Route to Redemption

Tip for Horace Mann: Rename School Field for Former Teacher Robert Moses

The school, rocked by accusations of abuse, should rename the baseball field that now honors the headmaster during the period of alleged sexual and physical offenses for Robert Moses, the former math teacher who became a civil-rights heavyweight and founded the Algebra Project, says alumnus Douglas E. Schoen.

06.12.12 8:45 AM ET

Just yesterday, the entire Horace Man School community received a note from the head of the school, Tom Kelly, indicating he still had to listen more to the alumni about the sexual-abuse scandal first reported in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, and to help everyone in the community process the information.

For me, as someone who graduated from the school in the period immediately before the abuse took place, the story was sad confirmation of what I had always feared. And I subsequently learned that a prominent member of our class had suffered the most horrific forms of abuse during his junior-high-school and high-school years.

The school, in my judgment, has always had an abusive environment—emotionally, intellectually, socially, athletically. On day one, when we were 11 years old, we were told that Horace Mann had existed for almost 100 years without us, and almost certainly would exist for another 100 years following our departure—the implication being that our departure could well be before graduation if we did not measure up. And the further message was that the school administration would be watching us to see if we transgressed, and if we did, judgment would be swift and certain.

Turns out the real transgressors were the teachers and the administrators, who appear to have engaged in or tolerated horrific behavior and then effectively covered it up or swept it under the rug. They certainly did nothing to try to clarify for a larger audience what actually had happened, why it had happened, and what was being done to make sure that it never happened again.

To be sure, I was not one of those who were physically abused. I found the school needlessly hostile and harsh, but nothing out of the ordinary in terms of sexual or physical abuse. I am proud that on my own terms, I have thrived since graduating in 1970, but I would let others be the ultimate judge.

As an active member of the Horace Mann community, I have done exactly what Tom Kelly suggested since an online version of the New York Times article came out Wednesday. I have been thinking about the school, thinking about what happened, and trying to come up with ideas and suggestions to demonstrably improve the climate, the environment—and the message Horace Mann sends to the world.

I have an idea, and I think it is a good one.

The baseball field is currently named the R. Inslee Clark Field, after the headmaster who was in office at the time much of the reported abuse occurred. It is not clear what or how much Clark knew or what he did, but at the very least there was an egregious lack of supervision. Regardless of what did or did not happen all those years ago, R. Inslee Clark's name should not grace the Horace Mann field—no matter what good works can be cited to support the original decision to name the baseball diamond in his honor.

Horace Mann needs to remove R. Inslee Clark’s name forever from the field and from any position of honor or recognition, and to make it clear that his only role in the school was to act as headmaster for a given period of time. As far as I am concerned, he should not be accorded any respect, deference, or attention by the school.

What then, should the school name its field?

Typically, this would be a private matter not for a larger audience. But childhood sexual abuse is a huge issue, and with the matter having received national attention, Horace Mann now can make a statement—a profound statement—about itself and what it intends to do, by one simple act:  Rename its diamond Robert Moses Field.

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No, not the Robert Moses most associated with this region. Not the great builder in the city and state of New York. That Moses had no connection to Horace Mann. He went to prep school in New England and did not go to private high school in New York City.

The Robert Moses after whom the field should be named is almost certainly a hero, and arguably a saint. This Robert Moses taught math at Horace Mann in 1958, and was by all accounts an extraordinarily sensitive and involved teacher.

Mr. Moses left Horace Mann around 1960 to work and promote voter registration in Mississippi. He was a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and one of the first to preach integration and the need for racial cooperation as a means of resolving our intractable problems in the South.

Moses risked his life for the values Horace Mann would seem to hold most dear.

He was particularly eloquent during Freedom Summer, when Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney were brutally murdered in Neshoba County, Miss. Moses told white volunteers, many of whom came from schools like Horace Mann in New York, that he would understand if they left. They were doing important, critical work, he acknowledged—but if they left, he would understand, and he would always hold them in high regard.

This single act represents the highest form of sensitivity, compassion, and decency that one can have, and reflects precisely the values that Horace Mann would seem to stand for.

Not one volunteer left, and Moses kept the project going, founding, in the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which began the process of integrating the Democratic party in the South, and indeed America, in ways thought almost impossible just a few years before.

But Moses deserves recognition not just because he taught at Horace Mann for a brief period and is a transcendent figure in the civil-rights movement, albeit with lower visibility than people like Martin Luther King Jr. Moses was no less important, but it was his later work that makes his name and his position so much more critical.

Moses went on to found the Algebra Project, recognizing that after civil rights, it was empowerment of the poor and the dispossessed that was critically important. He came to understand that it is essential to teach African-Americans, Hispanics, and indeed all urban residents, the essence of math and science so they could thrive in an increasingly competitive world. Moses reached this judgment in the 1970s, before India and China had emerged. Even then he saw how important it was that America remain globally competitive in the sciences.

Quite appropriately, Moses received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1982 for his work with the Algebra Project. In addition to pioneering the project, he ended up teaching high school math back in Mississippi, in Massachusetts, and in Tanzania.

Put simply, Moses by his very life recognized that what Horace Mann was trying to do—empower young people, teach them transcendent values, and give them the skills critically important to succeed—was going to be his life's work, under almost unimaginable circumstances.

Moses has a Ph. D from Harvard, has published books and lectured widely, and is rare in our nation today. He is modest to a fault, and self-effacing. He is, as I said, certainly a hero and arguably a saint.

Horace Mann should invite Robert Moses back to the school as soon as possible. Perhaps on day one, when the school opens in September, Moses should be honored. The school should say, "Mr. Moses, thank you. We are going to support your project. We are going to name our field after you. But more important, we are going to try to organize our school around the values that you brought to us, and that you have lived by."

With this simple step, Horace Mann can send a profound message about how the school is trying to deal with this crisis. To be sure, there is much more to be done to cleanse the culture and make sure nothing like what happened all those years ago happens again.

Naming the athletic field after Robert Moses is more than a symbolic act. It sends a message to the world about what Horace Mann was meant to be—and hopefully what it will become.