We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
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Thursday, March 19. 2015
That was our ironic term for my all-boys boarding school. Since then, times have changed and the ruling class ain't what it usta be (and never was), but I'll tell y'all about it here, if you are interested. (No, it's not Groton)
The history of American education is fascinating to me. I'd like to write the book but it seems like too much work and my writing has no zip to it, no flair, wouldn't sell. I wish I could write like Michael Lewis.
Private boarding schools (prep schools) are a relatively recent development (late 1800s) in the northeastern US and California, but had a long history in England. Prior to that, children of the prosperous in the US were mostly home-schooled (tutors) to prepare them for college.
Public education in the US, since the mid-1800s, was based on the Prussian/German model, as are American universities. The older American private secondary schools, however, were modeled on English private ("called "public") schools. But, as always through human history, the brightest and most talented kids were/are self-educated in the end.
My school was as much about the cultural experience as it was about the information and skills acquired - but those were high-level too. In fact, they tried to pack in everything you might need to begin adulthood in a time when college was considered adulthood. Four years of this would make much of college today redundant.
Below the fold, I will tell you about it all and how it worked well even for kids like me without superior IQs.
Some background info:
- We were all bright (had to pass serious admissions exams) and well-bred (good manners, respectful to adults, knew what to wear to the interview; they interviewed the parents to see if they were ok and would be on board with the program, etc), but only 5-7% of us were truly brilliant. Not me. I think about 15% of us were on partial or full scholarships and few of them were athletes. We had some Jewish kids, some black kids, a handful of foreign kids, and the occasional Asian kid. There were kids from all across America. The dominant school culture was Northeast WASP (spartan, sporty, unpretentious, quiet about money or the lack thereof) if you include Episcopalian as Protestant (which I do not).
I've known far smarter and more clever (if less-educated) people since then, but we were, and remain, a tribe, a waning subculture with our secret signals and our own codes, and loads of cultural lore.
- There were a million rules, and you were 13 years old and away from home for the longest time in your life. You signed a contract to abide by the rules. Reality hit your young self. The Dean of Students was a tough SOB, ex-Marine Corps buzz-cut, who taught American History and ran and coached the hockey program. There was no such thing as missing a class no matter how sick you were. "No excuse Sir" was the rule for everything. Beds were boards with a 2" mattress. Monastic conditions. Bathrooms were ... never mind. No radios or TV allowed. Seniors (6th Formers) could have stereos. No cars. Large piles of newspapers at breakfast. There was no internet quite yet. No real loss. Blazer and tie at all times except for sports and Saturday and Sunday afternoons which was free time after (required) Sunday church. You could flunk out easily, but that would humiliate your family. You could be thrown out easily for rule-breaking, same consequence.
Both things happened regularly so you had to break rules intelligently. We used to sneak ice cream from the freezer, and smoke cigarettes and weed in the woods. Bad boys.
Why was my school (relatively) affordable? No unions. A substantial endowment from grateful grads. Cozy on-campus housing for faculty and staff with free firewood provided by students. Slave labor by students. Faculty kids got free ed, but only if they could handle it. The relative lack of course options outside the basics, and combining teaching with coaching, limited costs too.
- Pretty much all full-time faculty lived on the rural grounds, with their families if they had them and most did. They all seemed to have vacation homes in Maine or Cape Cod, and they all could afford to travel widely in the summer. They also had the option of 6-month paid sabbaticals if they wanted them.
- All faculty were addressed as "Sir." I don't remember how we addressed female faculty, but there were not a lot of them. Language teachers were addressed in the language equivalent of "Sir". Speaking English in a language class was not permitted.
- All faculty served as Table Masters for all meals except for Sundays, on a rotating basis. Student at each table served the meals from from the kitchen. There were no meal choices except Eat it - or don't. Mystery meat, shit on a brick, beets, mashed potatoes, boiled string beans, and all the other famous prep school high cuisine. Happily, never a salad because nobody would eat it. Bowls of apples, bananas, and oranges. Sunday night was sandwich night. You made your own so the kitchen staff could go home. Fun. I think most made peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese.
- No weekends off-campus. You were there until the next vacation.
- All students had assigned tables for meals, rotated randomly every trimester. You learned to talk with anybody - including the masters' wives at Sunday dinner.
- Every person in administration taught one subject, including the Headmaster. The headmaster knew every student, and met with each one once a year to discuss their use of the school's offerings. Yes, he was serious. "You have a remarkable opportunity here, son, so I expect you to make the most of it or to go home to your Mommy with our best wishes."
- There were always a couple of gay faculty and a few night-time drunkard faculty. They were amazingly talented teachers though, so we respected them while making fun of them privately. Truth is, we found ways to make fun of everybody. That's what kids do. I would never confess what we said about the wives.
- Every "master", ie teacher, coached a sport or ran an extracurricular program
- Some masters and families elected to be house masters or dorm-masters, in exchange for free housing. That was a good thing.
- Music - When I was there, we had two rock bands and a couple of acoustic groups, a (lame) small orchestra and a couple of string quartets, a choir of course for church and entertainment, and plenty of music instruction from outside part-timers.
- The school was unashamedly Anglican/Episcopalian, but they didn't care what faith or lack thereof you had. Everybody had to attend daily chapel and formal Sunday services. We had an Anglican chaplain who coached and taught math. There were prayers before every dinner. The school figured it never hurt anybody to learn about Christianity. In the routine of school functioning, however, the idea of Honor was discussed more than God. More important than knowledge or skill was strength of character, courage, integrity, following the cultural codes.
- We had Saturday morning classes.
- Each trimester at school you had to take the math sequence (which, depending on your placement, went to the equivalent of AB calc and AP Stats), an essay-writing and reading (Literature, essays, classics, etc) sequence, a foreign language, also either Latin or Greek (thru level 6), the history sequence (from ancient to recent through 4 years), the science sequence (chem, bio, physics, each up to AP).
- The first trimester of English was "The Art and Science of the Formal Essay." We began using Roger Bacon as a model. Also, first trimester had the required Short Course "How to study successfully and efficiently at _ Academy." Great. It was mostly about rapid reading, mentally repeating the main point of each paragraph after reading it, note-taking, some mnemonic tricks, and the best trick - memorizing things by understanding them and being able to re-create them. They used Physics formulae for that.
- One year of Music History (ancient Greek music to Stravinsky) and of Art History (cave art to Picasso) were required. So was a trimester of public speaking, run by a guy from Toastmasters. That was fun to be forced to get up and ad lib a three-minute, then a five minute, speech about whatever they told you to talk about. Talk about architecture, Give a toast at a wedding, Offer a public prayer at a large meeting, etc - totally random. We all made fools of ourselves, but got the gist of it. Some kids had huge talent for it which they had not been aware of.
- There were some trimester-long electives, like Studio Art, Music Performance, Intro Astronomy, History of Asia, Fiction Writing, Political Science, and others that I have forgotten. We usually had some Writer-in Residence which was fun for all. We had John Updike one trimester because he was a friend of a faculty member. Man, was he scary smart and he liked physical labor too. He'd say "Write me one sentence." Then he would rip it apart with good humor. I tried to fake him out with a Hemingway sentence and he said "That's Hemingway. Go to the back of the class."
- Many of your required class placements like languages and math had to do with your level of performance, not your grade level.
- You always had to take a Short Course elective, but there were so many good ones to chose from that it was frustrating). A few were required. One was the old-fashioned Civics, which addressed ideas about the social contract, law - a quick intro to the American legal system, and many basic American legal foundations (torts, criminal law, contracts), ideas about self-governance, and the duties of citizenship including military service.
- Teams: We had a choice of only 3 sports each trimester. You could only take weight-training once a year. We had Varsity and JV teams which were not very good but had enthusiasm. We had lots of intramural games and scrimmages besides daily practices.
- Competition: We had several school-wide competitions each year: One-on-one basketball, Ping Pong, Spelling Bee, Geography Bee, Chess, Riflery, Skeet, Oratory, Highest GPA, a couple of others. Winners were required to wear a laurel wreath all day, and you were required to congratulate them when you passed them (school tradition).
- Breakfast was at 6:30. All meals were required attendance. Classes from 7:15 to 1. Then lunch. Sports 2-4 (required except for some specific exceptions like theater). You played sports at your level of ability, not your grade level. We had lots of beginners in some sports, and sport-switchers. We had pretty good sports facilities, but antiquated ones.
- Except for 6th Formers (seniors), there was required 3-hr monitored study hall after supper. There were large, wood-paneled study halls. 10:30 was lights out in the dorms. You were tired by then, but we had contraband radios and flashlights in case an exam was coming up.
- Each trimester you were assigned a new work duty depending on the needs of the school. The dish washing duty was the worst. My favorite was the firewood cutting and splitting.
Was four years of this worth the money? I'd like to think so. It was an elite experience, but we did not know it at the time. We just felt it was difficult and often grueling, and envied the lazy guys who went to public schools where they could watch TV, listen to pop music, drink beer, and find girls to pursue for romance and sex every day instead of just on vacation time.
As I have said here before, the lack of females helped concentration enormously and prevented many sorts of complications. I still think coed secondary education is a terrible idea.
Would a fully-meritocratic system outside our preppy culture crush us boys? Often, yes, but I think we would be the good guys and the socially-acceptable for whatever that is worth.
I guess the idea is/was to produce honest, honorable gentlemen with a strong foundation, broad knowledge, physical fitness, self-discipline, and life skills. Men who would make good husbands and solid citizens. During those formative ages, many important things become internalized. They were very careful about who they hired and did not hesitate to discharge dishonorable students. They hired nobody with a teaching degree. Most had had previous careers, and some of them were Brits or from Brit colonies.
I realize now that the place was a family with a shared mission. Thanks to them all. Deep thanks.
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My experience at boarding school varied mostly in the details.
For instance, we had what we called "required culture" which could be a speaker, music, theater, etc. The most memorable was Chris Brubeck (Dave Brubeck's son) who demanded that we not be required to wear a coat and tie for his concert.
Everybody took turns waiting tables which included serving the master and his family (serve on the left, take off from the right).
Our classes were rigorous and could be failed and as you said, unrelenting. A classmate of mine failed his senior math class which kept him from graduating. Senior math was not offered the next summer so he had a choice - come back the next year and take it again or find an approved substitute for the class. The only one was a college calculus class. So my buddy was only able to graduate high school after passing a college calculus class!
Kids were kicked out for various infractions. One year about 10% of the student body either didn't come back after vacation or was kicked out. Later, that was relaxed. Thankfully, somehow I didn't get kicked out although I gave them several chances (I later thanked my headmaster for not giving me the boot. He graciously said he didn't know what I was talking about).
My class was the first with black students. One of them later became the head of the board of directors. There were scholarship kids at our school, too. For the most part, I didn't know who they were till long after we graduated - and I probably still don't know who most of them were. I did, however, know some of the kids came from very wealthy families, but none of that made any difference to anybody.
The reaction to time there was varied. A few loved their time there. Some, like me, didn't really appreciate the experience till long after we left. A few will never set foot on campus again. I think most of us agree that it was a valuable experience that for better or worse (mostly better) helped make us who we are today.
Members of my class went on to do a lot of different things. A couple started successful business, some went into their father's business, some became musicians (several in my class were very good in school), some became professional or technical, one went to prison (white collar crime), one was a foreman, and the president of our sixth form class became a communist (interestingly, he always spearheads the organization of our reunion get-togethers).
I never miss a class reunion. My wife was a bit nervous about going to the first one she could attend with me. She was afraid they would be snooty. Here fears were unfounded. About fifteen years ago I went to the school's centennial celebration and met Steven Ambrose who was the guest speaker. I'll be going to the alumni weekend this April and will see and hope to meet Amity Shlaes who will be a speaker. I value my time, the experiences, and the education I got there and wouldn't trade it for anything.
Unfortunately when I went to school, we didn't have fencing! We had soccer, football, basketball, swimming, track, cross country, tennis, wrestling, mountaineering, and golf (I think that was all). Now that there are girls at my school (I feel like the Barrister does about that, but it's a partially a financial decision), there is now field hockey, equestrian, and maybe more, but there is still no fencing. Nor is there target shooting or archery (other skills with which every gentleman (or lady) should be at least acquainted).
I am the happy and fortunate graduate of a country day school.
I call myself a "lifer" as I entered in 1st grade and left after my senior year.
Your experiences mirror mine, save the boarding element (though we did have a boarding component that was discontinued in my middle school years).
My schoolmates were my family and out of a class of 80 or so, about half of us still get together every year some 40 years later.
I've been able to afford my sons the same experience in a different city, at a school, that at one time, was a rival of my alma mater.
Unfortunately, while they appreciated the opportunities afforded them, they did not leave with the same love of their school that I had of mine.
Perhaps the fact that my experience was in an all boys environment, while theirs was co-ed made all the difference.
As you might imagine, I'm a strong advocate for single sex schooling.
Not at all like my public junior high in Las Vegas. But the race riots my second or third day there, as a transfer student, in 1970, were interesting...or, more correctly, scary. From my humble perspective, you folks are from a different planet. But, a guy I went to high school with had a son on the winning Super Bowl team this year, and another classmate, more importantly, is a Brigadier General Green Beret. So, we too had our achievers.
If you want to record a history of American education, do not neglect the following:
Gatto, John Taylor, The Underground History of American Education.
As I've written many times before, read 'em and weep.
I guess these days, in addition to the problems of coeducation, I'd worry about institutional capture by the social justice brigade. "Gentleman" and "citizen" are antiquated white cishet male patriarchal concepts that must be smashed, tolerance for the intolerable but never for the intolerant, and all the rest.
But then, for me, "Episcopalian" is rapidly becoming a trigger word.