Just One Question

What longtime belief have you changed your mind about?

January/February 2006

Reading time min

Marjorie Perloffis the Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities, emerita. Until recently, I honestly believed that the feminist revolution was irreversible. I took it for granted that women could now have real careers and be independent people. But as I read my daughter Carey’s 25th-reunion class book or the New York Times, I learn that little has changed. Indeed, in some ways, the situation has deteriorated as the “soccer mom,” the mom who “uses her SUV as her office,” is valorized. Moms in my day (late ’50s-early ’60s) who didn’t work outside the home used their spare time to work in the community and the arts, take courses, and so on. We would have been ashamed to be soccer moms and spend our afternoons chauffeuring kids around. So I regard the current scene with dismay but also with bemusement: it will change again just as everything does.

Jim Collins, ’80, MBA ’83,founded a management research laboratory in Boulder, Colo., and is the author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . And Others Don’t. I used to believe that the critical questions in life were about “what”—what decisions to make, what goals to pursue, what answers to give, what mountains to climb. I’ve come to see that the most important decisions are not about what, but about who. The primary question is not what mountains to climb, but who should be your climbing partner. If you want to have a great life, the most important question is not what you spend your time doing, but who you spend your time with. First who, then what—life is people.

Paul R. Ehrlich,the Bing Professor of Population Studies, is the author of The Population Bomb and Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. In the 1960s, I believed that lowering human birthrates would be the most difficult task facing those who wished to achieve a sustainable society—because having fewer children was basically going “against biology.” In fact, lowering birthrates has proven easier than I expected, and substantial (but not enough) progress has been made since then. Reducing overconsumption has proven very much more difficult.

Peter Robinson, MBA ’90,is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and host of the public television program Uncommon Knowledge. On the biggies, zero changes: I believe, as I have since my 20s, that God is in His heaven and that the United States of America is the greatest nation in history. On countless smaller but still vital matters, by contrast, I find my beliefs constantly shifting, and for one reason: I have children. Just yesterday, for example, my 14-year-old daughter persuaded me that Paul McCartney is a real musician after all; my 11-year-old son that the Honeycrisp apple tastes incomparably better than my until-then-never-been-equaled favorite, the McIntosh. Little revolutions. How I love them.

Jane Burr Zones, ’65,is a medical sociologist and women’s health advocate. Until relatively recently I was discouraged about eliminating racism in our country. Across my life I could see great advances in civil rights and progress in access to opportunities that are relatively available to middle-class white people. But the everyday insults and assaults on people of color seemed relentless to me. In the last 10 years or so, I got a clearer picture that white racism, while it still permeates our society, can be conquered. I began to see that white people are good, like all humans, and that we are hurt by racism in a way that keeps us separate from most of the world’s people. I’ve begun to face the shyness and embarrassment and fear of making mistakes that kept me from closeness with people of color, and to learn from my awkward gaffes. During my recent reunion, I was heartened to see the great variety of students currently at Stanford—big progress from the predominantly white Class of 1965.

Carlos R. Watson, JD ’95,is a CNN contributor and the former CEO of Achieva College Prep. An abridged version of his answer appeared in the print magazine. As the son of teachers, I have always been interested in education and schools. I attended public elementary schools in Florida as a child and, with scholarship assistance, was able to attend a well-respected private high school in Miami. Growing up, school was everything to me—it was not only a place of learning, but it was the center of my life. My friends were also my classmates. I played sports and was actively engaged in numerous clubs and after-school activities.

That’s why, when my sister and brother-in-law told me several years ago that they were going to homeschool my niece, I protested vehemently. From the little I knew of it, I had already dismissed homeschooling as a strange and perhaps unhealthy phenomenon for students who were able to attend conventional schools but whose parents wouldn’t allow it. And certainly, I wanted my niece to experience a “normal” childhood with friends, teachers, student council, the prom and all the other aspects of school life that I believed were a rite of passage for young people in this country.

I think my sister and brother-in-law chose to homeschool my niece for a number of different reasons. My niece is biracial, bicultural and spent years 1-8 in Germany. Although she grew up bilingually, when her family moved back to the United States in 2000, she had problems adjusting to the change. Her parents decided that it was best for her to stay home and learn from her grandmother (my mother)—a retired college professor and high school teacher. I think my sister wanted to shelter her from the initial pains of adjusting to life in the U.S. and also have the benefit of integrating my newly-retired mother into Alexandra’s life.

Now, five years later, much to my surprise, my views on homeschooling have changed substantially. Despite my initial resistance, I simply can’t ignore the facts. By all accounts, Alexandra, my niece, is a happy, healthy and bubbly 13-year old. She is articulate, intelligent and extremely social. In her academic life, she is tackling subjects and completing coursework that is far more advanced than that of an average eighth grader, and she is involved in several after-school programs involving music, dance and sports. She is popular with her friends, loves listening to music, talking on the phone, reading books, and shopping for clothes. Homeschooling hasn’t appeared to have stunted her social or academic growth, and in fact she is learning at a rapid pace that is tailored to her abilities.

Although I would stop short of saying that I am a homeschooling “advocate,” I now believe that it can work to a child’s benefit in certain situations. I feel like Alexandra’s experience has opened my eyes to a new way of learning. As a result, I am now more open to contemplating unconventional methods of education that might help us, as a country, achieve the goal of educating our children to the best of our ability.

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