Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

An Interview with Harold 'Doc' Howe II - 'Stirring the Pot'

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

An Interview with Harold 'Doc' Howe II - 'Stirring the Pot'

Article excerpt

A former U.S. commissioner of education, vice president of the Ford Foundation, and senior lecturer at Harvard tells Mr. Goldberg about his current interests and concerns related to improving society in general and schooling in particular.

AT AGE 82, Harold "Doc" Howe II - commissioner of education under Lyndon Johnson during the high point of school desegregation and later vice president of the Ford Foundation - continues to promote excellence in education, to write for education journals, and to worry about the damaging influence of the standards and testing movement on the opportunities of America's underclass and minorities.

Howe was a child of some privilege. His father was an all-American quarterback at Yale who held religious and academic positions throughout his career. But young Harold also experienced many of the difficulties of American life as a result of family and historical circumstances. For 10 years during the Great Depression and into World War II, Howe's father was the president of Hampton Institute (today Hampton University), a black college in Virginia. Harold attended public school in Hampton for two years, which introduced him to "the South in its segregated condition and probably influenced things I did later in my life."

After a solid secondary education at the Taft School, undergraduate studies at Yale University, and a brief teaching career interrupted by the onset of war, Howe served in the navy from 1942 to 1945 as the captain of a minesweeper. Today, helicopters do naval minesweeping, but at that time the work on a minesweeper was "dull, dirty, and dangerous. Many of the things that had to be done were tough because the ships were frequently exposed to damage and people were being killed." By the end of the war, Howe had commanded missions in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, had experienced disasters at sea from explosions and hurricanes, and had learned some important lessons about leadership.

Howe's understanding of leadership came not by training but by "trial and error, particularly in some very dangerous and difficult assignments toward the end of the war." Howe learned that "leadership works best and your crew will perform better if everyone knows why they're being asked to do things and not when they're told, 'Just do it. Don't ask questions. I'm the boss.'" Howe is convinced to this day that, no matter whether you are sweeping mines or trying to improve schools, "success is best achieved through working closely with the crew or teachers - and not by orders from above."

After he left the navy, Howe and his young wife Priscilla lived in New York while Howe got an M.A. in history from Columbia University. From 1947 to 1965, Howe held a number of jobs in both private and public educational institutions. At Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, "I learned how to teach, mostly from association with another teacher, Leonard James. He was a demanding person, but kids liked him. He taught me how to avoid telling things, but rather how to raise questions and get kids interested in figuring out what the answers might be." James also taught Howe to fashion test questions that "challenged students to interpret their studies with great subtlety."

By 1950, Howe had become the principal of the public combined junior/senior high school in Andover, and here, "I found my way into understanding the human relationships of a school. Instinctively, I followed what I had learned as a naval captain." With this approach, he was able to gain the support of the faculty and to help move the school forward.

In Cincinnati, as principal of Walnut Hills High School - a special school much like Boston Latin School or Bronx High School of Science - Howe entered the "wider world of education." He not only ran this school but also began to serve on national committees and to ally himself with education organizations. Advanced Placement (AP) was just coming into being, and Howe worked with people at the Educational Testing Service and the College Board, some of them Yale or Andover connections. …

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