Learning From Experience: Students Interview Former Secretary of State George Shultz

By Ward ‘SN’ Mailliard

Values in World Thought Program

“I’m in my 90s now and people say I’m reasonably alert, and why is that? I think it’s because somehow, early in my life, I learned how much fun it is to learn something. It’s often said that experience is the best teacher, but the fact of the matter is that you can take a group of people like this and expose them to the same experience, and some people learn something from it and some people don’t learn anything from it. So the question is how do you learn how to learn from experience?”    – George Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State

Sitting around an elegant table at the Annenberg Conference Center at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, 29 Mount Madonna School (MMS) high school students leaned forward listening intently to the soft and yet authoritative voice of former Secretary of State George Shultz. The boys were dressed in suits and the girls in professional dress to honor the privilege of this special occasion. They had prepared for this moment for weeks: doing research, watching documentaries, discussing and formulating questions. This was an opportunity to engage with history by speaking to a man who helped shape it.

Secretary Shultz enters the room and everyone stands. He puts everyone at ease with a bit of good humor and his calm presence. Senior McKenzie Caborn introduces the group of juniors and seniors, and the students begin asking questions that will shape their conversation with this iconic figure who served in so many important jobs, including that of Secretary of State for seven years of the Reagan Presidency.

Junior Karina Fox begins, “In a 2008 interview with Mount Madonna School students, you said, ‘Obviously, if both sides have weapons that can be devastating if used, it gets your attention.’” She then asks, “How can we keep people paying attention in order to continue the support for the process of nuclear arms reduction?”

The Secretary’s response to this question illustrates something of the practical strategist who knows that it is small steps and great perseverance that make a successful journey possible. He explains how it takes the creation of non-government organizations, media articles, relationship building, conferences, studies, stimulating public awareness, and international cooperation to keep public awareness strong. Not a job for the faint of heart.

“Your job as Secretary of State appeared to be a lot about finding resolutions for many different conflicts,” notes junior Aimee Hopkins. “This must require an enormous amount of patience. Were there ever points in your career where that patience was stretched to the breaking point?”

This question elicits a brief chuckle from the Secretary as he proceeds to recount two stories that pertain directly to that point. His stories describe a life where principles matter as much, or more, than the job.

Some of Secretary Shultz’s answers take time as there is much to say and stories to tell as he reflects on so many years of experience. He chooses his words for clarity and understanding. This is a seasoned diplomat and kindly grandfather figure all rolled into one.

Senior Aaron Storrs poses his question: “Mr. Secretary, you said in ‘Turmoil and Triumph,’ that you always start with ideas, and if you don’t, you get lost. Later in a Stanford speech you said that, ‘Ideas are a compass.’ Is there a central idea that you started with that has remained with you as a compass throughout your career?”

Here the Secretary’s answer is startlingly brief. He pauses for a moment and then replies, “I suppose the central idea is to be honest with yourself. And try to do things that are right.” There is a moment of silence. Then students realize that is all he going to say, and his answer begins to sink in. A simple aphorism based on a career of dealing with complex issues. A clear set of markers on a long road of service to the nation.

These moments with Secretary Shultz provide at least one answer to the many questions posed in education today about how to include ethics and values in the content driven world of our school system. At MMS we respond to this important need by holding conversations with those who understand, and more importantly, who have lived by the ideal that serving one’s community is a path to meaning and satisfaction in life.

In our final exchange, junior Sanika Lakka asks, “What advice do you have for us in our preparation as future citizens of this country?”

Secretary Shultz responds, “What advice do I have? Well I have a tie that I wear occasionally, particularly at political events, that Ronald Reagan gave me early in the primary season back in 1980 or so. On the tie it says, ‘Democracy is not a spectator’s sport.’ So you’ve got to take part. That doesn’t necessarily mean serve or run for office, but pay attention. Take part in the political process…I think that the basic advice for a citizen in our country is to be alert to what’s going on. Pay attention and be part of it.”

What do the students take away from an experience like this? Here are a few excerpts from their reflections following the interview:

Going into an interview with a 92-year-old man, one might expect to talk about his achievements when he was 60 or younger. But the majority of the interview was not about praising and discussing the incredible achievements of his 60-year-old self. It was spent talking about the indomitable warrior that is his 92-year-old self, the self still convening assemblies at Stanford to deal with the ever-growing threat of nuclear weapons.    – Quincy Mitchell, senior 

He has accumulated nearly a century’s worth of knowledge, yet he has still preserved his passion for learning. “If you get to be in your 90s like me and someone asks you, ‘How did you manage that?’ It’s because you kept learning.” This statement hit me. After years of drowning in a seemingly endless pool of lectures, homework, and quizzes, I realized that I had lost my curiosity. The looming cloud of AP tests, SATs, and applications had forced me to compromise the process in pursuit of the goal. However, Shultz’s words cleared away this cloud and opened up the space for me to see school with a new perspective. Success is not determined by the number of facts memorized or quizzes aced, but rather by the work ethic and passion that you acquire throughout the process. It is this love for the process of learning that has fueled Shultz’s career, protected his youthful spirit, and inspired him to stay curious at 92 years old.                             – McKenzie Caborn, senior

As our interview with former Secretary of State George Shultz progressed, I found myself wishing that he was my grandfather… The most inspiring part of the interview for me can be summed up into a single quote, “What can you do to produce a better future?” I believe that this is something that we all should consider, regardless of our status or perceived influence on the larger world. Secretary Shultz’s industrious, hopeful approach towards the future is something that I hope I can one day emulate.
-Taylor Krilanovich, junior

What struck me the most was how he treated his jobs and successes in his life. They seemed not to come from any selfish ambition. Only a true love of learning and commitment seemed to be his driving force. And he seemed happy, or at least content.    -Brooke Staveland, junior

Another thing George Shultz brought up that I shall never forget is humbleness, and doing something because that is your passion, not because others might think highly of you if you succeed. He said, “There’s no limit to what a man or woman can accomplish if they don’t care who gets the credit.”  
-Blythe Collier, senior
     Coming into the Shultz interview I had no idea what to expect. One of the things I appreciated most about him was that he was able to put everyone in the room at ease. One of the most interesting aspects of the interview for me were his stories. When he talked about his time under Reagan as Secretary of State, and the history that his stories held, it really struck me because I am very history oriented person, and to hear a first hand account of happenings during the Cold War was amazing.  – Jon Jon Blunden, senior

In this fish bowl we call life, we humans like to consider ourselves intelligent creatures. We are on a constant quest to discover our life’s core purpose. While we work on that one, how about we start with a simple trait: accountability. What connection do we have if we cannot be relied upon? Who are we if we do not have beliefs, or do not stand up for our beliefs?

From completing childhood chores to passing bills in Congress, accountability is all we have. Secretary Shultz has a tie that reads, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” This means that as an American citizen, I am accountable for paying attention to political process. No one can make me vote, which leaves me the decision of whom to go and vote for. Deciding whom to vote for requires research; which according to Shultz is a vital factor of being a responsible United States citizen.   – Alida Lettunich, senior

These learning journeys push the classroom walls out into the community where life is lived, and bring the community to the classroom to give it life. It is both modern and timeless as values are best learned by stories and engaging directly with those who embody them. This is one way we can mentor the future: not by teaching, but by modeling and inspiring. When the great man is kind and humble we learn that kindness and humility are part what it means to be great.

When we talk to people who took part in history, we learn that we as human beings create that history. When we hear that they did it by perseverance, thoughtfulness, integrity and hard work, we know then what we must do. It is as important for our schools to be as concerned with the content or our students’ character as it is to measure knowledge of the content of their books. Both are important and neither will serve well without the other.

This is why we make all the effort and take the time to prepare for, and pursue interviews with those like Secretary Shultz who are contributing to their communities and the world in meaningful ways. It is the character we hope our students will develop regardless of the disciplines they pursue or the jobs they hold. It is part of what makes Mount Madonna School what it is. We expose the students to the experiences, and we hope, as Secretary Shultz said, they “learn how to learn from experience.”


For more information on Mount Madonna School’s Values in World Thought Program , visit: http://values.mountmadonnaschool.org/

Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Marketing & Communications, Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.



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