Education Through Friendship: One Man’s Story (Part 1)

I have been writing this blog for over a decade. It has focused nearly always on how state and district policies–most of which aim to reform practices– are formed and what happens to them as they trickle down into classrooms. In other words, I have described and analyzed the institution of schooling both past and present and how policies, if at all, shape classroom lessons and student learning. I have been a historian of “schooling” more than a historian of “education.” In analyzing formal schooling I have not fully captured how the young are educated.

Readers know that schooling is not the same as education; it is only one part–albeit an important one–to becoming a full human being who keeps learning throughout life. Consider that of the 6,000 hours that children and youth are awake each year, about 1,000 (or less than 20 percent) are spent in age-graded public schools.

There is, however, an array of informal institutions that also educate. They are the furniture of daily life that are in the background and taken for granted. Family, workplace, congregations, libraries, museums, neighborhoods, clubs, television, social media–I could go on but readers know what I mean–educate both children and adults. Each of these has their own “grammar of instruction” but without attendance being taken, individual desks to sit at, homework, report cards, and lesson plans.

I have been thinking of the distinction between formal schooling and informal education for a long time. As a historian of education, I have been an institutionalist, that is, I have concentrated on formal school organizations, professionals and non-professionals involved in governance, curriculum, and instruction.

There are other historians, however, who have described and analyzed how children and adults learn from a rich array of American social, cultural, religious, economic, and political institutions. Lawrence Cremin, building on the work of Bernard Bailyn, has written about how Americans have learned informally before tax-supported schools even existed in the 19th century, and since (here, here, and here).

Even while tax-supported public schools now occupy a central part of four year-olds’ to high school seniors’ lives and even at a time when parents, political activists, and policymakers see schools as both the escalator to higher social class and crucial to the economy and social stability, there are historians and social scientists who explore how children and youth become educated informally (see here, here and here)

That’s the big picture about schooling and education. In the following posts, I offer a far smaller picture in recounting how I learned a great deal outside of school through friendships that began as a teenager and have lasted until now–nearly three-quarters of a century. Learning from friends is not new. Philosophers, adult educators, and sociologists have pointed out time and again how friendships educate beyond what formal institutions do (see here, here, and here)

I dedicate these posts to one of my friends who died in September 2019. I append his biography and obituary to Part 5 of this series.*

In early June 2017, I drove to San Francisco International airport to pick up my long-time Pittsburgh friends for an AK** reunion we had scheduled months ago. Sam, the oldest, is 85. Yus, the youngest, is 82. Yus’s son Bruce, in his early 50s, took off from his law practice to help his father negotiate the four-day get-together in Palo Alto. The fourth member of our group, Dave, is 83 and lives in Los Angeles. He could not make it because of a recent series of falls.  I am 82.

The four AKers have known one another since the late-1940s in Pittsburgh where we grew up. We became close as members of a Jewish youth group that we had joined while in high school. Over the decades, we have stayed in touch by seeing one another on vacations and holidays, family get-togethers, phoning and writing periodic emails. Long ago, we had become emotionally intimate friends (see here and here).

Beginning in the 1980s, the four of us began getting together on the west coast in San Luis Obispo—midway between Los Angeles where Dave lived and Palo Alto where I lived. We would meet in SLO over a weekend to play tennis at Cal Poly University. Dave was the best of us since he regularly played, Yus was the most competitive to the point of once throwing his racket up in the air when he and his partner lost. Sam and I were happy to return the ball over the net inbounds. We would follow routines of having breakfast at the motel, playing tennis in the morning, going for frozen yogurt afterwards, returning to the motel for a shower and nap and more conversation, go out for dinner and then see a film that the four of us would agree on. The following morning, we would have breakfast with more talk, perhaps play one set of doubles, and then the two Pittsburghers would either go with Dave traveling south to LA or me traveling north (depending whether they had flown in to Los Angeles or San Francisco) for another night with each of our families before they flew home.

As we aged, we made adjustments. We dropped tennis (although Dave played until he was 81). Instead, we would take walks to and from the campus. Two of the reunions occurred at my home in Palo Alto. The Pittsburgh friends would fly in, stay at the house, have meals together, take walks, talk and more talk, go out for dinner and see a film. One of my daughters who lived nearby would join us for a dinner. She had known all of the AKers since she was a toddler.

So the airport run in 2017 was to pick up Pittsburgh friends for another AK reunion in Palo Alto.  While I know that others have experienced long-term, close, and deep friendships as we have, they have their own story to tell.  Here is ours as I remember it over the past six decades. Yus, Sam, and Dave could well write their accounts of our friendship and they would, no doubt, differ in details and interpretations. So this is my rendering of what I have learned about living a full life through friendships experienced for nearly three quarters of a century.

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*I thank Sondra Cuban for pointing me to the adult education literature and other readings that examined friendship as a way of learning outside of formal institutions.

**AK is an acronym for a Yiddish phrase “alte kocker” which loosely translated means old man.

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