The Language of Sage

Lately, I have been interested in “ways of knowing”- exploring how different people see the world. A connecting theme in all accounts, whether the stories are about Polynesian wayfinders, or Siberian trappers, or members of a particular political party, is language; not only as a central cultural thread, but also as a way of interpreting the world.

Language shapes communication as much as it shapes thought. The words we use matter as they simultaneously describe our experience and determine how we see the world.

A long-understood challenge of this is when someone or some culture is forced to speak in the language of another. Anand Giridharadas sums this up nicely in his book Winners Take All when he says there is a danger not “only in what they say in this new language, but also in the possibility that they might somewhere down the line stop thinking in their native one.”

The danger flows the other way, too, when we easily, casually, use language, but we do not fully inhabit that language- we co-opt it to meet our needs and do not actually live it.

We started a new school to live our language- not just to say that we are developmentally appropriate, or that we pay attention to the whole child, or that we are experiential and place-based, but to inhabit those pieces of language fully. When an 8th or a 9th grader starts to wrestle with questions of fairness and independence, this is the time to study social justice. Knowing that a student’s family is going through divorce, or that she just lost a pet, means that student’s teachers need to understand that expectations now have another filter on them. To be of this place is to be in this place- to experience it fully from its landscape, to its people, to how we survive in a world covered in snow five months of the year. Living our language lets us do all of these things, but only if we commit fully to it.

I continually struggle describing The Sage School because a major part of our current culture is the soundbite, the synopsis, the elevator pitch. How do I sum up in 30 seconds what is designed to be seven years of education? How do I do this in an educational world where, increasingly, everyone uses the same catchphrases?

My goal is not to show that The Sage School is the same as other schools, but rather that the school brings a different focus to education. Humans learn through story and experience, and now more than ever we need the experience of our past to inform what we want to do and how we want to be in the future. We need to modernize an ancient process and teach students differently. Or rather, I need to. I understand that not everyone wants this, which makes it particularly challenging when so many schools use the same language.

Ultimately, we can break The Sage School down into its Spanish and Math and Writing curricula; into its focus on Human Ecology; into how we believe that being of and in this place is critical enough to schedule community action every week; into how we both honor and celebrate adolescents. These are all important. However, something critical is missing. I found Wade Davis’s description of Polynesian navigators in Wayfinders nicely captures what this is:

But as we isolate, deconstruct, even celebrate these specific intellectual and observational gifts, we run the risk of missing the entire point, for the genius of Polynesian navigation lies not in the particular but in the whole, the manner in which all of these points of information come together in the mind of the wayfinder.

The magic of The Sage School is not in its elemental parts, but in how we weave them together. It is not in the words and phrases of our curriculum, but in the entire language of the school.

3 January 2019 – Harry Weekes