An Interview with Stephen J. Gould: Joltin' Joe and the Pursuit of Excellence

By Golberg, Mark F. | Phi Delta Kappan, January 1997 | Go to article overview

An Interview with Stephen J. Gould: Joltin' Joe and the Pursuit of Excellence


Golberg, Mark F., Phi Delta Kappan


Award-winning author Stephen Jay Gould shares some of his personal history as well as his views on education and contemporary American culture.

Strictly speaking, Stephen Jay Gould is not an educator. He's a paleontologist, Harvard professor, and arguably America's finest and most commercially successful serious science writer. He does not profess to know what is laudable or lamentable about the public schools, since his career in education has been devoted to highly motivated graduate students and undergraduates. Indeed, he describes Harvard as "a school of valedictorians - highly skilled and pretty well motivated" and hardly an accurate microcosm of America's youth. However, Gould does have very strong feelings about what he valued in his own education and what he values in the educational world he knows - not to mention what he misses in today's students and in American culture.

I interviewed Professor Gould in his modem, beautifully renovated, spacious New York loft, which is filled with his artist wife's colorful and fascinating finished works and works-in-progress, built-in storage cabinets and bookcases, lots of books, comfortable furniture, and the old typewriter on which he still prefers to write. Dressed informally and without shoes, Gould graciously invited me into his office and answered all my specific questions, save those related to his immediate family. Not willing to react to a general question, Gould punctuated our interview with the courteous and gently spoken admonition "Be more specific."

The holder of more than two dozen honorary degrees; a charter recipient (1981) of a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship (a "genius award," as they have come to be known); the winner of numerous literary, scholarly, and scientific awards; and the author of 15 books, Gould was pleased to begin the interview with remarks about his own early education. But he cautioned, "I spent more tune playing stickball in the street than I ever did reading when I was a kid."

Stephen Jay Gould is a product of New York City's public schools in their golden age from the late 1940s to about 1960 - the days when the system was filled with "older teachers who had gotten their jobs in the Thirties, in the Depression, many of them overqualified, some of them even Ph.D.s." His second book of essays, The Panda's Thumb, is dedicated to three of his best elementary school teachers, one of whom - Esther Ponti, his fifth-grade teacher - Gould corresponded with "until she died a few years ago." Looking back, Gould says he appreciated Ponti's dedication, toughness, imagination, and especially her willingness to accommodate youngsters with a developing passion for science. "She didn't know much science, and there was little science in the curriculum then. When she realized many of us were interested in science, she would set aside a time each week for us to sit in the back of the room and talk about science. She'd provide materials and books."

When Gould recalls his finest public school teachers, he talks frequently of their dedication to students and their unwavering adherence to high standards. Ted Weinkranz, a history teacher, was a "compassionate man, a committed intellectual." Jean Gollobin, a choral teacher, was "an extraordinarily committed human being who believed in excellence." Again and again, Gould refers to compassion and rigor as the twin characteristics of those teachers he recollects with greatest fondness. His descriptions of his parents are similar. He refers to his mother as a "brave woman and a wise owl" (dedication to Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes) whose devotion to family touched her son; his father, a man of no great education, was nevertheless "an autodidact, a very learned man."

High excellence is the centerpiece of Gould's most enthusiastic memory of public school. "My greatest high school experience was singing in the all-city high school chores. Peter Wilhousky would get together 250 kids from all over the city, the most motley mixture you ever saw - Italian kids from Staten Island, Puerto Rican kids from Manhattan, black kids from Harlem, all of whom liked to sing - and somehow welded us into an almost professional group. …

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