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A Breath of Fresh Air

tom_honig_sSeveral years ago, I was having lunch with U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, who mentioned between bites that he would soon meet with a class of students from Mount Madonna School during one of their periodic visits to Capitol Hill.

Farr must have seen me stifle a yawn, because he seemed to read my mind: “No. You don’t get it. What they do at Mount Madonna School is something different. It’s something that is known around the Capitol as the best program in the nation.”

It made a bit of an impression, I suppose, but not one that led me to investigate that small campus up on the Summit any further. At least for a while.

But three or four years later, I was invited to speak to a junior- and senior-class seminar there taught by Ward Mailliard, a longtime educator and one of the original organizers of the Mount Madonna community. At the time, I was the editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and invitations to speak are not unusual. In fact, I pulled out my trusty video explaining how to make a newspaper, and headed up to campus.

Like others who have visited a Mount Madonna classroom, I was unprepared for what awaited. These students—15 or so—had no interest in my prepared comments, and the video sat, unplayed, while they got down to business with some questions. Hard questions. Like: “How often are your personal values expressed in the stories that you cover.” Or: “What responsibility to you have, personally, for what appears in the paper?”

As I came to find out, the government class to which I was speaking actually was called “Values in World Thought,” and immediately the students challenged me to explain the intangibles that lie behind the production of a newspaper.

It was tough stuff. I tried to bat it all away with a snide comment that morals don’t matter in producing a newspaper, but that just opened up an even more aggressive line of questioning.

Whoa. Sam Farr had been right. Something different is going on at Mount Madonna School.

Third-year and fourth-year students have recently returned from the school’s latest Washington trip, where they interviewed the likes of Congressman John Lewis (a celebrated aide to Martin Luther King), James Fallows (special correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly), Martha Kanter (under-secretary of education), a World Bank executive and several members of Congress from both parties.

The students presented the results of the trip at a recent assembly at the school, where students, parents and guests listened to the students discuss the results of the interviews. None of this sounds remarkable, perhaps, but the level of discussion at the school was several steps above anything that you might hear on one of the televised cable talk shows.

For example, student  Brittany Lovato wrote in the student’s blog about the impact of listening to a diverse point of view, and deciding, “The only thing that really matters is that I stick to my morals and beliefs and don’t let my politics be dictated by labels.”

Mailliard, the leader of the program, has spent the better part of his life dedicated to education and values. His goal, he says, is to “stimulate a conversation on how we can better engage questions of values, ethics and meaning in today’s classrooms. These are not easy subjects to integrate into our curriculums, but without them our education system is incomplete.”

The son of a former Republican congressman from San Francisco (yes, San Francisco used to have Republicans), Mailliard combines the political savvy of a professional with his rather lofty intellectual goals.

The result is something that deserves wider notice. In a time when the tone of the public debate is cynical and manipulative—not to mention loud—the experience of watching a group of high-school students embrace nuance is at once inspiring and depressing.

Inspiring because their program is so unusual and so intelligent. Depressing because it seems to be so at odds with the direction that public debate takes here in 2010.

These students didn’t just conduct interviews. They videotaped them and wrote about them in a blog, which is well worth the effort of going online to find it. There, you will see fascinating interviews with important and influential people. More importantly, you’ll see those people challenged by questions that seek knowledge more than just information, and you’ll see that even elected officials think more deeply about the issues than we sometimes give them credit for.

And sometimes it takes the youngest among us to draw that knowledge out.


To view the Mount Madonna blog, go to santacruzlive.com/blogs/mtmadonna. Tom Honig is at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Send comments on this article to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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