Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

John Bremer 1927-2015

Socrates had something which I would like to have myself and which lies behind my educational work. It is this: that even when he faces death, even when he faces the dissolution of his mortal life, he is nevertheless able to face the situation as if it were an educational opportunity. He responds to it in an educational way, not only for himself, but for his friends. I myself, I suspect, would be scared. I would not only be scared, I would be so scared that I would be more concerned about the possibility of surviving than I would be about the possibility of leaving this world gracefully or in an educational manner. What is it that Socrates had? I would like to indicate in a general way what I think his achievement was because it is at the center of my own thinking now.
John Bremer, A Matrix for Modern Education, p 9 (1973)

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of John Bremer on November 30.

I did not know Bremer intimately and we never met, but we emailed during the last years of his life. (How I wish I had moved more quickly to interview him, as we had discussed.) What he may have been like in person I do not know, but I read his books and treasured his correspondence, and every encounter with his words underscored the slowly dawning impression that he was the real thing: a lover of wisdom.

He was deeply committed to learning and scholarship and he took meticulous time on careful, detail-laden readings of a broad range of cultural texts: from Plato and Homer, to anonymous English ballads and Shakespeare, to the traditional dances of England. At the same time, his close readings were always alive to the real matters. These accounts -- I'm thinking especially of his work on the Meno, the Ion, and above all the Polity (as he often insisted on calling the dialogue usually called the Republic) -- were fine-grained to the level of syllable-counts. He articulated and substantiated a picture of Plato (and by extension, much ancient philosophy) as extraordinarily attentive to the questions of literary form. But he was insistent that these analyses only had any real point in the context of the work Plato called us to: learning how to live. When Jay Kennedy lately announced that he had discovered a musical structure to many Platonic dialogues, Bremer gently reminded readers that this claim (along different lines) had been made some twenty-five years previously by Bremer himself, to say nothing of the intersecting work of Ernest McClain in the 1970's. But Bremer's more substantive point was not about academic chronological priority. It was, rather, that the question over whether Kennedy's claims were credible obscured much deeper and more pressing concerns with what threatened to be a swarm of mathematical minutiae.
Even if Jay Kennedy and myself have understood something of the mathematical structure of Plato's dialogues, there remains the question that Plato is always asking: How does this effect the way a man should live? Or what is its relation to the Good? If we don't face those questions, we might as well do crossword puzzles.
Bremer never lost sight of these problems and he persued them doggedly but without airs for his whole life. His career as a radical educator (though he may not have wanted the term "radical," he certainly was one -- in the etymological sense of one who goes to the roots -- compared to the status quo of his day or ours) began with re-educating ex-Hitler Youth in Germany after World War II, and took him through several professorial positions in England; to New York City where he headed a school district; then to Philadelphia in the late 1960's where he helped to found and run the Parkway Program, a "school without walls" in which the city of Philadelphia became the campus of students; then to British Columbia where he served as Commissioner of Education; to Australia where he found the Education Supplement for The Australian newspaper; finally to Massachusetts where he founded the Institute of Open Learning, which became Cambridge College.

This curriculum vitae looks, and is, very impressive; but it was not a smooth ride. Bremer and his wife Anne came to the United States together following a case of professional discrimination against Anne; later, Bremer resigned his post in New York in frustration over his incapacity to actually change the school system. He said at the time,
If we wish to improve the education of children in New York City public schools, it is my opinion that this can only be done if we can change the relationship between child and teacher, between child and child, and between child and material. To change these relationships involves the total re-structuring of the New York City public school system.
This far-sighted radicalism could only collide violently with the status quo, and collide it did. This inevitably led to more reversals: the Parkway Program, despite its obvious successes, was essentially re-absorbed back into a traditionally-structured brick-and-mortar model; Bremer was dismissed from his position in British Columbia (the Education Minister said carefully that "we both want to create the finest education system here, but we differ as to the manner in which it is to be achieved"); and Cambridge College, where Bremer was Professor of Humanities from 2005 to 2008, later seemed to him to be a disappointment, having lost its vision and floundered in financial mismanagement. (It is still operating, still accredited, and may yet validate its founder's hopes.)

Bremer never glossed over these setbacks; he simply held to his vision, and his legacy in education is indisputable, though he may be remembered by name only by a few. The Parkway Program, especially, inspired a large number of experiments in education, many of which still hold to their principles against the odds. The genesis of this project was, of course, not idealism; it was money. Bremer had been called in to help with "decentralizing" some of the city's overcrowded schools as a way of wrestling with tremendous budget shortfalls. Bremer saw it as an opportunity to do a great deal more than make ends meet:
Once the confines of classroom and school were removed, it would be possible to re-define, to re-structure, the whole educational process. The freedom and responsibility of the student could become paramount.
Bremer reconfigured the whole administrative apparatus of a public high school; it became a genuinely (and, to some, shockingly) collaborative venture between students and faculty. The school was divided into self-governing units which held weekly "town meetings" where the curriculum was planned and discussed. Students told teachers what they hoped to learn; teachers proposed to students what they needed to know. Age distinctions dwindled. Attendance was not mandatory. No letter-grades were given; they were replaced by individual written evaluations of the students' work. An informal atmosphere prevailed; "Students can smoke in class, call teachers by their first names, and utter four-letter words without inhibition," Time magazine reported. To this day there are students who refer to it as one of the best periods of their lives.

Though the district leaders may have been taken aback by getting more than they bargained for, the opportunity was ripe for such experiments (it was 1968, the same year the Sudbury Valley School was established), and the Parkway Program experienced considerable success, not to mention notoriety. The write-up in Time brought educators flocking to see how it was done. Bremer tried to make sure that no one misunderstood it along the lines of counter-cultural clichés: the Parkway program was not "unstructured;" it was structured differently. "I don't know what an unstructured experience would be," he said, and in any case no learning transpires without structure. The question was: what structures would best support learning?

I've already mentioned Bremer's close attention to Plato. The "structure" he found there was extreme; no one could accuse him of being slapdash. One example: he believed that the Polity was meant to be read in a single day; that if you paid heed to clues in the text you could discern which day of the year it was set on; and that, if you had read it at the relevant (Greek) latitude on that day, the text coinciding with key moments (sunrise, sunset, midnight, noon) would reveal a meta-structural significance.

Or again: why is Apollo, the god of poetry, never named in Plato's Ion which is devoted to the nature of poetry? Bremer has recourse to a careful reading of Plutarch, extensive music tuning theory, and painstaking count of the number of syllables in the dialogue to answer this one, which I will leave to the reader to discover in his book Plato's Ion: Philosophy as Performance.

But perhaps even more than in these readings of the ancients, Bremer's attention to structure and how it enabled learning emerged in his love of dance, especially the folk-dance inheritance of England -- dances he believed to be remnants of a pan-European ritual tradition. He knew and taught these folk dances for years, sensing his body and abilities change until he could no longer leap as he once had but feeling that in some ways he was a better dancer as an old man than he had ever been in his prime. I did not know him as a dancer -- everything about this aspect of his life I learned from his writings -- but to me it epitomizes the secret that kept him from false modesty and false seriousness alike:
The music is more important than the steps and figures. Anyway, I should know the tune and be able to prepare my body to move in cooperation with it—that kind of mastery comes with experience, but is not reducible to absolute rules. But knowing as well as possible the tune and the dance steps and figures does not make the dance; they mark off the limits of possibility within which the dance can be created.

This seems most important to me. Within the limits of possibility, the dance is created. It does not pre-exist, nor is it constituted by the figures and not even by the tune—these are its pre-conditions but they are not its essence. The essence, the mystery, is what I, as dancer, create within those limits.
Bremer knew his limits. As an educator one could enact certain opportunities, and make information available, exemplify and even train expertise. But that is a matter of setting up a structure. There the educator reaches a limit, a limit inherent in the nature of human freedom. "Each person is free to learn for himself, and that freedom cannot be exercised by anyone else," he said -- almost a tautology, one might think, but easily lost. There is, Bremer maintained, a "second kind of education,"
a kind that has almost been forgotten. If the first kind of education is characterized by passivity, by a taking in, by memorization, by submission, then this second kind is characterized by activity, by a generous giving out, and by a creativity which shows, for example, the moral purposes that the acquired knowledge might serve.

But, it may well be asked, how do we carry out this second kind of education? And the answer is, we don’t. It is not something that teachers can do; only learners can do it, and they must do it for themselves. All that the teacher can do is, first, to help the students understand what has happened to them in their prior education and, secondly, to clear away the obstacles and impediments to the freedom of creativity. We do not give students their creative power—nature has done that by giving them what may be called a soul.
Eventually Bremer came to the most basic of limits: time. I do not know just how he faced his death, but his whole life had been bent toward making it an educational opening for himself and others. In a late email he told me about last words of Socrates, that
'We owe a cock to Asklepios' ... is almost universally misunderstood. Their true meaning I am sure is that they were the customary sacrifice to Asklepios on the birth of a child.
Towards the end, his computer crashed and he lost a large amount of work. Writing to me in some frustration but without a trace of self-pity, he said that he was struggling to re-organize his thoughts, and that perhaps it would be better thus; then he added, wryly, "Horace was right, but I don't have nine years." He had, though, something better -- what Socrates had.

He was referring to the adage from the Epistle On the Art of Poetry:
...if at any time you do write anything, submit it to the hearing of the critic Maecius, and your father's and mine as well; then put the papers away and keep them for nine years. You can always destroy what you have not published, but once you have let your words go they cannot be taken back.
We are fortunate that he wrote what he did. In one of his last emails he had told me,
I only ever thought that I could do two things tolerably well: one was dancing, the other writing. And they seemed not unconnected for I am very conscious of the rhythm in what I write and of the 'figures' of the 'argument'.
A dance cannot be "put away," for it happens in the moment, and is gone. As to the writing that might have happened, it is gone too. What we have is what he published (many examples can be found on his website, which I hope will continue to be maintained and updated): work that is wise, generous, and self-effacing; that turns close analysis -- every "step" -- to the service of the largest and most open questions.

Memory Eternal.


  1. This is lovely -- thank you. I feel, from this, that it is a cruel injustice that I got to spend so much time with John, and you so little. I'll post something on him in the next week or so. Thank you.

    Memory Eternal!

  2. I wrote something about John here:


    1. A great post, and well worth reading especially for anyone who wants a more personal perspective on what it was like to know him.