Interviewed December 3, 2003
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
From 1965 to 2000 Elliott Lilien taught history at Concord-Carlisle High School and by all definition was considered a master teacher. He is still an educator and a much sought after speaker.
The first thing that attracted me to Concord was that they would hire me. Also their means of doing an interview was interesting, which was the whole department sat around a table and asked you questions. I was asked what my religious affiliation was. One of the questioners said, "You're not a fundamentalist, are you?" Of course, all those things would be illegal now. I said, "No, I'm not a fundamentalist." I was asked what are you most interested in? Nazis, I said that's the thing that befuddles me most about history. I liked that because it meant that they valued discussion and an exchange of views.
I went to the University of Chicago and then Columbia Law School and then Harvard University. After I got out of Harvard, the education school there set up interviews with people in the surrounding areas and Concord wanted to hire me so I thought I wanted to go there. I found the students very enthusiastic and curious and anxious to learn things. The school itself was greatly inferior to what it's become. I didn't notice that when I first started because I was so interested in what was going on in the classroom. I liked it so much that I was sad when the vacations came. I didn't want to stop doing it. Teaching is very addictive. It can become your whole life. My first wife said to me, "You like that school better than you like me." I denied it, but I know now that it was true.
My first year I taught American History and Western Civilization. The second year I started with German History, and I taught that for 34 consecutive years. I did a 30-years war course for a whole year at one time until one of the principals came in and thought that was too elitist, so we had to eliminate that. I taught some philosophy a couple of years. But most of all, it was German History.
You know we have a market system at the high school. It's a very interesting effect on the school too that the hireings in the departments, except for English, depend on how many students sign up, and the same is true with your assignments. So as more and more signed up for German History, I taught that until finally I taught only that for about the last five years. That was my forte. I didn't have to do the 9th and 10th grade courses any more because the elective was so successful. It is interesting as to whether or not all the teachers ought to be required to do the freshman and sophomore courses. Or does it turn out that all the young teachers do that and all the experienced teachers get the electives, I don't know.
Teaching is very exhilarating but utterly exhausting. I remember there was a woman I was dating when I first started and we were going to go out on Friday night. I called her and said I couldn't do it. She asked if there was someone else and I said, "No, I'm just so tired." That's why I think teachers should marry other teachers because not only are the vacations the same which is a big plus, but also the other person will understand why you're so exhausted. Then I was also coaching for years. I would say I did a 16 or 17-hour day. When I got up in the morning, all the cars were in the parking lot and when I came home, all the cars were in the parking lot. I didn't know what kind of day it was, it didn't make any difference. It was dark when I got up, and it was dark when I came home.
I have given up trying to make people understand what it's really like. People always say you get this vacation and time off in the middle of the year, and things like that. I was interested in it. And there are teachers who don't do the job, but as time went on at Concord High School, there were fewer. When I started there were drunks and people with serious mental problems, but as time went on that was eliminated along with all the industrial arts and cooking. There is a connection between those two things.
There were six industrial arts teachers when I started. The expectations were lower. I think when I started 65% of the students went on to college and when I endedâ€¦ I got the impression from the School Committee and regardless of what was said, the town wanted us to get kids into Harvard and Princeton and Johns Hopkins, and if we couldn't do that, we were going to hear about it. The faculty knew that. No matter what everybody said about well-rounded and tolerant. If we stopped getting kids into Harvard, we'd know about it.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, administrators brought a certain view of students that they could do no wrong, that nothing was their fault. Or everything that was wrong was the fault of Richard Nixon or something like that, or the society. That view had the tendency to make the school very therapeutic and very difficult to enforce discipline because it's, of course, cruel to punish someone for something that isn't their fault. Or another one was oh, the poor thing, he's got parents who are upset, or his mother is the only one left supporting the children and she's working, so of course he's burning down the H building and we have to understand. I had a lot of trouble with that. So in my first 20 years the major battle outside of the union stuff was to get the school to enforce its rules so that we weren't spending 90% of our time with 10% of the students -- where the school were always concerned with these semi-criminal students or people who weren't adjusted. Of course, on the same note we had the Metco program, and we had big student fights and racial problems where we were covered on the national level, and of course, we had the drowning. All of which were the result in my opinion not of sociological but of an inability or refusal to support the discipline code so the students felt they could do anything — a bunch of them, not all of them.
We also had open campus which meant the whole school didn't have to be in the school at all until the tradesmen in downtown Concord complained that they were stealing from the stores all the time. We were lucky we didn't have traffic accidents. We had students who were drinking in school and also driving. We had problems but it could have been much worse. We were lucky.
There was an enormous amount of administrative turnover as well. We had four principals in five years and six superintendents in eight years. If that isn't right, it's near right. Each one of them would come in and fiddle with the school system and then leave. So the cement in this school became the union and the faculty because the administration was so unstable. Of course, a lot of them used Concord for a stepping stone for somewhere else. They didn't want to stay, they didn't have any real loyalty to it, and some of them were just incompetent, just couldn't do the job. That made me want to have people who knew the local situation hold those positions and we finally got that with Tom Scott as Superintendent and Elaine Dicicco as Principal. The school then developed stability and became a really, really good academic institution. Now how good a social institution it was is another question. But as a academic institution we had motivated students who achieved a lot as is evidence by our graduates. So the 1980s and 1990s were sort of a golden age. Certainly in my department it was. If you sat down for lunch, you could count on someone would want to discuss the difference between a saint and an angel or whether or not Napoleon was good for Europe. So I looked forward to going into lunch and to hear what they were going to talk about that day.
I remember talking in the ‘80s to Eleanor Hochim before she retired about the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I said there are many more good students now. And she said, "Yes, but I thought the ‘60s and early ‘70s students had more imagination and creativity." Even though as a whole the school had its problems. There were people in the school that really weren't attending the school, didn't go to class, but by the time I got out in 2000, those students were extremely rare.
The students tended to be in cliques. I think it's probably natural to go with people who they are like. As a general rule I've seen this that your group isn't any good unless there is something that is inferior to you that you could compare yourself to. That was the thing I thought was wrong with the school throughout is that there wasn't a clear enough emphasis on our unity in the pursuit of knowledge and that we were all doing the same thing and that all the activities were valuable and we ought to support each other because we like it better that way. It's better if everybody supports you than if you get to hate someone, they all hate you. I don't think I achieved too much of that really.
When we first started, the teachers association was concerned about retirement gifts and parties, and then when I ended it was strong. I was associated with that and I care what happens to that and I want it to be good because I spent so much time doing it. I was the head of the teachers association for 10 years. I wanted it to be good so that the compulsively innovated administrators couldn't come in, interfere, disturb everything and then leave. Our view, the people of my age, was formed by that. That and the absence of discipline was what we feared the most — that there would be no order and stability. I think that's we valued in Elaine. That's why we were all loyal to her. I found at the end the younger teachers couldn't understand our loyalty to her and that's because they hadn't had the experience of what had occurred before. Maybe as a misfortune that's why teachers came to the point that when they got into difficulty or they wanted something, they went to the union rather than to the administration. That accounts I think to the strength of the union and how it became very strong as opposed to most of the schools around us where there isn't any analogy. If you go to say Lincoln-Sudbury or Weston, it's not the same. The union is really important whereas in their places, it's important only when they're negotiating.
We call it a union instead of an association because it negotiates wages and conditions of work. Irwin Blummer always said remember you're an association not a union. What does a union do but negotiate wages and so do we. One of the superintendents said, "We're not to call the Metco program the Metco program." What difference does it make. It is what it is regardless of what you call it. He didn't want it called the Metco program because he associated it with only black students, and therefore the black students would get treated differently. And that was always a problem throughout the time I was there too, but not as major of a problem as a lot of other people thought. I never thought the Metco students were a major disciplinary problem in the school. Other people thought that was true. In the end I didn't think it was true at all. I wondered how good it was for students from Boston to come out here. And I still don't know. I think it was good for the Concord students to see some other group of people other than themselves. But having them come out here and then go back to Boston at the end of the day, I just don't know about that.
Having departments in the high school isolates teachers into their own departments rather than bringing everyone together. That's another big problem. It is a series of barriers and your loyalty is to the department and the chairman is elected by the department, and therefore the chairman's loyalty is to the department, since they can get rid of him and judge him, rather than to the institution as a whole. That requires the administration to function and convince everybody that they do have interest as a whole. I'm certainly not against the elected chairman system. Since I've seen what the chairmen appointed by the administration can do both in our school and with our schools, and whatever the evils of our system are, it's not as evil as the other way. Throughout my whole period I supported it and still do. People say it's rotating and everybody can hold it, but that didn't happen in our department. Only two or three people held the chairman position, and every two or three years a different person came in. When I held it, three years was fine to figure out what I wanted to do and do it, and after that someone else should get a shot at it.
The unity of the teachers in the school never quite happened as much as I wanted it to happen. You know one of the big issues there is the lunch room. There was more unity in the beginning when I came in 1965 then there was in 2000. In 1965 we all ate together and people knew each other, but by 2000 all the departments ate only with their departments. Well, you could go through a whole day and never see another teacher from another department. No one ever went to the teachers lunch room. So what I wanted was let's each together just one day and I got a couple of other chairmen and we would do that. But then the foreign language department said they were too far away, the lunch time was 22 minutes and by the time they got there, there was only 8 minutes left. So it would start off and then it would fritter out. I wanted to eat with the English department. We did that for a couple of years too. Then we had the demilitarized zone, which was a table between the two departments that the people who wanted to eat together would come and do it. I was in favor of all of that. Anything that familiarized us with each other as people engaged in the same pursuit from the beginning to the end. Assemblies were big. I wanted assemblies and I wanted a convocation and I wanted the teachers to go to the graduation altogether. Some of these we got, but most of them we didn't. We did get the faculty sitting together at graduation, and we got the convocation. You know the reason we didn't have assemblies? Because we couldn't discipline them. We were afraid getting them altogether in a big group, we wouldn't be able to handle them, so we just stopped getting them altogether. For years, the students never came together. But before we could have assemblies, we had to control our discipline system, and there had to be a certain amount of rational fear that there were consequences for what you did. Finally we did, and we could have had assemblies. Elaine emphasized behavior in the student body, but she was never as severe as I wanted her to be. But maybe she knew stuff I didn't know.
Right at the beginning I began coaching, and I spent 35 years doing that. I did 20 years of fencing, 11 years of boys tennis, and I don't know but it's got to be 12 years of academic bowl. It was good. They haven't required teachers to coach which I agree with, but whenever you have a choice, the athletic department ought to hire somebody that is in the school so you don't have these hired guns coming in and running the sports program. Because they can't meet the students also in the classroom, they don't really understand the culture of the school. So that was another issue in the beginning. We wanted to get in the contract that if somebody on the faculty was qualified, he would be hired. And the athletic department resisted that at the beginning. But as we went on, now we have somebody who completely agrees with that, so I think now 2/3 or Â¾ of the coaches are also teachers. There is an element of education that can be achieved there that can't be achieved in the classroom. Also there's a more objective way of evaluating yourself.
I coached boys tennis from 1990 to 2000. Brent had been asking me for years and he came to me in 1990 and said, "Would you be the coach because the team didn't show up for the Bedford match?" Instead they went to a dance. Then in 2000 the superintendent and the School Committee decided that they didn't have to show up for certain matches, and I felt I just couldn't do that. I don't deny their right to do that, but I couldn't teach what I wanted to teach as a coach if the students could come or not. Or another way, I couldn't make them think they were a team.
As to teacher certification -- once a teacher was certified that was it, and you didn't have to take more education courses. If they had just required me to take the education course, I would have grumbled but I would have done it. It was the breaking of their word that I didn't like. It was clear to everybody what that meant. The state knew that life meant life, and the teachers knew life meant life, and I thought if they could break their word about that mistake, that they could break their word about anything. You know what I discovered when I got the lawyers into it, that they can. The state doesn't have to obey normal moral rules in the law, that in order to pursue their programs or to save themselves they can do pretty much anything they want, go back on all their engagements. We were told the legislature was going to attack seniority if we didn't agree to do that. We thought seniority, and our political representatives also thought, was worth agreeing to this. So when we resisted this, we also had the union against us, because they had made an agreement about a basic right of ours without consulting us and that was another problem I had with it. If they had given us a chance to talk on the floor of the union meeting and this had gone down by a vote, I would have been ticked off unbelievably but I would have supported it. But since the union never discussed it and the state went back on its word, it annoyed me. I still have the same opinion. Now the way I approached it I don't think was so good, but on the issue I still feel the same. I said I wouldn't get recertified which amounted to the same thing as I would resign. If I wouldn't get recertified, the school couldn't rehire me. We never said we would resign, all we said we wouldn't take the education courses or pay the $100 because we had been guaranteed life certification in 1965. And that's how it ended for me pretty much. But I was tired of being tired at the end. But this was a symptom of a whole lot of educational stuff that I didn't agree with. You feel after a while you'd like to at least make it clear to people that you don't agree with those things, but certainly it isn't the whole thing.
I was in favor of teacher tenure even with all its evils. The problem with teacher tenure is that if the administration is non-functional the way it was for a long time in the high school, people get tenured who aren't really that good as teachers. That's a problem and that's a problem with the union, too. A very highly respected teacher and an enthusiastic union member came up to me and said, "You know I'm on the grievous committee and it drives me crazy because we're always defending incompetence and I don't know why." So you have to be careful as a union to not to do that because you're going to getâ€¦ The sauna incident. Well, I was president of the union at the time. Two teachers were involved and they were suspended as coaches. They told their teams you go on and we'll get messages to you and tell you what to do meaning they were going to violate the School Committee's penalty. We called them in and we said, "If you do that, we will take out a full page ad in the Concord Journal and disown you. It will be signed by the executive committee of the school's teachers association." And one of the good things about our union is that when we say we're going to do something, we do it. Well, the MTA called and said you can't do that, you're supposed to defend these people, you're not supposed to discipline them. You can imagine how that goes over.
To explain the sauna incident, two teachers took their students on a field trip and took a sauna with some of the students. To resolve this is now in an area where I don't think very many people know about. But the MTA told us we had to defend, we couldn't insist on responsibility. They did it anyway. They just ignored them. We went ahead and tried to establish high professional standards. But when there are grievances though, we have a legal obligation to defend the teacher. Does that mean that the association has to vote its money for unprofessional terrible behavior done by a teacher? It can't mean that. It can't mean that one teacher's really bad behavior can involve everybody in that. The Kuliopolis thing was big in that regard. Of course, when he stole all the money from the sick fund, nobody would vote for anything that he wanted. We have a sick fund where we all give a sick day to it each year, so it piles up. Well, he emptied the bank by claiming that he was mentally disabled, and then the faculty found out he was teaching at Bentley College at the same time. But the issue was did we have to vote money for his grievance against the administration for harassment. They were so mad at him that they didn't vote any suit for a million and a half dollars because we decided against him. He eventually lost everything. He also sued the school system for eight million. All the teachers were in Concord court day after day. They couldn't hold classes in the math department.
I don't like the MTA and there are a lot of reasons why I don't. I only gave one of the reasons why. I wanted the local to be strong and I wanted it to be a union with other locals who are around and I wanted to establish a contract with the town whereas we would be a guild and we would not be dependent upon the MTA. Now I was afraid of raising this issue while I was president for fear of splitting the union. But people knew that myself, Mary Leonhart and Wilson Flight did not approve of the MTA and didn't want to operate under the strictures that this made us operate under. Now there were other teachers who were very strong MTA supporters. Their reasoning was that we owed it to the profession statewide. I was willing to give them money just not to be part of it. When you joined the local, you also had to join the national and the state organizations without an ability to evaluate them. I was against that at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end because it seemed to me that the state organization and the national organization both escaped evaluation by the teacher if the teacher wanted to join the local and of course we wanted everybody to join the local. I remember people would say and in the end we would get 100% but they would say, "I'm not going to join because I don't agree with the MTA's position on Vietnam." And I said I didn't agree with the MTA's position on Vietnam either but what it means is that you're not going to pay your share of the work that's done in order to get better working conditions and salaries. You're going to be a freeloader. It's immoral. You're taking other people's work for yourself without putting in your share because of something about Vietnam, give me a break. That's where I parted with the present president, Andre Joseph. He and I are very good friends but he believed in the unification of the workers of the world, and I was interested in making the local strong. But it's a potential big conflict. As long as we talked about local issues, we agreed. But when he wanted to contribute money to the teachers association of Algeria, I thought we could find better ways to use that money.
In Concord you have a whole lot of people hanging around the schools. There are some people in the town that made that their whole vocation and had nothing else to do but hang around, and they could exercise a prejudice that made life miserable for people who were normally very good teachers. Tenure is a defense against that. That have three years to decide whether they want you. Now they can fire you for drinking chocolate soda in the first three years, it doesn't make any difference. But after that, I thought teachers needed some defense against this hornet's nest that can spring up at a moment, so I favored tenure right from the start.
Getting back to the courses I taught, the importance of World War I became greater over time. It's now seen as turning point — that the 20th century started in 1914. Almost everybody agrees to that now. And World War II is a continuation of World War I. Without World War I it is inconceivable. There is so much work done on the Nazis and Hitler and people's views have all turned now. There are new biographies. It's become subtler and a better understanding. I didn't like "Facing History in Ourselves" for various reasons. I didn't want it introduced in the high school. But it did center in on the general human issues involved and how the reaction that the Germans had in the situation they in is very near what any human being might do, which was not the view in 1965. It's changed over time — the view of the way the Germans behaved between the wars. War II developed an uncritical enormous enthusiasm for something when your life seems meaningless or boring, we now have more sympathy than it was when I started to teach. There are other changes too. In other words the guys who got acquitted in Nuremburg, the good Nazis, they are not viewed so good now any more. So that's the primary example now. Hitler was viewed a lunatic and we don't think that any more. Immediately after the war the people who knew him and were around him refused to admit it so that didn't want to be associated with him in any way. Now we've established a better understanding of what kind of a person he really was and how talented which makes it more scary than ever, rather than a lunatic or buffoon — in 1965 he was referred to as a bad Austrian actor. That's not what's thought now about him.
I became interested in German history because of my interest in classical music. When I became a musical fanatic and really developed a love for it because most of the composers were German, how could you have both this sensational wonderful thing and at the same time the other? How could you listen to a Schubert quartet and then go out and order the massacre of millions of people? It doesn't bother me so much now. I think I understand the two aren't interfaced. But in the beginning when I started looking at it, it was a contradiction I didn't want to hear in the same way I didn't want to hear that Mozart was this silly person. I wanted to believe this was this wonderful, nice intelligent man. There is a British saying, "Due to bad weather the German revolution occurred in music." All this music creativity is a substitute for an absence of political freedom and ability to express yourself.
Bill Ireland and I went to a seminar at Harvard that studied the emigrates into the United States from Germany after World War II. What they did was come over here and start spreading German culture. They compartmentalized on Wagner and refused to acknowledge what all this is really about and how connected with racism and there is a foundation point in all the thinking. These German Jews wouldn't do that, and they longed for Germany and didn't like the United States. [seems a little disjointed]
I was brought up at the University of Chicago by ex-patriot Germans. They formed my intellectual background and a lot of this is now not even done in Germany any more. I had a German student that was an exchange student. He was not doing his homework or getting it done on time. I told him you people are supposed to be efficient and get things done. He looked at me and said, "We're not like that any more." What had happened is they jettisoned the whole tradition, the good with the bad. I think it was a reaction from World War II. Everything they were doing since it all led to this awful thing wasn't really worth it -- all those Nobel Prize winners, composers, who I was taught to admire.
In my course, we did World War I and it's aftermath. There is a book, Forever in the Shadow of Hitler. Can you imagine a time when it won't be? The big thing in German history is the question of whether or not Nazism is a logical outcome of the whole historical process of the country or whether it is some kind of unfortunate mutation. That explains the big emphasis on World War I because if the Germans can show that they weren't responsible for World War I, it doesn't seem like a such a progression. So there is an enormous emphasis there by the German historians to try to show joint responsibility, or lesser German responsibility. My course ended usually in 1939. It was supposed to end in 1945. But we never got there. One year as the last bell rang, the Germans invaded Poland.
Certainly what you study is what influences you. I fear governments when they are out of control especially when they are supported by the majority of people and they'll use that against their enemies. I think war time [voice fades]. It happens in every country. Government does not want to deal with people who are opposing it when it's trying to win wars. People I admire greatly such as Lincoln and Churchill went along with that too.
Today I continue to teach in adult education and doing some speaking so I'm somewhat part of the current dialogue. When I go and visit the high school, I am a fifth wheel. I miss most discussing issues I'm interested in with people who are smart.
I thought religion in students' lives was diminished when I was at the high school. The religious kids were entirely on the defensive and subject to being made fun of, being fearful of stating their views. In the beginning that was not the case. The atheists were on the defensive when I started in 1965. The students' knowledge of their own religion, except for the Jewish kids, was they didn't know any of the theology, didn't know any of the stories. The Catholic kids knew a few prayers. The Protestant kids knew pretty much nothing, entirely secular. I thought that was a big hole. So when we discussed World War II, we spent a lot of time discussing Protestantism and Catholicism in German history so that students would understand their own religions. I can't exaggerate how little they knew. I had Denis Cleary come in and defend Catholicism, and I got in trouble periodically with Protestantism because in German history we studied Calvin and Luther. They are very important figures and the Protestant kids and their parents were afraid that the rest of the students would think their religion was the same as it was in the 16th century. So we had ministers come in and they would explain it. I thought that was all good because whatever they learned about their religion was positive. It was alarming the total ignorance of Christianity. I think Jews are wrong to forbid Christianity in the schools, and the elimination of Christmas carols in the Alcott School. You can only do "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". I think Jews should want Christians to know about their own religion.
I thought Facing History decided all the major history questions before it started. I thought it was indoctrination and I wasn't interested in doing it. There were people in my department that thought the purpose of it was to make the society better, whereas I viewed it more as where you gave the individual something additional to make their life enjoyable. That if they went by a bookstore later in life and said gee, I'd like to get a history book. They would have gotten one more thing that gave them pleasure.