who will fill the gap when students leave? Remarkably, as happens every year, new students have filled the gaps our graduates left.

Back to poetry, before I embraced Merwin’s not knowing, I used to lie awake in bed planning out a poem: how bad those poems always turn out! So I’m talking here about the value of letting go. My friend Linda Jackson says that staffing at these schools qualifies as an art form, and I believe there is a certain agnosticism regarding any art: the creative process remains thankfully unknowable. Does anybody know the term “negative capability?” The late Romantic poet John Keats wrote the following in a letter to his brothers, dated December 21, 1817:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason –

Sometimes I wish people still wrote and talked that way. Beats text messaging in my book. But I digress…So we’re not talking about anything new here. Aristotle and Plato attacked poor Heraclitus and his skepticism, clear in their position that everything is know-able. logic, reason, the laws of nature. Let me be clear, I am not advocating a position against logic, reason, mathematics or the laws of nature. These are the bones, maybe even the musculature of day-to-day life here on campus. But what constitutes the nerves, the emotions, the humor? What makes this place this place? I think it has a lot to do with what Keats calls negative capability, with what I’m calling “what we don’t know”: it’s the mystery, the play at the synaptic center of all the things we value, especially things that involve creativity and imagination.

Keats, by the way, does not use the concept of negative capability to support art that is sloppy, slapdash, or slipshod. Of course there are things to learn, and ways to improve one’s art. As a poet, I do workshops, I revise, I read other poets, etc. As much as anything, though, I must spend time actually in the creative process. Likewise as a staff member, I constantly look to improve my performance. I talk with staff members from Sudbury schools around the world, I read what they’re doing, I listen to feedback from parents, students and colleagues. We all work hard at it, and we learn how to do this work every day. Students undertake the same process of questioning, talking and learning every day, and they work hard at it as well. Imagine the energy they expend every day just by being in charge of themselves. Agency is hard work.

Paradoxically, I’ve learned that another element that supports my writing is also at play here on campus. Just like our students, I must waste time. Here’s a quote from one of my teachers, the poet Mary Ruefle:

To write poetry, one must waste a good deal of time, one must simply “be,” one must wander around with no particular aim, and it is precisely from such a lacuna that poetry arises. It is hard to explain, like most important things. But in today’s world it has become harder and harder to waste time. Artists are desperate for the simplest thing on earth: being.

Although I think both Ruefle’s and Keats’ notions ring true for students’ lives here at Fairhaven, I think they can also inform staffing. There are many, many elements that make a strong staff member, and that has been written and talked about for years. Work ethic, sense of humor, integrity, respect, passions….the list goes on and on. At Fairhaven, though, some of my most important moments as a staff member arise when I plunk myself down in a chair somewhere and “waste time.” I remember Hanna Greenberg wrote years ago about what she called “the art of doing nothing.” When I just hang out, or play a game. When I completely give in to the uncertainty of the moment. Conversely, I know I’m not staffing my best when I’m always on task, when I’m unavailable to just be with students.

And although certitude is at times a vital element of the equation, today I’m suggesting that time spent in uncertainty is also a core element to being at Fairhaven. This can mean time spent at a Sudbury school, and I think it’s a reason why former students can make such wonderful colleagues. Perhaps also it can be time spent in the creative process. Surely, sometimes artists have become very solid staff members. Ultimately, I guess a comfort level with uncertainty can mean time spent here on planet earth, and this underscores why we have identified the value of life experience itself as an essential to successful staffing.

Wildlife biologists will tell you it’s the edges that have the most activity and diversity: where reefs meet the ocean, where watering holes meet the savanna, the shoreline where the sea meets the land, even the simple thicket between filed and forest. That’s where life tends to be thickest. Of course all of these places are dynamic, changing places. Places of uncertainty. Edges tend to indicate what we know, and what we don’t know, don’t they? Isn’t this fluid delineation the edge that schooling should walk? Isn’t this lush uncertainty the very demarcation of growth and development?

Anything that’s fun seems to have a “not knowing” element. Take baseball. Six months out of the year, I listen to baseball games on the radio. Here’s this intricate game on a lined field, a game obsessed with statistics. These days it’s not just batting averages, earned run averages, RBIs and hits anymore, by the way. There are whole new categories of geekdom out there for baseball fans. “OPS: Onbase plus slugging percentage” “WAR: Wins above replacement”. Then there’s fantasy baseball, where you pick your own teams and apply their statistics. But what keeps my attention is the play at its core: will the batter get a hit or not? Will the pitcher throw a curve or a fastball? I read the Washington Nationals box score the next day—all that certitude in black and white—, but it’s the uncertainty that keeps me tuning in the games. Same for all of the play that happens here on campus Dungeons and Dragons (still alive and well here at FHS, thank you very much), Super Smash Brothers, Zombie games, writing in a journal, playing the piano, swinging, facebooking, just taking with your friends. What we don’t know keeps us coming back for more.

There’s nothing quite like arriving at Fairhaven School early in the morning. It’s quiet, and the light slants into this room. Who knows what the day will bring? New students in the email Inbox? A JC referral? A conversation with a student when suddenly they’re firing on all cylinders, where they’ve arrived. Maybe an alumni visitor with stories of success? Each day starts like a blank page. Take yesterday. Who knew that a student would bake apple scones? Or that another student would paint a duckling swimming in a teacup with cattails? Who knew that the JC would investigate only one case and then listen to Lady Gaga on an iPhone? Who could have predicted all of the colorful buttons people made at the Art Corporation fundraiser? Or that my creative writing class would get to critique a remarkable eulogy for one of our former students?

Of course, all of the religions rely upon uncertainty. Even atheism in its own way. What’s it all about? What happens after we die? Physics, too: chaos theory, string theory, dark matter in the universe. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. What is at the heart of things? And is it measurable, or name-able? Is it the holy spirit? Is it dark matter? Is it a whole lot of nothing?

The good news is, we don’t have to answer these questions tonight. At least we can ask them, and we have a place where our young people can ask them as well. We do have to accept that the questions exist, and that this uncertainty, this what we don’t know, this is our chosen habitat, particularly as parents, staff members and, most importantly, as students. Thank you, parents and students, for your commitment and support, for trusting the school and yourselves in this amorphous process. Tonight, I suggest that we must embrace the uncertainty, we must reassure our fellow travelers that “it’s all good,” and we certainly should enjoy the ride. I do know that much.

Back to Merwin…


BILL MOYERS: And that’s true of poetry.
W.S. MERWIN: That’s true of poetry. All the — I think poetry always comes out of what you don’t know. And with students I say, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen, above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every bird and every dog and everything that you hear. But know all of your knowledge is important, but your knowledge will never make anything. It will help you to form the things, but what makes something is something that you will never know. It comes out of you. It’s who you are. Who are you, Bill.

November, 2011

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