By Travis Larrabee, Director of Upper School
(exerpted from remarks to parents, Sept. 2015)
I recently read an article by philosophy professor Simon Critchley that resonated with me on many levels, but especially in my role as a teacher and administrator in an independent, Quaker school.
In “There Is No Theory of Everything,” published in the New York Times, Critchley shares his memories of one of his most influential teachers, a philosopher named Frank Cioffi. Critchley writes:
"Behind every new student stands a teacher. This is someone who opened the student’s eyes and ears to the possibility of the life of the mind that they had perhaps imagined but scarcely believed was within their reach. Someone who, through the force of their example, animated a desire to read more, study more and know more. Someone in whom the student heard something fascinating or funny or just downright strange. Someone who heard something significant in what the student said in a way that gave them confidence and self-belief. Such teachers are the often unknown and usually unacknowledged (and underpaid) heroes of the world of education. … It is also very often the case that the really good teachers don’t write or don’t write that much. They are not engaged in ‘research,’ whatever that benighted term means with respect to the humanities. They teach. They talk. Sometimes they even listen and ask questions."We have all had one or several such teachers – men and women who made such an impact that we can recall not only their faces, but their words, their lessons, their mannerisms, their lectures and their idiosyncrasies. Our school has an alumni base like nothing I have ever seen at the secondary level. People love this place, and they keep coming back to visit. They come back to see the campus and to meet with each other. But the source of their connection to the school and the experiences they had here are the people – the faculty and staff who opened their eyes, taught them a lesson, let them fail and then picked them back up. There is a direct correlation between the strength of Penn Charter and the strength of its faculty.
The second part of Critchley’s piece that has stayed with me relates more directly to the title “There Is No Theory of Everything.” According to Critchley, Cioffi rejected and struggled with the notion of “scientism,” the idea that natural sciences can explain everything right down to the details of our subjective and social lives. Scientism contends that the gap between how we experience the world and the scientific explanation of the material forces that constitute nature could be closed with a “theory of everything.”
Cioffi rejected this notion. He said there is no theory of everything. Yes, there is a gap between the natural and society, but it cannot and should not be filled. He believed there is a proper time and place for the scientific explanation of natural phenomena. According to Critchley, Cioffi saw that there are times when we don’t need causation or even correlation. Instead, there are times when what we need is further description, elucidation and illumination. There is no theory of everything. The point, then, is not to seek an answer to the meaning of life, but to continue to ask the question to see what can be revealed.
This is what brought me right here to what we do at Penn Charter. We help students to find the answers and the solutions, but more importantly, we teach them, urge them, and, yes, antagonize them to ask the questions – even questions for which there are not answers. Great questions are just as important as “correct answers” – maybe even more important.
At the risk of oversimplification, I feel Critchley (and perhaps Cioffi) was trying to reveal the importance of the head and the heart, and, I would argue, the spaces in between. Call it what you will – a spirit, a soul, an Inner Light.
Because we focus not just on what we know, but how we know it …because we reflect on not just what we feel but why we feel it …because we reach decisions by consensus…because we engage in active reflection … because we believe in the idea of continuing revelation … because we stand on the core principles of integrity, equality, simplicity, and stewardship, Quaker schools are able to move beyond providing a rigorous liberal arts education. We are able to explore, together, the head, the heart, and those really important spaces in between. This happens in classrooms, in assemblies, on the fields, and on stage. This happens quite often in this room, where we have Meeting for Worship. It happens in moments of group decision making, and in moments of quiet, intentional reflection.
So as you move from class to class on this Back to School Night, and as you interact with your sons and daughters and their teachers throughout the year, I encourage you to think about the influence of teachers in all our lives and about the unique gifts that a Quaker education can provide.