One Of New Trier HS Untold Stories

Steve Chapman recently observed the similarities between the trauma of the 1960s and that of today. But he noted what seemed so extreme then [like the film “Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe”] is deemed pretty tame today.

Now 50 safe years later, I can report that a similar trauma was rippling through not only the nation, but our safe, traditional North Shore schools. However, a tight coterie of educators wanted to bring some of that social trauma right into the isolated History classrooms of one of the nation’s premier high schools: New Trier in Winnetka., IL. Only both administrators and parents harbored serious qualms.

Back then there was no Internet, no smartphones, no social media. What the students were taught was, as was in most of the country, what the administrators and parents wanted taught. It is the very essence of America’s individual school districts’ right to determine their curriculum.

But this group of History educators saw a bold new role for the classroom. To make way, more immediately and unfiltered, information that was already pounding against the protective walls of traditional History teaching. There was Veit Nam…street demonstrations….protest music…underground challenges to the status quo…along with the frightening impact of three violent assassinations [J.F.Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy]. The center was not holding.

Yes, there were still good reasons to insulate the students from some of the raw barrage of these events, but some of us believed it was no longer wise nor possible to isolate them. And while we were not encouraged to smash long established classroom practices by bringing into New Trier these rebellions in their raw reality, we did see an opening for our convictions.

Videotaped encounters with what was happening out there into here…!

Some examples: protest singers like Bob Dylan and Jo Mapes….daring new film critics like Roger Ebert and
Gene Siskel…reformers like Margaret Mead, Ashley Montague, Charles Silberman, Studs Terkel…..trail blazing journalists like Irv Kupcinet and assorted underground reporters ….law breaking reformers like the Black Panthers… social commentators like Bob Newhart….and scientific innovators like B. F. Skinner …and a surprising political newcomer, Gene McCarthy.

It was not likely guests like these would have found a place in the classrooms’ traditional 45 minute periods, but now we had a way to end-run the traditions. We taped interviews in our television studios [the first such studios in the nation’s schools], then made them available to those teachers who saw fit to use them either in the classrooms or as library assignments.

Our premise — a bit arrogantly — was that students in those historic, 24/7 news days were coming to school to have their educations interrupted!

Now a half century later, those of us from those New Trier years of experimentation are few in number. But those remarkable videocassettes are still somewhere in a North Shore storage room. If they have not already oxidized or been altogether forgotten, they may yet be discovered like some ancient Egyptian manuscripts.

I would like to think all those rebellious 1960s interviews still carry an historical punch even today….

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