Annemarie Roeper, 1918-2012, and the Polanyian Fact of Human Interdependence

This week, two of my favorite children’s educators passed away. More famously, Maurice Sendak passed away. Sendak believed in the radical idea that you don’t need to lie to children and shield them from every scary thing. Stephen Colbert did a wonderful interview with him this year, a bit more of the interview was released this week (available here).

The second educator was Annemarie Roeper, who died today. Annemarie* was a fascinating person – for example, she was accepted by the Freuds to study psychoanalysis but was forced to flee Europe before she could begin her training (see her obituary here for more details). Most important to my life, Annemarie also co-founded the Roeper School with her husband George back in 1941. I attended the school from 7th to 12th grade (as I mentioned in a previous obituary post). One of the most exceptional aspects of Roeper was the existence of a strong philosophy that guided the school. This philosophy was an abstract idea, a series of written documents, and a constant debate. The Roeper Philosophy was, in a sense, an “endless meeting.”** 

The content of the philosophy has shifted over time. It’s currently embodied in a short version hosted on the school’s website that reads a bit too much like standard educational boilerplate for my tastes. An older iteration, authored by George and Annemarie in 1981, is considered by many the best expression of the full philosophy. Having fled persecution in Europe and inspired by the ongoing Cold War, the Roepers felt that educational philosophy was not simply a matter of student learning, but rather of making possible a better world free from the horrors of world war. Reading it now, the most striking parts are those emphasizing deep human interdependence. The Roepers read a bit like Karl Polanyi’s somewhat cryptic, but beautiful, final chapter in The Great Transformation, “Freedom in a Complex Society.” Like Polanyi, the Roepers argue that we must paradoxically acknowledge the reality of society, and thus of interdependence, if we are to sustain individual freedom:

Actually, the fact of interdependence, of human ecology, becomes more and more apparent in today’s world.  All parts of the globe depend on each other economically, culturally and emotionally.  All this, if followed through logically, translates into the compelling need for cooperative action.  Yet most of our skills and beliefs are based on confrontation and competition.  Most people function as though there were a hierarchy of human rights and human life-structures.  There is a top to be reached by the few, built on a hierarchy supported by the many.  Therefore, people feel justified and safe to use each other as stepping stones to success.  Their value is measured in terms of their usefulness to those in apparent power.  This state of affairs soon becomes intolerable to those at the bottom and they become aware of the bottom power of the many as opposed to the tower power of the few.  And so the battle never ends.  We live in a dog-eat-dog world, where might-makes-right.  It is obvious to all that this has brought us to the brink of destruction.  We are teetering at the edge of it and yet we continue to teach children to live in the same way.  We are raising children to function in a manner which has created our present state of life.  Why?  Because we use our real ability of cooperation only in certain areas of endeavor.  We have not yet incorporated in our emotions and thoughts a belief in mutual responsibility or a concept of basic human interdependence or ecology.  We believe in victory and our perceptions are short-term.  We are aware of the consequences of the moment, not the long-range chain reaction of our behavior.  We do not remember that if we accept stealing as a way of life we have to guard against others stealing from us.  If we kill, we create the possibility of being killed even if we do it for justice or revenge.  All of this is obvious and yet we have not found other methods of dealing with each other.

A philosophy which tries to develop the skills of cooperation and looks at this as the ultimate moral and realistic, not illusionary (sic.), goal, may be the only true approach that might keep the world from destruction.  Of course, we are aware that we will not be able to change the world but we might make a slight impact and at least help the members of this community to live a different life.  It may also serve as a model for others.  It shows that it can be done.

Thank you Annemarie – and George – for your philosophy and your school. We miss you, and hope that we can carry on your legacy in ways small and large.

* At Roeper, everyone went by their first name, students, teachers and school founders alike.

** Sometimes a bit literally. In the wake of the school shootings in Columbine, for example, we held a two-day town hall meeting for the entire upper school where we discussed the shootings and our reactions to them. 

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