A Letter from the Headmaster

Spring 2018

Some years back when I was interviewing a senior for a school recommendation letter for college, I asked him why he had chosen to attend Commonwealth over some better-known schools that had admitted him. “Because I sensed that Commonwealth cared about the kind of person I’d become,” he replied. His answer spoke to a fundamental commitment of Commonwealth’s mission, to help young people “to become knowledgeable, thoughtful, and creative adults, capable of careful analysis, fruitful cooperation, and deep commitment.”

This commitment is the aim of a liberal education. Liberal education is an idea that, in today’s high-stakes, high-pressure world often takes a back seat to education as training, as giving students the skills necessary for success and leadership.

Equipping students with those skills is important, and the trajectory of the lives of our alumni confirm that they leave Commonwealth prepared to flourish. Commonwealth alumni have overseen the development of predictive search at Google and run the New York City Department of Transportation. They have advised American presidents. Some teach physics, history, math, English, economics, philosophy,and classics at leading universities. Our alumni have founded theater and puppet troupes; they play in renowned chamber ensembles; they direct and act in feature films, they write and produce TV series; and they have set up and run nonprofits to provide medical care to young women in west Africa. They pilot commercial jetliners and Navy fighters. One has gone from chief counsel for the governor of Massachusetts to a career in opera and back to law, now serving as Assistant State Solicitor in the Attorney General’s office.

When our alumni come to visit, they all talk about the critical importance of the skills they developed at Commonwealth—those of reading closely, writing clearly, and thinking critically. They talk about the training.

But they also talk, as that senior did, about the way the school shaped their characters and lives. A liberal education, to trace the idea back to its origins, is an education for freedom (“liberal” and “liberate” come from the same root): It aims for the fullest development possible of one’s human faculties, which empowers one to live fully and freely. It is important to us that in all of our work our students develop the capacity for deeper and more meaningful engagement with all life’s experiences; the moral imagination necessary for thoughtful, ethical living; and the knowledge and commitment that informed and engaged citizenship requires. As our students learn to listen and respond attentively to classmates in English and science class, as they work together to cook a meal at our Hancock weekend or wash dishes after lunch here at school, and as they reflect with friends on the lessons of love presented with such rich humor in our winter play, Almost Maine, they are gaining the depth, imagination, and skills of collaboration and citizenship that will make possible knowledgeable, thoughtful, and creative lives. Commonwealth cares about the kind of person you’ll become.

Previous Letters from the Headmaster

Spring 2017

A Letter from Headmaster Bill Wharton

Spring 2017

Building a physics lab at Commonwealth is not a straightforward, simple matter. Aside from the physical challenge of putting an up-to-date facility in our nineteenth-century brownstone, there is a question of history and tradition.

Some years back, the Director of Admissions at an area university asked me if we had built a physics lab yet. When I said “No,” she replied, “Good. I still tell people that Commonwealth is the best place in Boston to learn physics.” For the most part, what we used to call “blackboard physics” worked brilliantly; fiddling around with a wave tank seemed like a waste of time when a few small pieces of equipment for the occasional demonstration and a blackboard were more than enough to drive the idea of angular momentum home to a class of motivated students.

Indeed, Commonwealth has turned out a steady stream of students who have gone on to careers in physics. And the College Board twice recognized the School as having the highest percentage of its student body (worldwide) pass the calculus-based AP Physics C Mechanics exam. Despite this, the Board refused to allow us to designate the Physics 1 course that prepared Commonwealthers for that test as “Advanced Placement” ™ on our transcripts because it did not include a laboratory component. (The irony of this situation was not lost on the College Board representative with whom I discussed this matter, but the policy prevailed. That organization stopped recognizing distinctive programs shortly thereafter.)

Our lack of a lab also reflected a bias Commonwealth teachers used to hold favoring the beauty of the theoretical over the hands-on and practical. Formulas and proofs were elegant; applications were messy. (Our elective in structural engineering and fledgling robotics team would have some of our retired scientists and mathematicians groaning that we are betraying our intellectual commitments.)

We’ve come to realize, however, that this bias is misguided. At a recent assembly, we hosted Tufts mathematician Moon Duchin, who spoke of her research on topology and geometric group theory and of the incredible beauty of the rings, saddles, and other pure forms she explores as part of her work. But her talk primarily focused on a particular issue, the concept of geometric compactness, which, it turns out, has consequential applications to the question of gerrymandered voting districts. In cases challenging convoluted House districts skewed to the political advantage of the majority party or the dilution of minority voices, compactness has emerged as a legally significant factor in the courts. (Google “packing and cracking” for a better idea of the practices being targeted.)

Working with a number of colleagues, Prof. Duchin has developed techniques for measuring and assessing the compactness of districts, and she is organizing workshops around the country to train lawyers, mathematicians, and others in these techniques with the aim of strengthening the legal challenges to the various forms of gerrymandering that have contributed to our political paralysis. Political districting is a messy, complicated affair, but Prof. Duchin’s marrying of pure math with politics made for a mesmerizing presentation, and her example offers a bracing rebuke to the false choices—in this case between theory and practice—we too casually accept.

This summer, thanks to a generous matching gift from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, we’re transforming a fourth-floor classroom into a physics lab (the highlight of Phase III of a three-year renovation of our buildings). Soon, students who grasp the mysterious elegance of formulas describing the behavior of light or the dynamics of waves will be able to see them play out in our laser booth. And the students for whom “blackboard physics” is not the swiftest path to understanding will have new tools to help them appreciate the beauty of the laws of physics. We will marry the pure and the practical, and so better fulfill our mission of helping young people become adults capable of deep understanding and careful, creative response.

And when next asked by that Director of Admissions if we’ve built a physics lab at Commonwealth, I’ll answer, “Yes, and it’s now an even better place to learn physics.”