Conversations with David Tyack

David Tyack is a professor at Stanford who thinks and writes about the history of education. He has written lots of books about what public schools mean to a democratic society, the values that they convey, the place of citizenship.

David has mentored hundreds of students who have gone on to important jobs in education. For someone who’s done so much in life, he’s incredibly humble and grounded in the reality of humanity and the earth.

David is now retired from his position at Stanford, but he has continued in his role as a teacher. He came to visit last month, accompanied by Kenji who wanted to bring back some early memories and to connect him with Sacred Rok.

David said that he first came to Yosemite in 1948. Back then, David was a student in Massachusetts, and he hitchhiked out here on the summer between high school and college to work on Blister Rust Control for the Civilian Conservation Corps with the Forest Service. He worked off of Tioga Pass Road, which at that time was just a small dirt road. I marveled in meeting someone who’s been here so long ago, and appreciated connecting to his wisdom. The west drew him. Although raised and educated in the east, David hitchhiked back to California the following year to pick fruit in Loomis, and then he taught in Oregon and at Stanford. He loves the mountains, adventure, and the experience of being with people.

Kenji had planned on coming up with David to enjoy the rushing water, but they hadn’t planned on a rainy weekend in early June. They came anyway, and we were rewarded by a hike around the valley floor in constant soaking rain. Although David is not the kind of hiker he used to be, he’s still strong and has the enthusiasm of a kid plus the wisdom of his years. The valley was crowded despite the rain, but we still found a quiet spot that was sheltered from the rain under the trees. We sat and enjoyed some snacks and a good conversation.

We talked about trees, and about what nature has meant to his life – the experiences, the metaphors, and the friendships. After all these years of teaching at Stanford and the academic wisdom he has shared, he said that what so many students remember most about him were the hikes and the bike rides that they took. What I most appreciated was the intertwining of our two very different lives – mine as a lifelong climber and student of the ways of nature, and David’s as a respected scholar and also a student of nature.

What David says about education is so profound and almost serves as a motto for Sacred Rok. In discussing a book “Tinkering toward Utopia” that he wrote with his good friend Larry Cuban, he said: “For goodness sake, let's stop talking about the financial value of education and talk instead about human capital, about schools helping to create people who are fully developed as human beings and as democratic citizens.”

The next day, as we were talking about our hike and our conversation about trees, he said he’d like to share poem that he wrote several years back about trees, and about their strength and their fragility. And he said we could share it in our newsletter.



Bristlecone pines cling to chalk cliffs expecting

fire to scatter seed over charred ground.

Redwoods shoot their green sprouts up dark canyons

toward the filtered sun.

Trees have gifts for living.

But girdle the tree and cut the cambium’s ever-circling flow,

and dead it will stand, erect awhile in central core, but

browning from decay.

This is how we feel about kids, with a gift for living, yet much of society is like girdling, suffocating the natural flow. David did share that he wrote this not with kids in mind, but about human relationships and love as well. David is not afraid to talk about love, its power and fragility, and about healing from suffering.

Later in the month, I participated in the annual spiritual camp in our Yosemite native circles, which always brings me back to the basics. The experience of people working together in our camp to honor and to connect to our life source and the powers of healing in the sweat lodge every morning and evening helped me consider our participation and responsibility as caretakers of the land. The songs that we sing are about nature and its ceremony. This went on from Monday to Friday, with the last day being the bear dance ceremony that brings people from all over the country.

The park rangers kept coming to give us daily reports of the potential of flooding in Yosemite Valley, which seemed like the outside world from the perspective of our camp. Curiously enough, just outside was also the world of Camp 4, where so many years of my youth as a climber were spent, as I’ve shared with you about Midnight Lightning and other climbs. Camp 4 was my high school, and now next door I’m in my university, continuing to learn to be human, now with indigenous perspective and knowledge about the reality of nature as our life source.

I so appreciated simply being under the trees at the spiritual camp, participating with the native elders and acknowledging that this is where people have been taking in the beauty for thousands of years, cultivating the richness of the wisdom and balance of knowing how to work together as a community.

It was special, too, having the conversations with David, the elder of his community of scholars with an understanding of the meaning of education, surrounded by these same trees. As these two experiences came together for me this past month, I could especially feel the force of rushing water that is the pulse of the earth. Kenji and I continue to reflect on what it means for Sacred Rok to bring kids from Merced, and how we can connect them to this community of nature and its power for healing.

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