Author Archive: Thomas White-Hassler

The Marks of an Educated Person

Either Teach, or Learn, or Leave the Place


In May 1963 I gave an address at my high school Commencement ceremony.  I was not studious enough to be class valedictorian or salutatorian.  They were asked to speak because of their academic honors.  But the English teachers sponsored an essay contest to select a third speaker, and somehow my essay was chosen.  I had forgotten about the essay since then.  My younger sister, Marti, has been sifting through boxes of papers and other stuff from our parents’ home.  In one of the boxes she sent me I found the typewritten essay.  Reading it over a half-century later I was struck by how much my life’s trajectory has been informed by the thoughts I had then.  The only changes I would make were I to give it today would be to use gender-neutral language.

At Education 20/20 we have an ongoing discussion on the meaning and purpose of education.  We have started conducting surveys to find out what you and others think education is all about.  Reading my yellow-paged essay I realized that my opinions on the topic haven’t changed much in fifty years.  So in the spirit of full disclosure and sharing, herewith I offer the commencement address I gave in 1963 at Upper Moreland High School outside Philadelphia.

The Commencement of Education

“Either teach, or learn, or leave the place.”  This was the motto inscribed on every window of St. Paul’s, the London school where John Milton began his formal education.  As students at Upper Moreland High School we have been taught, we have learned, and now we are ready to leave.  Thus many of us who are graduating have wondered why our final high school ceremony should be called Commencement.  Certainly it would seem at first sight that it rightfully should be called the Finale which caps twelve years of learning.

However, reflection shows us that the fine education which we have experienced is really a preparation for further learning which will enable us to be of service to others as well as to enrich our own lives.  In this sense our Commencement is the beginning of even greater education.

Since our learning, both past and future, is insolubly linked with education, let us examine the marks of an educated person.  The first is an affirmative answer to the question, “Can I entertain a new idea?”  The educated person studies many different ideas and theories, and he always keeps an open mind toward new ones.  He does not become dogmatic and intolerant toward the opinions of people who differ from him.  Neither does he instinctively hold every new idea as radical or impractical.  The world has progressed through the development and acceptance of new ideas.  Therefore, in our future learning we should maintain an open and receptive mind toward new ideas.

The second question to which we as educated people should be able to answer, “Yes,” is, “Can I entertain another person?”  In order to entertain another person it is necessary that we be both interesting and understanding.  To be interesting we must know what is going on in the world and be able to intelligently analyze and discuss a wide variety of subjects.  Hence it is important that we continue our education in the years ahead rather than to consider that our education ends with this memorable graduation ceremony.

To be understanding we must develop an appreciation of others’ viewpoints.  This also demands that we learn to respect differences of opinion.  It is evident that if we are to entertain another person, we must continue our formal education and also our education in human relations.

Finally, an educated person should be able to entertain himself.  Someone has said that, “What a man really is depends upon what he does when he is alone.”  If he is bored, he is likely to get into trouble.  On the other hand, an educated person has a wide range of interests with which to entertain himself.  For example, a student who is interested in history can enjoy reliving great moments in the past.  Likewise a person who has a taste for literature can enjoy himself indefinitely with the great authors, both past and present.  Education thereby provides each individual with a rich and endless storehouse of enjoyment.

In conclusion we have seen that Commencement is really the beginning of further education which will fully enable us to have a fruitful life by being able to entertain new ideas, other people, and ourselves.



Nothing endures but change – Heraclitus


Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read, see, or hear someone expressing concern about primary, secondary, or higher education at the local, state/provincial,  national, or even global level.  In different quarters responses to these concerns are being framed and/or implemented.  This will inevitably lead to change.

Although there are numerous models of how change happens, I find the one developed by the family therapist Virginia Satir the most useful.  She says that change takes place in four major stages.

The first stage is called the Old Status Quo.  This is when a system has been in operation for some period of time and people have developed a set of expectations and predictions about it.  There is a certain level of comfort in the Old Status Quo – everything is familiar and in balance.  Systems will stay in the Old Status Quo until something negative or disruptive happens that the people in the system can no longer ignore or deny.  Virginia Satir calls this something the foreign element.

As the system responds to the foreign element the system may become disarranged and enter the second, or Chaos stage.  Here the old predictions no longer work and expectations are not fulfilled.  In a chaotic organization awareness and effectiveness may oscillate between high and practically nil.

When people start to move out of the Chaos stage new possibilities emerge.  These often coalesce around what Satir calls the transforming idea, an understanding that can change everything.  During this stage, Integration & Practice, new things are practiced and good ideas are refined, bad ones are discarded.  But even with the excitement of newfound energy and movement, moments of clarity may be clouded by feelings of doubt.  Some people misconstrue the “Aha!” of the transforming idea as the change.  It is not.

If the integration and practice lead to new patterns and practices, the system enters the fourth stage, New Status Quo.  Unfamiliar things become familiar.  New expectations are framed.  There is a sense of balance and accomplishment and renewal.  One caution, though:  one reason that change is so difficult is that everything is connected to everything else.  So a transforming idea in one area may become a foreign element in another area.

Virginia Satir also points out that another impediment to change is that many systems try to expel the foreign element and return to Old Status Quo because, “Familiarity is always more powerful than comfort.”

William Bridges alerted me to another important facet of change.  The Satir model aptly depicts the flow from old way to new way.  Bridges points out that there is another, more personal level to the process, and that we often confuse change with transition.  A change is a shift in the world around us.  A transition is an internal process we go through in response to that shift.  Changes are events and situations; transitions are experiences.  Regardless of the change that triggers it, a transition has a predictable form.  Whereas changes have two stages, the old way and the new way, transitions have three, overlapping phases:

First there is an Ending, during which you disengage from “the way things were.”

Next there is a Neutral Zone, when you are between two ways of doing and being, having lost the old and not yet having the new.

Finally there is a New Beginning, after which you feel at home and productive in “the way things are.”

Too often we experience foreign elements, plan our responses, and agree to changes with little or no thought to the ensuing transitions.  We assume that if people understand the change outcome and accept it as necessity they will adjust to change.  In my experience people are less inclined to resist change than they are to resist transition.  It requires a significant culture change to build the awareness and skills to help people through transitions.

As we journey through various attempts at improving our education systems we do well bearing in mind the wisdom of Thorstein Veblen:  “There is no change, no matter how awful, that won’t benefit some people, and no change, no matter how good, that won’t hurt some.”

To Question Is The Answer

You don’t learn unless you question. — Joi Ito


We are all awash in an ever-growing sea of data.  A 2010 Economist magazine article points out:

When the Sloan Digital Sky Survey started work in 2000, its telescope in New Mexico collected more data in its first few weeks than had been amassed in the entire history of astronomy. Now, a decade later, its archive contains a whopping 140 terabytes of information. A successor, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, due to come on stream in Chile in 2016, will acquire that quantity of data every five days.  Such astronomical amounts of information can be found closer to Earth too. Walmart, the retail giant, handles more than 1m customer transactions every hour, feeding databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes—the equivalent of 167 times the books in America’s Library of Congress. Facebook, a social-networking website, is home to 40 billion photos.

An overwhelming majority of this data is now stored and is accessible on the Internet.  Today students at all levels expect to find information online.  I suggest that perhaps it has become less important to know how to access information than it is to know what questions to ask — the “What if’s”.  We’ve all heard at least one story about how some techno-nerd like Steve Jobs made a jillion dollars by asking and then effectively answering a What if? question.  Let me insert another disclaimer:  I am not suggesting that each of us should or need to become techno-nerd jillionaires.  There are far more fulfilling motives for learning here.  But there is great deal of benefit to be gained by learning how to generate good What if? questions.

Our education system is just beginning to adapt to address how best to prepare students to live and work in this environment.  Seth Godin points out, “Our grandfathers and great grandfathers built schools to train people to have a lifetime of productive labor as part of the industrialized economy. And it worked.”  Schools were organized on industrial factory models.  Above all they prized rote memorization of basic knowledge.  That era’s work environment found questioners and their questions as threatening and irritating — questions could challenge the way things were and were often viewed as insubordination.  The education literature of the early part of the 20th century opined that the purpose of public education was to inculcate in students obedience and a tolerance for boredom.

Warren Berger provides an interesting example of where curiosity and questioning can lead:

During the World War II years, Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer leading the power tube division at defense contractor Raytheon, focused his efforts on the magnetron–the core tube that made radars so powerful they enabled U. S. bombers to spot periscopes of German submarines.  Standing next to a magnetron one day, Spencer noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had melted.  He then wondered, could the energy from the radio waves be used to actually cook food?  He placed some popcorn kernels near the tube and soon was munching the world’s first microwave popcorn.  In 1947, Raytheon put the first microwave ovens on the market–but it took another twenty years before the appliances were small enough to fit on a countertop.  [A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger]

The applicability of question-focused learning environments is obvious.  Integrating more questions into our classrooms doesn’t require new technology or budget increases – just time and commitment.