Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2017

These “Thoughts”, now in their 12th year, began when my children became curious about my family’s history. The pieces I wrote for them stressed the random nature of luck in my life. How I grew up, how I met their mother, Jayme, and how we started a school. Timing and luck (they might be the same) were critical. Since our children were brought up in Westchester County, I tried to give them some idea of my upbringing in a rather poor, London suburb and then my education and career before we came to the United States. When York Prep built a new website that had space for my essays, and simultaneously my senior Ethics class students had mentioned that they had rarely seen examples of their teachers’ writing (this was before Ms. Leah Umansky, a published poet, started teaching at the school), I decided to write an essay every month. This is my 148th.

I write all this to justify the autobiographical nature of most of my “Thoughts.” It is Tuesday and I am about to teach my senior class during the next two days. That class is called Ethics and not Philosophy because the word “philosophy” has had so many meanings at different times and to different people. Some thought that mathematicians were philosophers, others thought all scientists were, and still others believed that philosophers were just people who looked for rational rather than divine understandings of why things were the way they were. “Ethics” (from the Greek word “ethos” which translates to “truth”) is far more specific in its meaning. It refers to the right path that we should take – the “authentic” path existentialists would say – when faced with difficult alternatives. I think that luck has a good deal to do with “authenticity.” Luck and having great mentors.

I was not always interested in philosophy or ethics. At my secondary school, we had to choose between science and arts at the age of 13. The smarter boys chose science because it was 1957, when space travel was just beginning to become a reality with the launch of the first satellites. I decided to be a mathematician. I thought I was good at it. I considered becoming an actuary, because that was one of the career choices for mathematics majors. Then one day (in what would be the equivalent of 10th grade,) I sat in Mr. Walters’ class doing calculus, and he wrote a problem on the blackboard. Mr. Walters had written the textbook we were using and was generally considered brilliant. He certainly appeared brilliant to me, because I had no clue what was on the board. The other boys (It was an all-male school.) looked as though they understood it. I began to have the feelings of panic that you might have if you were in a Japanese class and everyone else spoke Japanese except for you. Mr. Walters stood back from the board, looked at this immense jumble of figures and numbers, and solved the problem by putting the answer next to it. I was totally lost. How on earth did he get there? I put my hand up. “Yes?” he barked. “Is there another way there, Sir, – we called all the masters “Sir” – to do the problem?” I asked, hoping for some hint as to what was going on. “Yes, very good!” he replied. He paused, stood back from the board and looked again at the problem. Then he neatly wrote the identical answer next to the one he had first written down. Time for me to find another field of human endeavor!

Not long afterwards, the most senior history teacher in the school happened to cover our class for a study hall. I have written before in these pieces (quite a few years ago now) about the influence this teacher, Dr. Isaacson, had on my life. He was a former professor of philosophy at Berlin University who lost his job when the Nazis came to power, fled to Wales and began teaching kindergarten there, where the very perceptive, Welsh, Headmaster of my school found him. Recognizing Dr. Isaacson’s talent, the Head offered him a unique position that allowed him to just teach advanced history classes to a small group that he could select himself. Occasionally he covered for an absent teacher in a study hall. So there he was in our study hall, and he must have become bored with just sitting there while we were reading, for he suddenly asked us what we thought might happen if a philosopher were to walk with his head in the clouds just thinking great thoughts? I put up my hand and, when called upon, answered that the philosopher probably would fall in a pond. There was a long pause. I thought I had annoyed Dr. Isaacson. “Exactly right!” he said. “What is your name?”

About a week later, I was called to the Headmaster’s office. When I arrived, the Head and Dr. Isaacson were sitting together. “I have been asking the faculty about you,” he said. “I think you should study history and philosophy with me.” I cannot remember how I responded, but the upshot was that the following year, I was in his class of three students studying history and philosophy and preparing for the Oxford and Cambridge Open Scholarship exams in history. We all got in: I went to Oxford and the other two went to Cambridge.

At Oxford I studied law as an undergraduate. My “don” was Peter Carter, a law professor and extraordinary teacher: demanding, brusque in manner, and brilliant! I was a young, cocky North Londoner who, probably because I felt insecure, liked to argue. In Oxford in those days, if you had an Open Scholarship, you got one-on-one tutorials with your “don” (professor). Peter Carter gave me a reading list and assigned me an essay for our first week together. When I started to read it in my first tutorial, he interrupted with a challenging question which made it clear to me that he had heard it all before and that I was contributing nothing new to his understanding of law. Instead of backing down, I argued back. The hour flew by. Then the years flew by. For the next three years (At Oxford, an undergraduate law degree is three years.) we argued; every week! I used to look forward to our weekly contests.

Because of a scheduling anomaly, I was left with an extra term between the time I received my degree and the time I was eligible to sit for my bar finals. Peter Carter called me up asked what I was going to do. I replied that I really was at fairly loose ends and was going to find a job to keep me busy. “Why not come back to Wadham and study for a B.C.L.?” he asked. A “B.C.L” is an advanced law degree and the letters stand for Bachelor of Civil Law. They give out about 12 a year. The problem with doing a graduate degree was that my scholarship ended with my undergraduate degree, and I had no money for graduate work. I bluntly told this to Peter Carter. “Well,” he said, “you could apply for a State Studentship. In fact, you have already applied, and I have good news for you, you have been awarded one.” He had done all the paperwork, had applied for me, and had won for me the graduate scholarship. So we had another year of arguing. He later told Jayme that he enjoyed the arguments as much as I did.

None of this is directly relevant to what I now do as Headmaster of York Prep, other than that I do recognize the importance of both luck and having great mentors. I have had more than my fair share of both. I remember the advice that Dr. Isaacson gave me when I informed him that Oxford had awarded me the history scholarship: “Never forget, Ronnie, to be curious!” In the end, perhaps that is the best definition of philosophy: the study by the curious of the world around them. Perhaps I heard the echoes of Dr. Isaacson’s words in my own children’s curiosity when I began writing these “Thoughts” 12 years ago. And indeed I hope there is no cure for curiosity.

Ronald P. Stewart