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Chemical Eye on Gates of Learning
by Preston MacDougall


July 29, 2005

For John Q. Public, when it comes to making sausage or legislation, ignorance may be bliss. But in the new global marketplace, with its churning information economy, ignorance is a bitch.

jpg Preston MacDougall

If not in so many words, expressions of concern over the efficacy of education in the nation's public high schools are increasingly being heard, and often from surprising sources. It isn't news to read of such finger-pointing on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But, when that editorial (March 1, 2005) is quoting excerpts from an impassioned speech given during a convening of the nation's business leaders and state governors, by the wealthiest man in the world - Bill Gates - news it is. Money talks.

Mr. Gates surprised many, not just the gubernatorial, with his indictment of the generic All American High. Although education does not primarily fall under federal jurisdiction, Mr. Gates was probably justified in focusing his remarks on a single "system", which he characterized as "obsolete" and "designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age."

More recently, perhaps to search for "bugs" in their own operating systems, the National Governor's Association conducted an online survey of over 10,000 freshly graduated high school students from across the country. Surprisingly, less than two-thirds of the students agreed that their high school education had prepared them for college.

This might seem like a hollow statistic, since for nearly all of these students, their knowledge of college is either anecdotal, or gleaned from councilors, recruiting brochures and campus visits. More concretely, the same fraction of students, barely enough to overcome a filibuster, agreed that "their high school had done a good job of challenging them academically." When teenagers complain about too little schoolwork, something is off kilter.

Public high schools that were more competitive, globally, would be in everyone's best interest, but they are not the only gates to a college education. Home-schooling is becoming less and less of a rarity. Those who dropped out of school, for whatever reason, also have a number of ways to get back on track. Gates of learning even exist behind prison bars.

Of course, private schools have a long and proud history in this country. The Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, is a gate to learning that my three children (currently all teenagers) have gone through, or are going through. It has been educating boarding as well as day students since 1870.

This school, of less than 300 middle and high schoolers, is situated on 150 beautiful acres, surrounded by farmland and rolling hills. So far, 10 Rhodes Scholars have gone through this gate. Students come to Webb from most continents, as well as social classes, but they share a goal that their teachers and school administrators have set for all Webb students: to become "young people who are tireless workers, and who know how to work effectively; who are accurate scholars; who know the finer points of morals and practice them in their daily living; who are always courteous."

If "Gates of Learning" were made into a reality TV show, it wouldn't be a simple Monty Hall "Let's Make a Deal" type of set-up, with prospective learners having to choose between passing through gate number 1, gate number 2, or gate number 3, and then the show's over, time to get a job. Sure there would be choices to begin with, lots of them, but then there would be gates behind the gates, and more gates behind those. Participants might have jobs between gates, or even while they pass through.

This metaphor for life-long learning recently took physical form in New York City's "Gates in Central Park." At least that was one of my reactions to this public work of art by Christo and Jean-Claude. The impressively long train of 7,503 square vinyl gates, of varying width but separated by 12 feet, like croquet wickets that you could drive a pick-up truck through, serpentined through Central Park. The gates took decades to design, prepare and install, but they were only the infrastructure for this work of art.

For 16 days in February the graceful motion of 7,503 saffron-colored drapes that freely hung from each gate after the grand veiling was the medium and the message. Videotaping of this motion also provided forest ecology researchers visual evidence of far-traveling eddies of air in forests. It seems that tree seeds can "surf" on such eddies and travel much farther from the tree than had previously been assumed. This fascinating account of gates of serendipitous learning, was recounted by Henry Horn in the Science in Culture essay in the July 14th issue of Nature.

Usually though, gates of learning are not physical gates, nor are they institutions, public or private. They are the people who compel us to take each step forward out of the darkness of ignorance. We must admire and trust these people, because it is never easy to give up the contentment with the familiar, and take the risk of failing to grasp onto the unknown.

"Letters to a Teacher" is a thoughtful, witty and humorous collection of essays by Sam Pickering, the English teacher who was the inspiration for the movie "Dead Poets Society". I recommend it to anyone who, while they may be on their own path of learning, is also a gate of learning for others. Provided you do so tactfully, it might be an appreciated gift for any "rusty gates" that you know.

His essays are in stark contrast to some of the frantic reactions to the challenge by Mr. Gates, such as this appraisal from a college newspaper: "Because the mechanics of teaching change every few years, teachers feel a need for new techniques and new ideas." Yikes!

For Sam Pickering, it boils down to this: "Blended in a good teacher are knowledge and personality." That sounds like a compelling combination to me. While innate abilities come into play, the knowledge part is manageable, and can be shaped by market forces, to some extent. The personality part, however, does not lend itself to the cookie-cutter approach that Microsoft employs oh so effectively. Not even 7,503 cookie-cutters will do the job.

I think what we need is enough variety and flexibility in the gates of learning that a sufficient number of people, who are in love with learning, can choose to become gates of learning themselves, wherever and whenever life's eddies carry them.



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (


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