Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change holds fireside chat

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Herbert Kohl, the Lang Visiting Professor for 2005-2006, held an hour-long, informal fireside chat on Thursday night, displaying a wealth of wit, experience, and compassion, to his audience. Kohl was awarded his professorship for his distinguished engagement with social justice, civil liberties, human rights, and democracy, according to the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. He is the author of over thirty books, most notably 36 Children (1967), and writes for various periodicals and publications including “The New York Times.”

As an educator for over forty years, Kohl has taught students of all ages, ranging from kindergarten to college. And like his students, his approach to teaching is equally diverse. “There are two things essential to a successful learning environment: shifting from a deficit model to a strength model, and respect,” Kohl said.

While most academic programs focus on grades, and “what the kids can’t do, who the failures are,” creating what Kohl calls “deficit systems,” Kohl believes schools must create “strength systems.” “Strength systems” focus on what the kids can do, what their strengths are, and how the educator can utilize these assets.

“Respect is equally as crucial [as the strength model],” Kohl said. Students are free to do as they wish so long as they do not interfere with their own education or the education of another student or commit any act of violence. If a student should act out of line, Kohl tries to appeal to a student’s sense of rationale and reason to stop misbehavior. “Rather than label a kid as a person, I try to show them what they did was bad,” Kohl said. By avoiding humiliation, Kohl gains respect and promise from his students.

“In New York there was a school set up called the ‘1199 School for Social Justice.’ The school eventually crashed, even though all the teachers were Harvard graduates or from the other top schools,” Kohl said. Kohl believes the school failed because the teachers followed a mechanical, robotic method of teaching that is, he thinks, at the heart of the national educational problem.

“As a teacher you are a tradesman. Teaching is an art. It takes two to three years to master and learn this craft,” Kohl said. According to Kohl, he has mastered the art of teaching because of his upbringing. His grandfather’s best friend was an African-American, and they were inseparable. He went to public school until he enrolled in college. His childhood companions were of all sorts of races and ethnicities; a day didn’t go by where he didn’t engage himself with a person of a race different than his. And thus, he can understand students of all races and social classes.

“[Learning the art of teaching] is a struggle. I would work 12 hours a day, and all I did was work everyday,” Kohl said.

Ironically, Kohl has reservations against the Swarthmore style of study.

“I completely disagree with the pedagogy of this place. You read 1000 pages a week? How does that help?” Kohl asked.

Amid the giggles and raised eyebrows Kohl added, “I’ll say it. I’m not looking for a tenure; I want to go back home next year! And your coffee mugs, about getting B’s, that is just obnoxious and stupid.”

He grew up in the Bronx in a Jewish-Italian immigrant family. He lived in a rough neighborhood, and fought his way through his childhood. Against the odds, he was accepted to Harvard University in 1954. “When I was going to Harvard, [my family] had no idea what to do. We thought New Jersey was the west coast. We began asking, ‘what is it that a Harvard man wears?'”

Guided by rumors and legends, Kohl set out to attain the proper attire. His uncle with “special connections” found him a truckload of suits to choose from while his other uncle stole a stash of “Brooks Brothers’ labels, which his grandmother sewed into his new suit. “When I got to school, my suit was not genuine, my buttons were too big, my tie was too large, and my shoes were not right. I wanted to go home, but I didn’t want to go home. I was sick of fighting, sick of living in a rough neighborhood,” Kohl said.

During the first two years of college, Kohl slowly tried to adapt to the cultural sphere of Harvard, until he could not care less about fitting in; he alienated himself. “I got into a lot of trouble at school. I’m a professional troublemaker, and I’m very proud of it. And very lucky to be alive,” Kohl said. During his final two years, he became an outspoken critic against anti-Semitism and homophobia. According to Kohl, his civil actions could have cost him dearly in the late 50’s. However, he went on to graduate in one piece in 1958.

Thereafter, Kohl was accepted to graduate school at Oxford University. Kohl was awarded a Henry Fellowship and wound up in Paris. “I wanted to be a writer, so I pretended to be a writer. I wrote the most awful things. You can’t be a writer just because you want to if you have nothing to write about,” Kohl said.

Eventually Kohl realized all he really wanted was to go home. So he came home and began teaching. Shortly thereafter he wrote “36 Children,” about the thirty-six children he taught in the Bronx. Upon teaching, Kohl realized he had stories to tell and things to write. “When I came [to Swarthmore] I knew absolutely no one, and had never met anyone from this institution before. Now I have more stories to tell,” Kohl said.

While teaching at Swarthmore, Kohl has met a seemingly more privileged and cultured group of students. However, according to Kohl, book-smarts are not necessarily more valuable than street smarts. “You can read all the books you want, but the kids that have lived the life, and seen reality for what it is, those are the kids that are best off. But, the best kids are those that have lived the life and read the books; those that have fused the theory with the practice of life,” Kohl said.

Regardless, Kohl is here. And he is here because, as he put it frankly, “I love to teach.”

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