The Last Commencement Address:
The U High Idea
June 1, 1972
The University in general, and the University Schools in particular, have been with me nearly the whole of my life in one way or another. My mother and father were graduates of the University. My father, Wendell Johnson, spent his entire professional life here. My mother is still living here. My sister, Katy--who is also here this evening--is also a graduate of this school.
I was literally born on the University of Iowa campus, in the University Hospitals. And by the age of two I was already enrolled in the University's pre-school, the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station. So that next to my parents, I suspect that there has probably been no greater influence on my life than the University Schools. And, you know, the hundreds who have gathered--at the wake, at the last lettermen's banquet, at this commencement--is a very moving experience for me. And I suspect of all the speaking invitations I've received over the last few years this is probably the one of which I'm the proudest.
This morning at Mother's house a neighbor, Betty Holland, stopped by. She's a wonderful person who has been doing that for about thirty years. She saw me agonizing over whatever it was I was going to say this evening, and she said, "Well, you know, I'd think by now, Nick, you'd have hundreds of speeches that you could. use." And I said, "Well, I do, Betty, but somehow none of them seems quite appropriate for this occasion."
So what I've done today, basically, is to spend the whole day being nervous. I don't think I could ever put together twenty or thirty minutes of remarks that would be appropriate for an occasion of this kind.
And while I was sitting there being nervous this afternoon, Tommy Smothers called me and tracked me down at Mother's house. He was about to leave for France to watch and film his brother, Dicky, in the auto races at Le Monde, and he wanted to know what I was doing. I said I was writing a commencement address for my high school. And he said, "Well, you know, I really think you owe them the opportunity, the option, to back out. " And I said, "Why, Tommy, why is that?"
And he then reminded me of my record, in terms of association with public performances. He went through it all.
The time he carne to Washington to talk to me, and then went back to Hollywood and found out his show had been canceled.
And then the last time 1 went on Dick Cavett's show, and the rumor's now going around that it's going to be canceled.
The last time I was on the Merv Griffin show, a couple weeks later CBS canceled his contract and put him into syndication.
And Tommy reminded me it was about that point I got out of the television business entirely and went into the theater, the Broadway theater.
I became the technical advisor to a Broadway play called "The Selling of the President." It's a delightful musical, I thought, a version of Joe McGinniss' famous book. And it's about the impact of television commercials on politics. Well, I say it was a Broadway play. Actually it opened on Broadway, but the next morning it closed.
So, in any event, after this experience, I've finally given up show business entirely, and I've decided what I'm going to do is that I'm going to become a professional high school commencement speaker. But you're entitled to know, I suspect, that this is actually the first high school commencement speech I've ever given. And so you'll understand the apprehension and anxiety with which I undertake it.
I've always felt a great deal of affection for the U High show, and I'm pleased and flattered to be invited back here to do my act. But I'm a little concerned that I may wake up tomorrow morning to read in the paper that somebody's closed the school."I'm a little concerned that I may wake up tomorrow morning to read in the paper that somebody's closed the school."
Exactly twenty years ago my class at U High was in your place, and had some mixed feelings about leaving then as I'm sure you do now.
We embodied our energy in a musical extravaganza that we presented as a farewell. I guess Joe Howe was probably the principal author and producer of this production. He's now a law professor in Ohio, and he stopped by my office the other day and we were reminiscing about this. And finally Dick DeGowin, who's now on the medical faculty across the river, discovered that he had a copy of this, which he sent to me, and I read it.
Like "The Selling of the President, " our musical--which was called "Real George" (which was apparently the expression of the time)--also closed the next day. But it was not for lack of content.
That class of mine--and I suspect yours was very similar--that class of mine was very hard to keep up with for me. For sixteen years, actually from the time of pre-school until I finally got out of U High, I was struggling to keep up with them. One fellow, whose name was Howard Berg, was so smart, he used to play with toys in elementary school that I would later read in Scientific American hadn't even been invented until ten years later.
And it was in that spirit that this show was put together. It took a look at the future. And a s I reread that script I discovered that we had predicted in 1952 the following:
And here I am.
Well, Iowa City has been preparing this last month to accept the passing of one of its great institutions. For generations people gathered there to improve themselves and to become educated and informed. But times change. And now, as you know, Forrest Allen has decided to close his barber shop. Well, Iowa City won't be the same without that great educational institution, but somehow we'll all get by.
I called Forrest the other day, but he was out, and I talked to his wife. What's happening is that Forrest Allen is playing more golf, and I'm growing more hair.
No, I think we have to keep some sense of humor about what's happened to U High, because if we didn't laugh we'd cry.
How do you measure, how do you describe, an institution like the University Schools?
It's really not much at all in terms of money--at least not the kinds of money I've been accustomed to administering the last few years."We spent less on the University Schools throughout all those years, in fifty-seven years, than what was spent on the single set of video tapes that we know as 'Sesame Street.'"
The total budget for all of the fifty-seven years of the school's existence--based on a doctoral dissertation I looked at--I project to be about six million dollars. Six million dollars for the whole fifty-seven years is approximately twenty percent of the FCC's budget for one year.
And the FCC's budget is one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. We spent less on the University Schools throughout all those years, in fifty-seven years, than what was spent on the single set of video tapes that we know as "Sesame Street."
Nor is the school much in terms of land and buildings. We have now returned this evening--fifty-seven years later--to a spot just across the yard from where the school was originally. And then in the 1920's it moved down the street to where you all went to school. We still don't have an auditorium. We have to gather at McBride Hall for our last commencement.
No, I think an institution like U High is very difficult to program on a computer or enter on a balance sheet, because basically it's an idea--an idea and the people who shared that idea and participated in it.
It began with Dr. Ernest Horn, who came here from Teachers' College at Columbia University, to establish the school in 1916.
I can't begin to name all the administrators and teachers who supported the idea in the years since. I'll just mention some of those who were here during my years at the school, and some who spent the longest terms at the school and would be known to you.
Dr. Virgil Hancher was the president of the University during most of the time I remember. His daughter, Mary Sue, incidentally, was in our class.
Dr. Peterson was Dean of the College of Education during most of that time.
Dr. Vernon Van Dyke's term as director almost exactly paralleled my own from 1941 to 1952.
Dr. Herbert Spitzer was the grade school principal that I remember best. I suppose that's because he was eleven feet tall then.
And the high school principals, who we seemed to drive through the school with a little greater regularity than we managed in elementary school, were Drs. Murray Martin and Myron Olson and John McAdam and Dwight Davis. They were people who also shared the idea of U High, and who were responsible for it in many ways that none of us really knew about or understood or appreciated, but just as fully as the faculty with which we spent our time.
Grade school teachers are something like surrogate mothers and deserve a special place in our educational hall of fame. They are the ones who either get us off to a good start or mess up our education forever, and most of us here must be forever grateful for our luck, and for their love and skill, that made it possible for us to enjoy U High after we got to high school at all.
Many of the high school teachers who helped me along the way were there relatively short terms, and probably are known to few of you; as I suspect there were teachers who helped you a lot who were there a short time."The only way to think in terms of the impact of an institution like this is in terms of the people whose lives it has affected, and the ripples it produces throughout the rest of society."
But some of those who were around longer had a positive and lasting effect on whole families, and are probably known to you and perhaps even your parents: giants like Drs. Louis Alley, M. F. Carpenter, John Haefner, Camile Le Bois, Vernon Price--many more.
During one period of about twenty years there were some two hundred Ph.D.'s who were on the staff at U High. I have no idea how many student teachers have passed through the school. But about the time my class was getting out of there we had about as many student teachers as we had students.
And we shouldn't forget ourselves, I suppose, the alumni of U High, a group that now numbers about twenty-five hundred, including you as of this evening.
Because the only way to think in terms of the impact of an institution like this is in terms of the people whose lives it has affected, and the ripples it produces throughout the rest of society. The effect of U High is felt whenever one of its former staff members goes elsewhere and begins training professors, who teach teachers who teach students. Because in that way his or her influence ultimately spreads a thousand times beyond what it was in terms of a handful of students who were privileged actually to be in their classroom for a semester or so. There are hundreds of of former U High staff, students, and student teachers, who are today university presidents and deans of schools of education, professors and teachers and officials of educational institutions and associations--officials of one kind or another.
The effect of U High has been felt not only through people, but also in terms of the teaching materials and new teaching methods and texts that have been evolved here.
Indeed, I think it's somewhat ironic that U High really began at the behest of the President of the University, Walter Jessup, because of the difficulty he was running into in trying to do some educational experimenting in the public schools. They wouldn't let him do it the way he wanted to do it. And his reaction was very much like that of Howard Hughes. You'll recall Howard Hughes was once staying in a hotel out in Las Vegas and he didn't like the service, so he just bought the hotel. Well, that's kind of what President Jessup did, as Emil Trot recalls it, who was one of U High's first students. He said, "If that's the way you fellows are going to be, all right, I'll just start my own school." And he did.
Because what President Jessup realized, as I think almost anybody knows who has ever had to deal with large bureaucratic institutions--whether it's the military, or school systems, corporations, government agencies, whatever it is --a television network--is that it's not really a place where genuine creativity and intellectual activity can take place. People who are hired to do a job, to carry out a mission which they do not control, may be superb at what it is they've been hired to do, but they simply don't have the time, the talent or the temperament to expend a lot of effort in challenging the basic assumptions of their own institution."The accepted methods of teaching today all had to begin at some time, and in some place; as often as not, when you track it back, it turns out that the place was U High and the time was about twenty years before the ideas were believed to be safe enough to try in the public schools."
The trouble with U High was that it was all done naturally and relatively quietly. U High has never had an Office of Public Information, it never hired a public relations firm, and, to my knowledge, no principal ever called a press conference. And it was that natural sense of concern and commitment, of excitement and adventure about life and about education, that was naturally passed on by the permanent staff of U High to us, to the student teachers and to the junior staff.
Kozol describes in a book called Death at an Early Age how some public schools, almost sadistically, drive any creativity and curiosity and sense of individual worth and development out of their wards.
My wife, Karen, who attended the University Schools with me for nine years, has told me similar stories over the years about things she has witnessed in public schools where she has taught in Virginia, California, Texas, the District of Columbia.
My own experience is limited to that of a parent; but I must say it has often left me in a state of despair about the quality of education offered my own children by public schools that often brag of their national superiority.
I don't mean to suggest that there aren't good public school teachers. Of course there are. There are a great many who are competent, who are concerned--many more than are ever recognized or thanked or adequately compensated. But I think they all feel the oppression of a bureaucratic system of which they are a part, and none can really feel that he or she is a part of an exciting adventure at the frontiers of educational innovation. Whatever the public schools may be, they are not that.
Even if one is willing to concede that no justification can be offered for providing an elitist education to a privileged few Iowa boys and girls who attend the schools as students, it seems to me that teachers--at some point in their career, and for however short a time--ought to have been exposed to such a faculty and student body.
Somewhere, in the seventy-billion-dollar, barnacle-encrusted, bureaucratic industry that goes by the name of "Education," somewhere in amongst the concrete buildings and the computers and the layers of administrators, somebody better be watching to make sure that the torch of learning has not gone out entirely."Somewhere, in the seventy-billion-dollar, barnacle-encrusted, bureaucratic industry that goes by the name of 'Education,' somewhere in amongst the concrete buildings and the computers and the layers of administrators, somebody better be watching to make sure that the torch of learning has not gone out entirely. If that is not to be the University of Iowa, so be it. . . . But as anybody knows who has tried to keep a camp fire going all night without a match, you can start it up again by blowing on one red hot coal, but once you are left with nothing but ashes you're just going to be blowing dirt into your face and into the darkness."
If that is not to be the University of Iowa, so be it. We certainly have lots of company. Lab schools are closed all over the land. It's a respectable position.
But as anybody knows who has tried to keep a camp fire going all night without a match, you can start it up again by blowing on one red hot coal, but once you are left with nothing but ashes you're just going to be blowing dirt into your face and into the darkness.
I don't for a moment think that a lab school can single-handedly reform public education, but it can help.
The fundamental problem, of course, as you will soon discover, is that there is a basic conflict between the values of genuine education that you have been taught at University High School, and the values of the corporate state into which you are now--or in a few years--going to move.
One is to simply drop out. John Prine has a delightful little song in which he puts that bit of advice with the line, "Blow up your TV"--which always delighted me for a starter--"Blow up your TV/Throw away your paper/ Move to the country/ And build you a home." Well, that's not really bad advice, but it's not really going to solve the problem either, because for most of us, at least, it's not very practical.
Now another solution is to try to modify the educational system, and, as Kozol and my wife will tell you, that now appears to be the most widely accepted solution. If we could only train young people in school to really like Barbie dolls, motel decor, neon signs along suburban highway shopping centers, television programs, Detroit cars, hair spray, and Coca Cola, then they won't be so frustrated when they get out.
I saw a film the other day about how they do it in South Africa. It's very similar to our system. It's the way in which they sustain apartheid there. Essential to the state of society upon which the life and economy of that nation is based, is the enforced ignorance of its blacks. They are simply not permitted to see the swimming pools, and tennis courts and schools that their labor, and misery, support.
No, I don't really think that the answer lies in seeing to it that no one in our society--students or student teachers--ever get a glimpse of what a subculture of truly dedicated free minds and educational researchers might look like. I don't think keeping people from that vision is going to solve the problem.
I think they should be given that spark, that vision, that dream, against which to measure their daily lives. John Gardner, whose two books, Excellence and Self Renewal, may very well be among the most important of the Twentieth Century, has said that a nation that does not value excellence in its plumbers as well as its philosophers will find that neither its pipes nor its theories hold water.
No, I believe it is work that must change, not quality education.
The work place is today, as it was in the time when Brandeis described it, the place where we have the greatest abridgment of citizens' rights.
Workers and consumers, you and I, simply must be permitted to exercise greater control over the products, as well as the means, of production. And gradually, in some places in this country and others, that principle is being extended. Because a democracy simply cannot survive when it forces mature people to spend their lives dying in their jobs. We cannot give people the right to grow, and question, exercise discretion, and control their activities for only the twelve years of their lives that they are in school--and that only if they are lucky.
A citizen cannot be repressed and treated as a machine subject to authoritarian control eight hours a day all year long and then suddenly perform as a mature person of judgment for eight minutes every four years when he or she enters the polling booth."A citizen cannot be repressed and treated as a machine subject to authoritarian control eight hours a day all year long and then suddenly perform as a mature person of judgment for eight minutes every four years when he or she enters the polling booth."
Well, that's the challenge that confronts you, I think: to put the U High idea into practice, to live your life in ways that argue more eloquently than words or buildings that those who preceded you as staff and as students were right to have invested in U High what they have.
And, I'm sure, that you will do.