Tuesday, October 26, 2010

School Day

Today I went with Tyler Bernardini and Jerome Allen to West Philadelphia High School for about an hour to sit in on a Business Tech class taught by Wharton professor Keith Weigelt. The experience was eye opening to say the least. Where I went to high school students were not greeted by metal detectors and shouting security guards but rather a pleasant teacher reminding us to tuck in our uniform shirts. Tyler and I looked at each other with somewhat shocked expressions as if to confirm that West Philly High was nothing like Francis W. Parker or St. Thomas Aquinas.

The most interesting part of my time today was how the students interacted with the different leadership figures present in the classroom. For all intents and purposes there were three main people of authority: Jerome Allen, Keith Weigelt, and the substitute teacher of the class (whose name I did not catch). I'll talk about how each one functioned in the classroom and how it affected the dynamic.

Substitute Teacher- He is the easiest one to deal with because his presence was almost nonexistent. He shook our hands when he came into the class before it started, but after that he just stood in the corner and his only words were: "No hitting" in response to a misbehaving girl. Maybe I'm reading too much into this and he was just being deferential while Keith was teaching but his lack of engagement was glaring. He tried to warn us briefly about the rowdy kids before class and just seemed resigned to that norm. This type of leadership--or lack thereof--seems incredibly counter-productive to creating the necessary environment for learning. He was content to merely show up and prevent physical violence, nothing more. Obviously I can't generalize about public school teachers based on my limited knowledge but this did not give a promising first impression.

Keith Weigelt- Keith is a Wharton professor who specializes in negotiations and has worked with the basketball team on the mental aspects of training and performance since the days Jerome was a player. He has spent extensive time around Ivy League students and professors, which would not seem to make him well suited for dealing with what can amount to crowd control. Keith focused on the material that he had prepared for the class and repeatedly attempted to steer things in a positive direction despite umpteen interruptions. He spoke calmly and never raised his voice. Although he stayed poised throughout the class, it was obvious that Keith is more suited to dealing with Wharton students than distracted black teenagers. He impressed me in his professional approach to the situation but seemed to have a fundamental disconnect with the students that could prove to be somewhat of an issue.

Jerome Allen- As a relatively young black man who was an NBA draft pick, Jerome commands a good deal of respect among West Philly High students. They looked at him, googled his career info, and asked him questions about basketball. When the kids came in one by one, he looked them in the eye and shook hands. If he didn't remember the kid from last week, he introduced himself. I watched as Jerome talked individually with one of the kids who said he wanted to play college basketball but admitted to cutting the class last week. Jerome calmly told him that he had to go to class for that to happen, and the boy nodded sheepishly in agreement. Now I acknowledge that Jerome had a little more freedom for these types of interactions because he was not tasked with leading the class in the same way that Keith was, but nonetheless it was compelling to see. As a leader, Jerome was authoritative when there was a dispute over the attendance sheet but could flip to personable as soon as a student sat down next to him. I could clearly observe that he was connecting with these kids in a way that an over fifty, white Wharton professor could not.

The obvious (and somewhat disheartening) question is: "Yeah but how many young, black former NBA draft picks are there that want to be public school teachers?". The answer is not very many. But those do not have to be the only qualifications. The kids definitely seemed open around Tyler and me, whether it was because of our age or positions on the basketball team or something else. I know my time there was very short, but it seemed to me that the kids responded most to genuine interest or care about them. I fear that we have too many people in positions as leaders who are like the Substitute, who doesn't seem to care, or like Keith, who can't quite bridge the gap to connect. The presence of more leaders like Jerome Allen who command respect but also give it could only help these kids.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Schindler's List

Thomas Keneally struggles throughout his book with one question: "How can a bad person do such a good thing?". To discover the answer, he acts as a private investigator, learning as much as he can about all of Oskar Schindler's actions and relationships. Not mincing words in any instance, Keneally repeatedly gives the reader accounts of Oskar's vices of women, alcohol, and excess. Were this story a play from Sophocles, we could see the makings of Schindler as a tragic hero who ultimately meets his demise. Maybe you can consider his emigration to Argentina and declaration of bankruptcy followed by divorce to be a sort of demise brought on by his "tragic flaw" of helping the Jews at great personal risk. But Keneally worries less about how Oskar fared after the war and much more about the complexities of his character and the motivations that led him to do the things he did.

By any interpretation of Judeo-Christian morality, Oskar Schindler was a bad man. Keneally puts it a little bit more delicately when he says Oskar "was not a virtuous young man in the customary sense." He had a wife on whom he cheated regularly with his mistress in Cracow, his secretary, and any woman who would have him for the night. He also was quite the drinker. Keneally at one point even refers to his "heroic liver" that allows him to withstand as much alcohol as he consumes. Additionally, Schindler's inflated pride led him to incredible displays of excess with his wealth and a misperception of his own intelligence. His associate Itzhak Stern notes multiple times that Oskar greatly enjoyed speaking at length on subject such as comparative religion, where he did not have much knowledge. Finally, Oskar had never shown any affinity toward Jews in his past that would indicate his desire to save them. Keneally laments on page thirty-three that there should be some story about Oskar saving a Jew from being bullied in his youth for the sake of the narrative. No such story exists. In 1939, Oskar Schindler was nothing more that a selfish, ambitious industrialist who nobody--probably including himself--would have expected to be viewed as "a minor god of deliverance" merely six years later.
Oskar Schindler
Despite all of his shortcomings as an individual, Schindler displayed some important qualities that enabled him to assume the leadership role that he did during the war. First and foremost among these traits is his ability to instill hope within those around him. Keneally gives us multiple accounts of Schindler interacting with Jews to calm their fears and lift their spirits. In the prologue, Schindler is visiting Amon Goeth in his villa and encounters his maid Helen Hirsch. She has accepted the grim fact that "one day he'll shoot me." Trying not to be trite, Schindler encourages her by explaining that she pleases Goeth. Keneally then mentions that Hirsch had heard a similar sentiment from Leo John, but it did not have the same effect as when Oskar said it.

This brings us to our second point about Schindler as a leader: he was able to maintain a demeanor that was accessible and genuine enough to prove to people that he cared about them. Although he used this ability sincerely to uplift the Jews, Oskar could feign his care for a person like Goeth. In the scene where Oskar and Amon are drinking together in Goeth's villa, Schindler attempts to influence his companion to show some mercy to the Jews by playing to Amon's vanity. Schindler's savvy ability to read people and figure out what they want masks his shallow scholarly mind about which Stern complains. This skill of personal connection--real or feigned--is almost essential for the leadership that Oskar demonstrates. It allows him to identify those around him and have them do what he desires.

Oskar Schindler managed to get past all of his moral shortcomings and be one of the most inspiring leaders during the Second World War. His extraordinary circumstances afforded him the opportunity to exhibit a kind of leadership that would not have been possible to demonstrate during a time of peace. We are left to wonder: without the Holocaust would Oskar Schindler have ever become the great man that he is now remembered to be? I honestly don't think so. He was thrust into a situation where he saw something going on around him that he thought to be terribly wrong. To his credit, he acted out to stop it.

Finally, I want to slightly adjust the question mentioned at the beginning by thinking about how we judge a bad man who does such a good thing. In some cases such as the preacher or the politician, such moral indecencies would surely outweigh the good done because a moral component is expected of those figures. Nothing was expected of Oskar. He could have gone on with his business, made a fortune, and not batted an eye at the plight of the Jews. However, simply because nobody expected a thing from him, Schindler was regarded as "a provider of outrageous salvation." Even though he almost stumbled into his position as a savior figure for the persecuted people, that should take nothing away from the great personal sacrifices that he undertook in order to ensure their safety. Oskar Schindler has fairly earned his place in history as a great Jewish leader.