Our 43rd Commencement

To be honest, the student talks stole the show. Barry Lopez was incredible. The whole day felt very, very special. Here’s what I had to say at the ceremony:

Forty-three years ago, we came together for our first graduation.

We had no tent. We had no accreditation, for that matter. We gathered in a gravel parking lot in what is today the Newlin Gardens – the red bricks – and celebrated the accomplishments of two students, Bill Ginn and Cathy Johnson.

They were both transfer students, Bill from Amherst College and Cathy from Yale.

Can you imagine that conversation? “Mom, Dad, I’m leaving Yale after three years to get my degree from a non-accredited school in its first year with three dozen students and a few faculty and no departments and one major on some Island in Maine.”

Today Bill is helping lead the world’s most influential conservation organization: the Nature Conservancy. Cathy is the senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine and is leading the charge to create a new National Park in Maine’s North Woods.

Like the folks seated behind me, those two thrived here as students and continue to thrive as human ecologists working for a better planet. And like all the 2150 COA graduates, they shaped the institution that so powerfully shaped them. That’s because COA is not a monolith, but something more akin to clay that’s been worked by the hands of students just as much as by the staff and faculty, as much as the trustees and friends. And the 43 years of dialogue between hands and clay is what has given COA the form we know today.

Sometimes the changing form is tough, like when staff members Puranjot Khalsa, Charley Farley, and Khristian Mendez move on or when faculty members Heath Cabot and Nishi Rajakaruna leave for new adventures. Thank you for everything you’ve done here. Even with change, today’s form is beautiful and one I feel lucky to be a part of.

Today there’s a tent in case of rain. We’re accredited. We’re a bit bigger – today we’re celebrating 82 graduates from 24 states and 13 countries. And where the tent, the size, the accreditation, the permanence has inspired more confidence among families, these graduates are every bit the explorers and adventurers of those early years.

I am honored to share this day with such adventurous people.

I brooded over that word – honored. Presidents throw such words around a lot during commencement time.

But while brooding I’ve been to scores of senior project presentations and other class and individual projects. There’s nothing better than the last three weeks of spring term. I wish you all could have just camped out here on the north lawn to be a part of the experience: performance, music composition and improvisation, scholarly research, film, drama, clowning, sculpture, mathematics, charcuterie and I’ve left each of those experiences with mouth agape, with eyes unblinking: the intellectual maturity, the creativity, the skill of these works has left me 100% satisfied with the authenticity of the word honored.

In the midst of all these projects, I took a day off and spent last Saturday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, MassMoCA. COA faculty member in painting and drawing Sean Foley opened an exhibit he curated there entitled Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Wonder.

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Sean Foley and I at the MassMoCA Opening

During the 6-hour drive there, the exhibit opening, and the 6-hour return trip I had time to meditate on the word wonder and I’ve decided to use it in an evolving description of COA graduates. I’ve got this shtick: at each graduation I use this welcome address to build what I think is an increasingly accurate description of the College of the Atlantic graduate. Just to review: COA folk are scrappy, they get stuff done creatively and without hand holding; but they temper their scrappiness with thought and are thus contemplatively scrappy. They are appropriately humble, yet they know when the time is right to be bold and act on an idea. They are contemplatively scrappy humble activists.

 

 

I will now add wonderful to that description. Wonderful not in the way my grandmother described the doilies on her dining room table, but in the way Sean meant it in the exhibit.

Sean describes wonder as that space between not knowing and knowing and as something that precedes and is wholly distinct from curiosity. Where curiosity typically leads to research, problem solving and other practical things – wonder doesn’t always do that. Wonder is ephemeral. It is emotional, it exists before thoughts or words can pin it down, and it is the stuff that causes mouths to drop, eyes to bulge, pulses to quicken.

Our students are wonderful in the sense that they are full of wonder, inclined to states of wonder; but they are also wonderful, in the sense that their work provokes the feeling of wonder in others.

In the exhibit narrative at MassMoCA Sean emphasized the words of Ray Bradbury who asks that we find ways to wonder every day and at things that might otherwise be considered mundane. How can we move through the world with this openness to wonder? How can we actually cultivate it? That’s what COA is all about.

One way we can do this is to both practice and to develop reverence for art. I firmly believe that it is only through a society-wide embrace of the visual, the aural, and the performative arts that we can change the trajectory of our world away from what can sometimes feel hopeless. It is art that will recalibrate our sense of value and our perverse perspective on what’s useful; it is art that will allow us to negotiate the complexity of the human individual, human society and the natural world. Wonder provokes art, and art, wonder in a very powerful virtuous circle.

Second, careful and patient observation of the world around us can also provoke wonder. That kind of observation is the root of the practice we call natural history, a practice elemental to so much of what we do here, so much of the inspiration behind COA projects, even those you would not normally consider natural history. And, although I’m leaving the introduction of our Commencement Speaker Barry Lopez to my friend and colleague Galen Hecht, I here have to say that Barry’s work is some of the most important, most powerful natural history the world has ever experienced and we are so fortunate to have him here on campus. His work is both inspired by and inspires wonder.

In Barry’s writing he rarely comes out and says “this is the way it should be.” But he takes this tact at least once in an essay called The Passing Wisdom of Birds where he makes a very definite suggestion. Our world is in the middle of an attentional apocalypse and to dig out of this hole Barry stresses the need for more natural history and more natural historians and suggests every college should have a position called campus natural historian.

In honor of Barry, I am taking his advice and am creating the position of the Barry Lopez Student Natural Historian at COA. In the fall, I will solicit suggestions from the faculty and staff and give a student the title, a small budget and a charge to explore, observe, and describe wonder on our campus.

So there is wonder from art and there is wonder from the patient and precise observation of natural history. But what would our world be if all wonder remained trapped in the minds of the wondering? Such a world would be confused! It would be selfish. And so a necessary third method for catalyzing wonder is through the story and the storyteller. To draw from Barry’s work again, “everything is held together with stories.” Stories and story telling are the connective tissue holding human society together; they are also the crucibles for transmitting wonder from one person to the next.

So we have at least these three methods for provoking virtuous cycles of wonder: art, natural history, story telling. Notice how they parallel the COA curriculum: art aligning with art and design; natural history as a key element of scientific inquiry; story telling as the fabric of human studies. It should be no surprise then that these students, these graduates are full of wonder and full of the potential to inspire it in others. With that I present to you the COA class of 2016, now part of the College of the Atlantic alumni community of wonderful, contemplatively scrappy, humble activists. Congratulations.

Japan, Chapter 8: Homeward Bound

Day 6: Homeward bound

For the first time during my short stay in Japan, I had some free time to wander and I did that through the streets of Tokyo. What a beautiful city. Stunning. I cannot tell a lie: I saw a woman with a Starbucks Coffee cup and, catching her with a few frantic but effective Ohaiyo gozaimas’s (Imagine being chased down with “Good morning! Good morning! Good morning!”), she directed me to the nearest shop where I drank the mass-produced, commoditized, and fantastically delicious nectar of the gods.

Over tea and waffles (sic) we discussed some possible next steps: get some sleep, discuss the ten-day pilot course (how about, for a name, “Human Ecology Lab and Island Odyssey,” HELIO?) with faculty, staff, students, and the board at COA, get the folks at Japlan hooked up with Patagonia-USA, invite a COA faculty member to Tokyo to serve on a panel of Ashoka Youth presentations in March, create a program outline for HELIO, ask Makiko if she would be interested in taking and perhaps helping organize the course, pitching the HELIO course to other Ashoka U colleges at the upcoming meeting in New Orleans, LA, find at least a half dozen appropriately minded Japanese college students to take the lab … on and on and on.

***

On the subway ride to catch the express train to Narita Airport to catch the flight to JFK Nagao-sensei, Okanako-san and I sat across from a young mother with an all-smiles toddler. “There was a woman,” Nagao-sensei began, “who was born in Hiroshima several days before the bomb dropped. Though 80,000 people were evaporated instantly and another 70,000 died before the end of the year, she had somehow survived. The infant became a toddler, like that child sitting across from us, and soon showed signs of radiation poisoning. She became the poster-child for the Japanese government’s initiative for understanding the long-term effects of radiation. About every week she was hauled before a group of Japanese scientists, asked to disrobe, and was poked and prodded and otherwise humiliated in the name of science. The radiation had stunted her growth, but the life-long public nudity and objectification stunted her psyche. The Enola Gay pilot became her white whale. What she wouldn’t due to that man if she could get within inches of his throat!

“One day the woman, now in her 50s, was again paraded around for some formal government function and was introduced to an American man she had never seen before. Shaking her hand, the elderly man began to sob uncontrollably. ‘Please forgive me; please forgive us; I’m so, so sorry. What have I done!’

“At the very moment the elderly man’s quivering hand touched her own the vitriol that lived within her – a vitriol that compounded one-hundredfold any poison or humiliation – evaporated. They wept together. The woman was at last at peace.”

I looked over at that little girl now climbing around her mother’s neck, still all-smiles and felt that uncomfortable, uncontrollable flood of tears begin to well up. “Hold it together Darron,” I told myself and bit my tongue.

I’ve said it at least once: Japan has a complicated relationship with things at the atomic level. This trip and now this feeling I wrestled with was, at its root, about this same complicated relationship. I thought about COA’s founder Father Jim Gower, whose grave I had visited just a week before leaving for Japan. I thought about his original name for COA, The Acadian Peace College. I’m not sure what will come from my time here in Japan, but I can honestly say that something new and inspired had awoken within me, something I think would have brought an ear-to-ear smile to Father Gower’s face approximating the angelic and ultimately happy comportment of that little girl.

Japan, Chapter 7: Tokyo

Day 5: Tokyo – Government meetings and Ashoka Japan

I’ve always considered myself more at home in the countryside than the city, and my experiences in Japan have confirmed that so far. But I fell in love with endless and impeccable Tokyo. The emperor and empress reside in the city center behind an enormous, meticulously constructed stonewall and mote. I’m convinced the metro system will someday become a World Heritage Site. The streets are narrow and twisted and they sparkle. Pruned ginkgo trees divide the streets from sidewalks. It’s definitional for modernity, yet feels ancient.

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Tokyo Gingko

We started the day in the snows of Kyoto, took the bullet train into the bright blue skies surrounding Mt. Fuji, and by noon were warmly greeted by Kan Susuki-san, the ex-Vice Minister or Education and our champion within the Japanese government. He was so incredibly impressed by our progress and left Nagao-sensei and me with the sense that he will help our idea flourish.

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Mt. Fuji from the Bullet Train to Tokyo

It was during this meeting that I began to understand why COA was the right model in the minds of my colleagues. The educational reform we sought would be accelerated most rapidly through the brand and approach of Ashoka. COA was the perfect model because a) we were founded with the intention of helping inspire the revitalization of a rural island community and, b) we were an early Ashoka U Changemaker Campus, that is, one of just 33 colleges in the world selected by Ashoka as fully embracing their ideals. Lending COA’s vision and pedagogy and lending COA’s brand would mean establishing the first Ashoka U educational entity in East Asia.

The clarity in my own mind was refreshing and helped me envision a way forward where I could authentically and appropriately develop the necessary support back home. Importantly, this new found clarity didn’t really change the idea of a “pilot program” as outlined in Day 2.

Following the meeting with Kan Susuki-san, we met with three executives from a recycling company named Japlan (pronounced ‘jay-plan,’ which I thought ominous, given Jay Friedlander’s role in this whole adventure). The CEO is an Ashoka Fellow (anointed annually by Ashoka Japan as someone emblematic of socially-responsible innovation) and has put together some of the smartest and most entrepreneurial materials scientists who have managed to squeeze much more out of waste materials – both clothing and electronics – than ever before imaginable. They have a bid, for instance, to harvest the precious metals from old cell phones to be able to melt and forge the gold, silver, and bronze medals for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The folks at Japlan were enthralled by our ideas for educational reform and will undoubtedly support our early initiatives.

My big show came on the evening of this, my final day in Japan. Nana-san, the Executive Director of Ashoka Japan, organized an exquisite gathering at the offices of a young publisher of progressive Japanese texts. More than thirty entrepreneurs came to hear about the College of the Atlantic: Ashoka fellows, Friends of Ashoka, and Ashoka Youth – a mixed-age army for Japanese educational reform.

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Getting ready to speak about COA to the crowds at Ashoka Japan

I gave a 30-minute talk I’d pulled together during my scant down time on the trip: a discussion of the place, the people, and pedagogy of COA and of my immediate reflections on my whirlwind tour of Japan. They appreciated how I peppered the talk with Japanese phrases I’d learned, no matter how pitiful the pronunciation. They especially liked my final slide: a selfie of me taking my onsen in OK. They roared and gave me a standing ovation.

It was hard to believe I’d be heading back to MDI tomorrow.

Japan, Chapter 6: Kyoto

Day 4: Kyoto, Makiko’s parents, and academic partners

When Nagao-sensei and I were first putting this trip together, I mentioned my affinity for moss and bragged about the moss on Mount Desert Island. “I too like moss,” she replied, “and so we will stop in Kyoto on the way back to Tokyo.”

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Sugidama in the train station: Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria spp.)

That journey began with cancelled ferries from OK due to high winds and crossing on the last jet boat from the island before that service was cancelled as well. We then climbed over a high, snowy pass to the station for the bullet train — shinkansen, or “new train.” My ethnobotanical nose led me right to the sugidama, a ball of cut and shaped Cryptomeria that’s used to publicize the freshness of the last saki batch. A green sugidama denotes fresh and a darkened brown, aged.

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The bullet train, shinkansen

My nose for high speeds (plus Nagao-sensei and the need to get north quickly) brought us to the bullet train, which was unfortunately running at half speed due to the snow. Our arrival in Kyoto was delayed a few hours, but we still had time to visit the Silver and Golden Pagoda. Though both places were aesthetically brilliant, the crowds of tourists left me with that Disney World stomach. I found more favor in the 500-year-old Buddhist temple on OK.

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The Golden Pagoda: As if I were the only one there

If you’re a moss, January is your hardest month and you wouldn’t want people judging you on your looks during that month. But — wow — the moss in Kyoto gives MDI and the coastal forests of Oregon a run for their money. For me, the moss work here in Kyoto is emblematic of all that is great with the traditionalism of Japan I spoke of earlier in this series. I snapped a few photos and sent them off to my colleague Rodney Eason, the director of the Land and Garden Preserve back on MDI, which overseas the care and curation of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Gardens, my high water mark for moss.

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A masterpiece of moss, the Silver Pagoda moss gardens in Kyoto

We spent the late afternoon and evening in the hotel lobby. Nagao-sensei’s colleagues from her old place of employment at the Women’ College were there – a geographer and art historian. Jay Friedlander had met with them previously and they struck me as the perfect collaborators. The Japanese use an expression “s/he has the same smell” to mean that a person is sympathetic to your own way of being – these guys smelled like us.

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Dr. and Mrs. Yoshida

The highlight of the evening came at 8pm, when I had the opportunity to meet Makiko Yoshida’s mother and father. Makiko is a second year student at the College of the Atlantic – a terrific young woman who is also currently COA’s All College Meeting moderator. Her parents were wonderful – smart, thoughtful, kind, sincere. Makiko’s mother actually graduated from the UWC-Atlantic College in Wales. Dad is a faculty member in the social sciences at Osaka-prefecture University. Both, fortuitously, are focused on inspiring educational reform in Japan. The apple does not fall far from tree. The whole family may very well turn out to be important partners in our efforts here.

Japan, Chapter 5: Hiroshima

Day 3, Part 2: Hiroshima

Japan has a complicated relationship with the atomic world that spawned precisely at 8:15 am on August 6, 1945. At that moment an atomic bomb named Little Boy detonated 1900 feet above the city center and incinerated 80,000 lives. I suppose there’s no good name for a bomb, but that one seems about as bad as it can get.

Over the next three months another 70,000 died from exposure to the radiation. Countless others perished in a most gruesome way as the months and years passed. The event is venerated in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

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View from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – Little Boy exploded across the field and 1900 feet in the air.

Following the tranquility of the zen center, the excitement of the signing ceremony, and the ferry and car ride to the city of Hiroshima, I had a 45 minute window to see the museum before having to head out and meet the governor. Those unfortunately hurried 45 minutes flipped some switch inside – something I’ll expound on in the conclusion to this series.

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A 14-year old girl’s clothing who died from the bombing – this was the exhibit that hit me most personally

I won’t go into too much detail about my experience at the museum. I will say that when I came to exhibit #21, which features the clothes of a 14-year-old girl who perished in the event, the personal nature of the connection between that poor girl and my own 14-year-old daughter Maggie was unbearable. It was hard to hold back the tears from that point on and I’m sure the governor wondered about my swollen, reddish eyes. Or, on second thought, perhaps he’s quite used to it.

The governor was a thoughtful, generous, smart, and highly refined guy who had studied at Stanford Business School not long after COA board chairman Will Thorndike. More serendipity. Governor Yuzaki is championing educational reform and wants to make Hiroshima the HQ for the country’s move in that direction. I proposed that Nagao-sensei, the Governor, and I co-author a short piece about how the Fukushima disaster inspired educational reform and outlining some of the early elements of that reform. Though we only had thirty minutes with him, the governor was wildly enthusiastic about supporting the unfolding relationship between COA, Ashoka Japan, and the municipality of Osakikamijima.

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From left to right: Okamoto-san (OK businessman and partner), Nanako Watanabe (Head of Ashoka Japan), me, Hidehiko Yuzaki (Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture), Nagao-sensei, and Courtney Lawrence (DSIL) – looking at three different photographers.

We then drove back to the ferry, crossed back onto the inland, drove around in the dark, and somehow found our way to an amazing restaurant. I could never find it again if I had to. It was a one-table restaurant, run out of what felt like the living room of the chef’s house. I was spent from the long day. The sake didn’t help. I ate more raw fish than I ever thought possible and ended the meal with shabu-shabu: thin slices of raw meat you submerge in boiling water and then douse with a ginger- and vinegar-spiced soy sauce. I slept very well.

My last thought as I finally closed my eyes: College of the Atlantic’s co-founder Father Jim Gower originally intended for the college to be called the Acadian Peace College.

Japan, Chapter 4: MOU

Day 3, Part 1: Meetings and Idea Formation

My third day in Japan was an 18-hour affair. I’ll split it in two sections for this blog.

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Onsen – an inspiring if impractical place to write.

I woke up with another onsen and was inspired to bring my notebook and try and capture the conversations we had yesterday. We needed more form to our ideas. The exercise was very productive, though the water in liquid and gas forms at the onsen made writing a bit of a challenge. This is what that session produced:

 

 

 

A College of the Atlantic-Ashoka U Changemakers Lab in Osakikamijima, Hiroshima       

Goals:

  1. Seed educational reform in Japan with young minds committed to strong, independent, multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural learning.
  2. Inspire the economic and intellectual revitalization of the Seto Inland Sea of Japan, with tangible economic, intellectual, and cultural benefits accruing to Osakikamijima Island and other communities in the region.

Some of the specific ideas we discussed included:

  • Begin small and excellent
  • Consider incorporating high school students in the mix
  • Pursue a 1:1 ratio of students from Japan and abroad
  • Tap the expertise, name recognition, and human resources from Ashoka, the College of the Atlantic, Designing for Social Innovation and Leadership (DSIL- Center for Executive Education (CEE) at the United Nations University for Peace and Conflict), and Osakikamijima Island.
  • Begin with a ten-day summer pilot program in 2016 with two dozen students
  • Balance the long-standing commitment to tradition in Japan with the openness of globalized education.
  • Initially focus the curriculum on the economic sustainability of Osakikamijima Island, Energy and Food Security and Sustainability, and human ecology.

I read this summary to my colleagues on the way to the zen center. They were happy and felt it reflected a consensus in a way we hadn’t been able to articulate before.

We prayed and practiced zazen in the early morning. The immaculate temple was built in 1545, but neither the antiquity nor the beauty helped my knees and stubby legs find their way to the full lotus position. I sat cross-legged and my mind wandered, but it was a great experience and the monk was a generous, thoughtful, inspiring guy.

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The Buddhist temple on Osakikamijima

We then went to the town office where we were scheduled to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. Such a signing always makes me nervous. I never want to promise more than I can deliver and felt a little odd signing something where there’s been so little discussion with my COA colleagues. But signing something was important to the mayor who generously paid for my entire trip. After some careful wordsmithing and negotiations, we settled on the following language:

“Osakikamijima municipality and College of the Atlantic will explore ways to establish an Ashoka-recognized college on the island of Osakikamijima based on the College of the Atlantic pedagogy.”

We signed away. It felt like we were signing a peace treaty, bombarded by camera flashes from the crowd. I think the MOU was appropriately vague and useful — there was certainly the sense in the air that the municipality was excited to support any efforts that might emerge.

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The OK mayor and I with our signed MOU

My colleagues felt they could garner financial support for the ten-day pilot as laid out in the summary above. To me it seemed like a low-risk experience that could raise the profile of COA, offer an exciting opportunity for COA students, and be a good “first step” toward doing something larger if there was continued interest among our faculty, staff, students, and board. The benefits to the island and to the educational system of Japan as a whole would be further off, but this pilot program could very well set the stage for those larger goals. That the College of the Atlantic began with a similar pilot program focused on the future of Bar Island in Frenchman Bay, Maine was not lost on me.

We bowed and headed for the ferry and Hiroshima City.

Japan, Chapter 3: Getting to know the island and the mayor

Day 2

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Map of Japan, showing approximate location of Osakikamijima.

Osakikamijima (henceforth OK) is an island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan about a third the size of MDI and home to 8000 year-round residents. Some absurdly high percentage of that population is over 65 and most young people leave for the cities after high school. People make a living primarily from the ship building industry, by growing citrus, and by cultivating blueberry (yes! blueberries — high bush, not low bush — coincidence?). The idea is to bring a new “industry” to the island: education. In the minds of my guests, this island and Hiroshima Prefecture as a whole will be the sharp edge of the wedge for the educational reforms I spoke of yesterday. Education is also meant to be the lifeline for a much-needed renaissance on the island; not too different from the model inspired by Les Brewer, Father Jim Gower, and founding president Ed Kaelber for COA and MDI back in ’69.

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Panorama shot from Mt. Kannomine

Today I learned the lay of the land here and met the other primary drivers for this reform: Nanako Watanabe (head of Ashoka Japan), Okamoto-san (the island’s “Les Brewer,” a businessman on OK), and Courtney Lawrence (former faculty at HJU and education expert/consultant). OK is indeed beautiful and the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea are certainly an inviting backdrop. Better than inviting — gorgeous. The finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides) calls these waters home. We summited the island’s highest point, Mt. Kannomine.  At 453 meters above sea level (1486 feet above sea level, just 50 feet shy of our own Cadillac Mtn.), one can see 105 islands. But, if there’s one word to describe the place, it’s quiet … very quiet. Granted, it’s Sunday and January is a cold, grey month. I suppose it’s not very far removed from a cold, winter day in the streets of Bar Harbor or any other hamlet on MDI. But here there is not the same influx of tourism, summer residents, and the surge of summer we feel back home.

Maybe more than any other country in Asia, tradition has something of a strangle hold on Japan. In many cases that tradition has bred true excellence: in craftsmanship, attention to detail, work ethic, respect, etc. The Fukushima disaster has started to loosen the grip on the more problematic results of traditionalism. In terms of education, it reminds me of what happened to public education in New York City toward the end of the last century. The poverty, crime, and income inequality there was wreaking such havoc with the public schools that the city all but threw up its hands and said, “All right then. We don’t know what to do. If you have an idea or an experiment, have at it.” That sense of newfound openness is what gave rise to the myriad experimental and innovative schools we see today in NYC. Hopefully the same might happen here, just not inspired by poverty, crime and income inequality.

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The meal that made Eddie proud (and envious)

I ended the day feeling as if I’d been bathed in that “fifth taste,” umami. I’ll admit, I’m not a big fan of seafood and generally despise things of the olive-pickle-fish-tasting family. We had an enormous, formal dinner filled with fish where the mayor and I were the honored guests. Thankfully, my anthropological instinct and training kicked in. I watched a live abalone be set upon a flame and squirm to its last breath. After dousing the shriveled bi-valve in lime juice, I ate it, chased it with saki, and then texted COA-alumnus Eddie Monet. He was envious. I wish I could relish in the cultural novelty that is Japanese cuisine. Intellectually, perhaps. I ended the day with an onsen (Japanese hot spring bath) before hitting the hay.

Tomorrow is probably the most important day of the trip.

Japan, Chapter 2: A Day of Travel and Understanding

Day 1: Travel from Bar Harbor to Bangor for 5:25am flight, Bangor to LaGuardia Airport, LaGuardia Airport to JFK Airport, JFK to Tokyo, Tokyo to Hiroshima, Hiroshima to Osaki-kamijima Island via ferry

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A long day of travel, but one without incident

As if the title doesn’t explain it, today was a brutal travel day; brutal, but without incident. I met Dr. Hiromi Nagao (hereafter and correctly Nagao-sensei) at the airport in Hiroshima and had a few hours of travel time with her to begin to understand her own goals and the state of education and educational reform in Japan. The key takeaway from these conversations involves the Fukushima Nuclear disaster of 2011 – what the Japanese refer to as “3/11.”

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Reactor control room at Fukushima 1 nuclear power plant in Japan This photo was taken on June 23, 1999 during a tour of the plant. Creative Commons License 2.0, generic.

That catastrophe inspired a lot of things but, curiously, it also inspired sweeping educational reform. The reaction to the event from the various ministries was that, of all the failures, it was the educational system that failed first and foremost. The string of bad decisions and general human error were tied back, in the opinion of the federal government and Nagao-sensei, to an educational system that placed too much emphasis on rote memorization, specialization, and information acquisition over true understanding. The managers of the power plant itself and those involved with the response to the disaster lacked the ability to lead multi-disciplinary groups, lacked the power to innovate and think creatively, and lacked the experience necessary to absorb large quantities of information, data, and ideas and respond to them with an appropriate degree of experimentation and adaptive management. Those large gaps inspired Nagao-sensei’s interest in Ashoka and social entrepreneurship. They also inspired her interest and Hisohima Prefecture’s interest in the College of the Atlantic and that is why I am here today. That makes this trip even more interesting than I originally imagined.

Japan, Chapter 1: Introduction.

I spent six days in Japan exploring a possible relationship between COA and an evolving educational entity in that country.  I will encapsulate that experience in a series of 6-8 blog posts beginning with this introduction.

Introduction

It’s Jay’s fault. Jay Friedlander, COA’s Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Socially Responsible Business, convinced me to attend the Ashoka U Presidents’ Experience at Brown University in 2014. Ashoka is the organization founded by Bill Drayton in 1980 to foster a change in the way the world understands entrepreneurship. The world would be a better place, Drayton surmised, if the power of creativity and innovation in the business world could be applied in full force to the social (read: human ecological) difficulties we face. Among the throngs of these social entrepreneurs at the conference, we met Hiromi Nagao.

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Dr. Hiromi Nagao

From 2010 until just recently Dr. Nagao was president of one of the most admired women’s colleges in Japan. Like every other women’s college in Japan, Hiroshima Jogakuin University was more of a finishing school for girls, where the finality was for the alumnae to become the wives of the business elite. Dr. Nagao wasn’t satisfied at all with that end-state and managed to champion some significant reforms during her four-year term at HJU. Annoyed by what they considered to be a radical bee in her bonnet, the all-male, all-octogenarian board chose not to renew her contract.

Though close to a retiring age, Dr. Nagao wasn’t going to go down quietly. The 4’11” woman is a whirlwind of intensity, smarts, and vision and is entirely focused on educational reform in Japan. After meeting Jay and me at the Ashoka U meeting, she became enamored with the College of the Atlantic and thought we might have something at COA that could help realize her ambitions.

Six months went by before Jay and I heard back from Dr. Nagao. To be honest, when I received the email from her in the summer of 2015 I had somehow managed to forget her story. The email from Dr. Nagao asked if Jay and I would be interested in visiting her and her colleagues in Japan. I remember internalizing her email as: “we want to start a college in Japan based on the COA model.” I couldn’t afford to leave MDI in August, but Jay was able and excited. (It’s no secret that Jay thinks with his mind, heart, and belly. Japan was his gastrological Mecca.)

Jay made an enormous impact on Dr. Nagao and her colleagues during his short trip and further fueled Dr. Nagao’s interest in COA. In November 2015 I received a second invitation. In Japan, titles are meaningful. “We want the president and we’re willing to pay for your trip so we can discuss mutually beneficial collaborations. I still read, “we want to start a college in Japan based on the COA model.” Armed with a very serious dose of curiosity and a sense of pride fueled by Nagao’s interest in the college, I left for Japan on January 15, 2016.

Proceeding with caution, proceeding with a sense of managing expectations, but proceeding nevertheless felt right.

Income as a proxy for college excellence?

Dear Alumni:

Some of you may have seen an on-line college ranking that uses income after graduation as a proxy for college excellence. Given COA’s emphasis on values and service over the profit motive, it’s probably not much of a surprise to learn we didn’t fare too well on this list. There has been some discussion about this list on social media and I thought you’d like to hear my reactions.

First, it’s heartening to see our alumni question the validity of this ranking and the metrics being used. We aim to educate COA students to critically analyze the source and accuracy of any information – and there certainly exists a world in social media where “top 10” lists, like this one, misuse data out of context to draw dramatic conclusions and get more clicks.

The list in question defines success based solely on income six and ten years after starting college – or between one to six years after graduation, depending on one’s path. These data were originally collected by the US Department of Education and only include students who started as first-time freshmen, received federal financial aid in college, and filed a tax return during the years in question. Not included in the count: anyone in graduate school at the time that the data were gathered; international students; transfer students; students who didn’t receive federal financial aid; anyone who didn’t file a tax return during those years. Business owners declaring a loss in an early-year LLC or other such enterprises are included as income-negative.

In an effort to learn as much as possible from this ranking, we looked at our specific cohort of alumni and determined that, once you account for all of these factors, the sample size in question is somewhere between 15-30 individuals for the ten years post-start group, and an even smaller number for the six year group. That’s an exceedingly small sample size and an inappropriate way to accurately measure outcomes. And, because the data looks at anyone who started at the college in a given year regardless of whether they graduated, our results would also include some students who transferred elsewhere after a term or year, or decided not to graduate from college at all.

For the sake of comparison, and to get a better sense of what COA graduates are doing in the first years after they leave the college, we decided to look more closely at the graduating classes of 2005 and 2006 – students who may have been included in the data released by the DOE. Within this excellent group of alumni, six years after graduation we found a handful of educators, a public-interest lawyer, several artists and musicians, multiple new entrepreneurs, a park service employee, a free-lance journalist, organic farmers – exactly what you might expect our younger alumni to be doing. When I looked through this group and learned about what they were doing in the world shortly after graduation and what they’ve gone on to do since, I was even more excited and prepared to shout our mission and message from the rooftops.

Fold the other graduates into the group and the story becomes all the more interesting. We have a large number of students going on to graduate studies in science, education, business, law, medicine, art, and other fields. Recent COA grads seem to be choosing fields where they can continue learning and building their skills – and jobs where they can provide a service or make a positive impact on the environment or their communities. A recent survey of the graduating class of 2013 tells us that within just one year of graduating, 22% had gone on to graduate school and an additional 65% had started working at a job “in their field.” It’s what we love to see: COA students going out into the world and finding meaningful next steps for work or further study.

The ranking and the ensuing conversation on social media inspired us to have a closer look at a particular cohort of our alumni and gain an understanding about factors they’re facing as they graduate and move into life after COA. Do we want our students to be able to repay debt, earn a living wage, and enjoy the individual and familial security higher education can bring? Of course we do. We’ve recently implemented a more robust and consistent system to better understand how our students move through life after graduation. Part of the rationale for focusing as much as we did on alumni in our most recent strategic planning process (the MAP) was both to capture and use alumni data better and to support alumni more effectively in career placement. We certainly can make improvements to help our graduates find the path toward a job or a career that they’re inspired by and that helps serve the planet and humanity.

But placing undue emphasis on income as a metric of success undervalues the importance of careers in the arts, education, the environment, and – broadly speaking – those jobs we as human ecologists typically pursue. We certainly see human ecologists succeeding in business, medicine, law, and other more high-income careers, but adherence to a simplistic measurement of educational success such as income threatens to undercut the institutions and individuals dedicated to making a difference in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with collecting diachronic data and, to a certain extent, playing the game with such lists can help with our educational mission. I will definitely share any such news and my list-loving mind will likely be pretty excited about it. But do I think all of these lists and rankings tell the story of a COA education? No – and I hope you don’t either.

Be well,

Darron

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