Meaningful Life & Learning: Thoughts from Cooke Scholar Abigail McFee


Abigail McFee was a 2009 recipient of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Young Scholars Program, and was additionally awarded the Cooke College Scholarship in 2013. She is currently a senior at Tufts University, where she majors in English Language and Literature/Letters and writes for JUMBO, the Tufts admissions magazine. In this piece, Abigail reflects on how access to educational opportunities allows living and learning to be entwined.


I discovered John Holt when I was in seventh grade. His controversial essay, “School is Bad for Children,” opened the anthology for a college class I had fought for permission to take. I was an eager misfit: my plan, on a three-hour car trip with my mom, was to skim through all of the essays before the first day of the semester. For exactly the same reason that I found myself the kind of middle schooler who would read a not-yet-assigned essay for a class she didn’t have to take, everything Holt wrote rang true to me.

“In he comes, this curious, patient, determined, energetic, skillful learner,” Holt said of a child on his first day of school. “We sit him down at a desk, and what do we teach him? Many things. First, that learning is separate from living… Secondly, that he cannot be trusted to learn and is no good at it… In short, he comes to feel that learning is a passive process, something that someone else does to you, instead of something you do for yourself.”

I loved school. I loved devouring books, pleasing teachers, and speaking up in class. But there were parts of me that I had to leave at the door when I entered the school building each morning and sling onto my back again at the end of the day: the passion for writing that was stifled by repeated instruction in three-paragraph essays, the desire to know more about the Salem Witch Trials than a brief textbook synopsis could tell me, the belief that I could make my art into a career in spite of my farmer grandparents’ and well-meaning teachers’ skepticism.

These were the parts of me that fueled my 40-page application for the Cooke Young Scholars Program. Several months after my car ride with John Holt, I received a package in the mail: an acceptance into a foundation that wanted to pay for me to take agency over my own learning.

My educational adviser asked, “What are you interested in? What do you want to do?” and then, with unwavering belief in me, she listened. Creative writing summer programs affirmed, “YES, write passionately, take risks, say more than you could in English class.” At Welcome Weekend, with 74 like-minded scholars who I understood and loved immediately, Dr. Ken Ginsburg told us that a life of scholarship was meaningless if we could not use our passion to help others. I felt the same sensation I’d had when reading Holt for the first time: the recognition of a truth that would spur me onward.

At Scholars Weekend this past July, capping off my eighth year as a Cooke Scholar, Executive Director Harold Levy said that he hopes the foundation can provide us the same opportunities and benefits bestowed upon the children of wealthy parents. A room full of scholars applauded, knowing we’ve been given more than that: being a scholar in the Foundation is like having wealthy parents who really want you to pursue your passion — a gift, regardless of socioeconomic status, rarely afforded by the educational system, rarely reinforced by a society more focused on earnings than impact.

Holt writes, “People remember only what is interesting and useful to them, what helps them make sense of the world, or helps them get along in it. All else they quickly forget, if they ever learn it at all.” To stretch his point further, I would argue that students go on to craft the most meaningful lives and most effective careers — whether they become doctors, engineers, poets, or activists — only when they are given the permission and the resources to pursue what interests them. Learning does not have to be separate from living, it turns out. John Holt taught me what the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation allowed me to experience.