by Elinka Boyle-Rosenbaum
Eric Jacobson is the founding director of Progressive School of Long Island, in Merrick, a private, non-sectarian, nonprofit elementary and middle school (K-8) with approximately 140 students and 25 staff members. Progressive School is permanently chartered by New York State Board of Regents. Prior to founding the school, Jacobson was a special education teacher and the assistant director of the largest Montessori School in Pennsylvania. He has also raised three children of his own, who in turn have chosen careers in which they can share their own talents and passions. Jacobson has taken time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed by Natural Awakenings Long Island to share his insight on education today and the role neohumanism can play in raising children as caring and responsible global citizens.
Not many people can look back on their lives and say that they opened a school. Yet, back in 1985 you and your wife founded Progressive School of Long Island. What inspired you both to tackle what must have been such a daunting endeavor?
The founder of neohumanism asked me once if I was prepared to serve every man and woman of the universe. I thought I better get started somewhere. As a teacher for 11 years, I saw the need for an alternative vision for education, neohumanism. So, I decided to apply myself to implement it to the best of my ability. I found an investing family here on Long Island who insisted I move here to open the school.
You mention neohumanism, which is the primary guiding principle behind your school. As described by philosopher P.R. Sarkar and greatly simplified, it is the practice of love for all creation. How do you integrate this philosophy in your school?
We each have a circle of love within which we place those most dear to us. Neohumanist education seeks to help children expand that circle to ultimately include everyone and everything. We do this through the example of teachers, exposing them to special literature from around the world, providing opportunities for service, and meditation. You might wonder what the connection is between meditation and the expansion of love? Well, moving the mind towards consciousness and away from materialism, it helps us transcend our differences and create a sense of unity with the consciousness of all things. It is ironic, but true, that looking within can make one want to reach out to others!
Although considered alternative, the neohumanist education (NHE) is found throughout the globe, within 50 countries, and spans kindergarten through college level. Why do you think NHE has grown so much in the last 30 years and in such a vast array of cultures throughout the world?
Many of the NHE schools began as disaster-relief projects. For example, caring for homeless children after the Haiti earthquake. I must credit the founder with sending his representatives far and wide to serve society, leading to the formation of many schools. I have also found in visiting these schools that they share a common atmosphere and that the parents share a common experience. In my opinion, this is due to the expression of love that comes from spiritual meditation. I would credit that loving energy as having a universal appeal and being largely responsible for the global acceptance of the movement, though on a small scale.
Principles, headmasters, directors … they all have the ability to set a tone or culture within their schools. What is the culture you strive to have at Progressive and how do you go about implementing it?
In a nutshell, I would like to set a tone of moral integrity based on a set of 10 defined principles. The first of these, for example, is non-injury. I am constantly trying to teach the children how to live together without injuring others in either thought, word or deed.
In implementing this, I find it difficult to counteract the heavy message of selfish materialism that children experience at home and in society. The culture of the school that I strive for is to learn to see beyond our differences and to explore the deeper layers of mind that the play of the senses tends to obscure. We seek to open children to their deeper selves through service, art, music and a special curriculum. We counter the short-term skill-based obsession of modern education with projects in the real world that require applied learning.
In addition, we have a theme every year that promotes and teaches one of these aspects to our students and families. For example, this year’s theme is Emergent Curriculum, which refers to creating a curriculum based on what emerges from the student’s natural interests.
Progressive students regularly practice yoga at daily “Quiet Time” in the morning prior to the start of classes. Most schools primarily focus on academics. Why did you choose to include meditation and yoga practice at your school, and what has been the children’s response?
Academic learning without a core set of values can lead to a loss of motivation and the misuse of knowledge over the long term. Quiet Time is an essential practice that helps to ground us in the realization that deep within we are all connected. School ignores the most important questions of life if it neglects personal development. After meditating, our children from kindergarten through the eighth grade, report a sense of peace, a feeling of unity, and many have found that the practice stays with them for many years. Regarding academics, I can say that the increased focus gained through practiced concentration makes academic efforts more productive.
With all of the controversy surrounding the Core Curriculum in New York State and elsewhere, what, if any, advice do you have for parents regarding testing, assessments, etc.?
Testing only covers a very small portion of human potential. It should only have a similarly small effect on a child’s education. The over-emphasis on one curriculum and assessing the progress in that curriculum has killed the flexibility required to reach children who function at many different levels, and with many types of intelligence. I would advise parents of children outside of Progressive School to opt out of testing and to place their children in a more natural, child-friendly learning environment as often as possible.
As someone that chose to create a school to meet your standards for your own children and others—an incredible task—what do you feel was the key to your success, and what advice do you have for parents that wish to show their kids that they too can accomplish anything?
This is easy. FIRM DETERMINATION is the key to accomplishing anything. When we had five students and I was ready to give up, a wise friend told me to give my all to those five children, and then go back to my job as assistant director of a school in Philadelphia with 250 children with the peace of mind that comes from having made a full effort. Once I committed my all to those five children, Progressive School started to grow. A short year and a half later, we had 32 children.
As times have changed over the 30-plus years you have been the director at Progressive, what has been the most challenging?
This is a very intelligent question! In fairness, time brings changes that create challenge, but it also bring changes that are a blessing. We older folk tend to ignore the blessings and only focus on complaint! Yet, over the past 30 years, I have found that the easy access to educational information and content has been a blessing. I have also found the shift to healthy eating habits and increased love of nature to be a blessing. The most challenging changes have been the loss of attention span and the unbalanced exposure to all the worst in human nature via media and electronics. I should mention another challenge: There is a shift in power that has children making decisions that parents used to make.
How do you measure your success as a school, and your students’ success?
Well, the simple measure is if our enrollment is strong. However, the deeper measure is in the spirit of contentment in the children and parents and by how much good they do in the world as they continue to mature. You can detect the spirit of the school by how many graduates come back to visit, how many tears are flowing at graduation, how much they cheer for each other at the Talent Show and how well they work together at our school’s celebration of Earth Day. You can only find out if the seeds bear fruit by staying in touch with former students through adulthood.
Finally, what have been your most rewarding moments as the director of Progressive?
When one of our students or graduates is recognized for doing something great for society, I find it very rewarding. An example of this was a young lady who made the front page of the local paper for getting an Ivy League scholarship, then postponing her start of school to spend a year doing service in Haiti. There was another young lady who modified her major at Harvard to include building a school in Uganda.
For more information on Progressive School of Long Island, call 516-868-6835 or visit ProgressiveLI.org.
Elinka Boyle-Rosenbaum is a Natural Awakenings Long Island staff writer, Progressive School of Long Island mom and active gardener.