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My Lab School Rememberence

In 1962, when I was 5 years old and entering kindergarten at the Malcolm Price Laboratory School, I had no idea who John Dewey was, or the meaning of “education through experience.” All I knew was that a great new adventure awaited, and I wanted to be a part of it. I was chock-full of energy and couldn’t wait for each new day – because each day was truly a revelation of novel learning, activities, and techniques. Art, music, and physical education (taught to kindergartners by a very scary guy we called Mr. Aldrich) were all part of our lives, each day, and for nearly every school day thereafter. And, along with more traditional paths of learning, we were on our way to becoming whole people, not merely suited to earning a living but who would be equipped to contribute to our society and our culture to the best of our abilities.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Price Lab was founded on principles very different than other schools of the day. These principles stated that a school is fundamentally a social institution, and that mutual respect among students and faculty was therefore crucial. They meant that constructive interaction among scholars was essential to learning, and that top-down practices were therefore discouraged. Most importantly, they meant that a student should experience the curriculum directly, and have responsibility for their own learning, gave us real opportunities to test, question, hypothesize, and form conclusions – indispensible skills in a society where choices abound, and are often in conflict.

Much has been said about the differentiators, the success factors that made Price Lab so very unique and so very good. Some speak of the facilities and the linkage to the university; some of the faculty (and we had a very good faculty); and others of the small class size that enabled participation in a variety of activities. These are good points, all of them – but not sufficient by themselves. I believe that Price Lab’s singular uniqueness was defined by the firmly held precepts embodied by the leadership of the school: mutual respect for everyone in the community; the freedom to express and defend a viewpoint; and the belief that each person had the innate ability – and right - to develop according to their own goals. These precepts – all of which were indispensible in supporting the principles and mission of Price Lab – proved to be a real challenge to implement, even more so given the social and cultural dynamics of the 60’s and 70’s.

The best example of this that I can remember involved the decision to admit African-American students from Waterloo into Price Lab. It was thought that, as a model school in a leadership role, the entire Price Lab community could benefit from learning and living together, and that the lessons learned could be a profound example to others. In classic Price Lab fashion, an all-class assembly was called to announce this decision, conducted by Dr. Ross Nielsen and the other leaders of the school. The purpose and objectives of the program were explained, along with the logistics and the expectations. Then, the floor was opened to discussion. The ensuing dialogue was spirited, heartfelt, and at times highly charged with emotion. Yet, Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Albrecht held their course, facilitating and enabling, demanding facts when an assertion was unsubstantiated, correcting errors in reasoning when called for – but always with great respect for each person. They provided a demonstration – a laboratory, if you will - that the principles of free speech and of academic freedom, sacred though they may be, were useless unless coupled to the weighty responsibility of discerning facts from fancy, the exercise of reason over mere rhetoric, and the basic respect one must have for each member of our community of scholars.

I didn’t speak that day; all the same, I left that assembly a changed person. By this time we had studied the Constitution of the United States, and had a reasonable understanding of what it stood for. But I hadn’t fully realized that the real power of those precepts could only be realized in times of confrontation, in the heat of battle, until that day. Years later, one of my college professors stated the crucial point succinctly: “The right of freedom of speech does not matter for people we all agree with. Freedom of speech only matters for people whose ideas we deplore”.

Recently there has been a lot of coverage of the systematic destruction of the building that housed our beloved Price Lab School. Nearly every day, pictures of the debacle make their way into mainstream and social media, possibly reminding us of a promise apparently abandoned. However, I don’t see it that way at all. Instead, I propose an alternative.

Let us try to remember that the essence of Price Lab left that building the day the last of us walked out the doors. From that point on, it was just another building. Like a church, synagogue, mosque or temple that has been deconsecrated – or destroyed - it no longer contained or represented any of the principles or the values that we, all of us, throughout the years, worked so hard to vest in it. It became just another old building in need of repair, a mere liability of the balance sheet of the state.

For me, I accept the challenge of living into the timeless precepts I learned so many years ago, and which I still strive to master: mutual respect for everyone in the community; the freedom to express and defend a viewpoint; and the concept that each person has the innate ability – and right - to develop according to their own goals. I believe these precepts are the real Price Lab, a set of ideals that no structure could possibly contain, and that the passage of time cannot diminish.

I think I will remember these lessons, and the experiences that gave them meaning, for as long as I live.


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