Headmaster’s Thoughts May 2019

It has happened! I have “writer’s block”. After all these years, I can think of nothing to write for May.

I was going to write about a friend who was very supportive of the “Make a Wish” Foundation. The wonderful organization that grants requests to a very sick child (often going to Disneyland). I have only one question about its mission, which I quietly raised with my friend, namely what happens after the trip or event? So the child comes back from Disneyland! How much better, I suggested, if there were a series of wishes that could be granted for the child every subsequent year. The first year, Disneyland. The second-year maybe hang-gliding in Colorado, third year a cruise. And so on. My point was that single events do come to an end, and then there is the post-event letdown. In the case of the child, I suspect the message might be far too final by design. Would it not be better for the whole family (including the child) to look forward to more events in the future, even if only in the spirit of hope and optimism?

I was going to compare this point of view with our 50th anniversary. (It is, I agree, an indelicate stretch to publish.) Jayme and I did start the School fifty years ago, in 1969, and perhaps some celebration is appropriate. But what happens thereafter? One would hope that there would be year 51, 52, and so on. In fact, thinking something should be done apart from parties, I did ask the then-pregnant wife of Jeremy Clarke, our deputy Head, to put together some 60 of these essays (which are now in their 15th year) and publish them as a book. Since she graduated from Yale with a degree in History, and from Oxford with a degree in English, I felt that I did not need to choose the essays or arrange them. On May 13th we have a party to which parents are invited, and we will give them out. But, like any commemorative event, I hope that there will be another book, maybe on the anniversary of the 55th year of the founding of the School (one can but dream!). If you get the book, and you are welcome to ask for a copy if you do not go on May 13th, I am pleased that there are three pages or less, on average, per essay. What we used to call ideal bathroom reading. Some may make you smile, some are on education, and some you might justifiably say “What Rubbish!”

Having thought about writing my thoughts on this subject, I saw little to interest or amuse the reader. So that idea got scrapped. Then I thought about something that happened in my Senior Ethics class last Tuesday. We were discussing Existentialism and Sartre’s view that we tend to try and delay making decisions. We are burdened, Sartre believed, with our freedoms to choose, and frequently uncomfortable being forced to decide. Sartre makes a great deal about dating when dealing with this matter of authentic choice. His example is of a man who takes a woman to the movies. During the movie, he puts his arm around her shoulders. The woman is now faced with making a decision as to where this might lead. She avoids deciding by pretending that the arm around her shoulder does not exist; she ignores it. Difficult in concept, one might say, but frequently done in practice. The man then takes her to a restaurant and puts his hand on her knee. Same problem. She ignores the hand. At which point in the discussion, one of my female seniors sweetly asked “Is this on the first or second date?” At which point I cracked up.

But funny as this incident was when I was there, it does not “read” as well, and has some “adult” themes, and so I certainly cannot use that for my May thoughts.

I was also going to tell you of my experience with artificial intelligent computers (at least I hope it was not a real person) after buying a pair of socks. That is right…A.I. and socks. One pair! Black! Paid with a credit card!

Having bought the one pair, I got home to find, on my e-mail, a “would you take a short survey?” question. I assume somewhere in the records of the sock seller was my e-mail address, so I should not have been too surprised that they knew how to find me. I normally never answer surveys but I was in a curious mood (I am sure you get those from time to time) and so I answered. All of the following was online in print;

They: “How was our service?”

Me; “I was sold socks.”

They: “Could our service be improved?”

Me: “I got my socks!”

They: “Would you recommend our service to others?”

Me: “Not if you followed up with a survey.”

They: “The first word of your answer began with the letter N O; does that mean that you would not recommend our service to others?”

Me: “Yes!”

They: “That is difficult to understand. Can I repeat; would you recommend our service to others?”

Me: “At this point, not a chance.”

They: “How could we improve our service so that you would recommend it to others?”

Me: “No survey.”

They: “Your first two letters began with N O. We do not understand. You are satisfied with our service but would not recommend us to others. How could we improve so that you would?”

“Me; “Get rid of the survey!”

They; “We do not understand. Could we put you on a short hold while we get a service professional to join this exchange?”

Me: “No!”

They: “Your first two letters began with N O. Why would you not talk to a service professional?”

Me: “It would not be as much fun as this discussion with a computer.”

They: “We do not understand what fun is?”

Me: “No? I suspected that all along”

They: “Your first two letters began with the letters N O. Why was our service not satisfactory?”

At that point, I stopped the e-mail chain. My conclusion is that artificial intelligence is indeed “artificial” and not yet as “intelligent” as some might hope. I decided not to include this in my ‘thoughts” because I am sure most of you have had a similar experience, and because some of you might reply with a sentence that begins with the letters N O.

So the result is that I have total writer’s block. I really am sorry. You have every right to expect more after 15 years but I just cannot think of anything for this month. Nothing! Next month should be better.

Ronald P. Stewart

Headmaster

York Prep School