(originally published in the Falls Church News-Press)
In the late 1950s, the social critic Paul Goodman tasked himself with figuring out why so many young people were failing to adjust to society and instead turning to lives of, as it was called back then, “juvenile delinquency.” Whereas many had already put forth their own culprits – rock and roll, Soviets, soft fathers, etc. – Goodman’s conclusion would stand out because he would be the first to argue, shockingly, that perhaps society was not worth adjusting to. Goodman titled his “report” Growing Up Absurd and made the case that the white picket fence lifestyle that kids were failing to prepare for was neither meaningful nor enlivening. Later on, Martin Luther King echoed Goodman, telling young people that they should be “proud to be maladjusted” to common evils like bigotry, poverty, and militarism.
Because of teachers like Goodman and King, a generation built an alternative to their parents’ suffocating Mad Men culture. But, as happens with the passage of time, when my generation reached high school, new absurdities had cropped up. To be a well-adjusted Millennial teen was to curate your individual identity at the shopping mall, praise the profiteers of the latest digital distractions, and study hard in school so as to “compete in the global economy.” When we resisted this path, most adults told us: there is no alternative.
However, if you were lucky enough to wander into the social studies wing at George Mason High School over the past 18 years, there was always an alternative waiting for you. There was someone there who would encourage you to listen to that voice whispering from your social conscience. There was a teacher there who saw education not as the pouring of the previous generation’s knowledge into the next generation’s empty heads, but rather as the sparking of our curiosity and moral imagination. His name is Jamie Scharff and he is retiring this year after 29 years of service.
Scharff avoided the pitfalls of the run-of-the-mill gadfly teacher. First, he did not hide his beliefs behind a faux neutrality. In fact, everyone at school knew what he thought about things. But he would not let us take his word for it and would follow up any opinion with ardent recommendations of books to read, documentaries to watch and thinkers to check out if we wanted to learn more.
Second, Scharff never let his students get cynical. He always paired criticism of the latest modern absurdity with positive alternatives of communities fighting back. Some days it was documentaries on worker cooperatives. Other days it was articles on indigenous communities fighting climate change. Sometimes it was Scharff’s own choices, like when he would explain why he taught a certain way or how his house’s geothermal system worked. Perhaps my favorite example is how, whenever a quiz bowl tournament got too competitive – Scharff was the coach of Mason’s team (and, yes, there is a funny irony to a teacher who despises fact-based education coaching a sport based on memorizing facts) – Scharff would call the team into a huddle and pretend to draw out basketball plays to run, a reminder that we were all there – in the tournament, and perhaps on this Earth, generally – to have fun, learn, and work together.
Just like how Kafka’s distinct style earned him his own adjective, Scharff’s blend of social criticism, humane hope and hearty jokes did, too. Over the years, I have often heard Mason alumni refer to certain challenges to the conventional wisdom as “Scharffish.” And perhaps Scharff’s greatest legacy is the hundreds of students who are bringing Scharffish perspectives to their work around the world. Ralph Nader (who Scharff turned us on to) once said that “the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” And that’s just what Scharff did.
Pete Seeger (who Scharff introduced to us, too, of course) used to share a parable about a big seesaw. The side of the seesaw on the ground had rocks of injustice on it. The end in the air had a basket quarter-filled with sand. Some people, Seeger explained, have teaspoons and are trying to fill up the basket, one teaspoon of sand at a time. Most people are scoffing at them, saying they are putting in all this work and nothing is changing. But one day, Seeger reminds us, that basket is going to be so full that the whole seesaw is going to flip in the other direction. And people are going to ask, “how did it happen so suddenly?” The answer, of course, is: all those teaspoons over the years.
One day, some of my generation’s seesaws will flip and we will overcome a few of the unjust absurdities of our day. When people ask how it happened, here’s the answer: the countless teaspoons from people like Jamie Scharff.