Andover, Mass--George Bush, Class of ‘42, returned to Phillips Academy here last week to pay tribute to his prep-school roots and recall how he got his inspiration for public service.
On a cold, crisp Sunday morning, amid the Colonial- and Federal-style halls and dormitories on the picturesque campus, the President addressed and later mingled with students, alumni, trustees, and other guests at a celebration marking the bicentennial of a visit by George Washington.
In his brief visit to what is more commonly called Andover, Mr. Bush made no major policy statements about the place of private schools in American education. But he did pay tribute to “one of America’s finest academies” for its mission of “excellence in education.” He also stressed that his years here at one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious boarding schools had instilled in him a sense of duty and a respect for education.
“The Andover Mission states that education has always been the great equalizer and uplifter,” the President said. “And that, public or private, large or small, the schools of America are precious centers of intellectual challenge and creativity.”
“And yet, they’re more than that,” he continued. “For it is in school, as it was for me here at Phillips Academy, that we come to understand real values. The need to help the less fortunate, make ours a more decent, civil world.”
During his campaign for the Presidency, Mr. Bush often bristled at his image as a blue-blooded scion of a privileged New England family. He sought to highlight the fact that after Andover he volunteered for service in World War II, and then, upon his graduation from Yale University, set out to Texas to make it on his own, achieving business success before beginning his political career.
But the President has never forgotten his old school ties. He served as a trustee of Andover from 1967 to 1979, and three of his five children graduated from the school.
“I loved those years,” Mr. Bush told the convocation about his time as a student here. “They did, indeed, teach the ‘great end and real business of living.’ And even now its lessons of honesty, selflessness, faith in God--well, they enrich ev4ery day of our lives.”
He spent five years at Andover, sitting out much of his junior year due to an illness. By some accounts, he did not excel academically, but his yearbook entry reflects an abundance of extracurricular activities: president of the senior class, captain of the baseball and soccer teams, member of the basketball team, chairman of student deacons, and treasurer of the student council.
Mr. Bush has cited his experience at Phillips Academy as a factor behind his stated desire to be the “education President.”
In an interview earlier this year with the alumni bulletin, he said he would “try through exhortation, through using the White House as a bully pulpit, to encourage excellence in a wide array of ways and to have public institutions teach values and thus teach the kids about the ‘real business of living.”’
“I think the attempt on my part to reach out now for excellence at every level in education was enhanced by my education at Phillips Academy,” he added.
Mr. Bush is by no means the only recent President to have attended a leading preparatory school. Franklin D. Roosevelt graduated from Groton, and John F. Kennedy, who attended Choate, once remarked that “the success of any school can be measured by the contribution the alumni make to our national life.”
Prep-school alumni have dominated Presidential cabinets and other centers of power over the years, a tradition that has been explored by the journalist David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest and by the sociologists Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell in Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools.
Ms. Persell, of New York University, said in an interview that Andover could have indeed inspired Mr. Bush to pursue national service out of a sense, as the President said, “that we were put on Earth to help others.”
But she argued that the ethos of service fostered by leading private schools can also be seen as advancing the interests of the upper class in preserving its power. That is reflected, she said, in the motto of Groton School, which, translated from Latin, is “to serve is to rule.”
The Phillips Academy of today differs markedly from the school during Mr. Bush’s years as a student. Founded in 1778, Andover has strived to educate youth “from every quarter.” It became coeducational in 1973 under the headmastership of Theodore R. Sizer, who has been a prominent writer and researcher on school-reform issues.
When Mr. Bush was in school, there were two minority students enrolled. Last week, Andover officials took pains to emphasize to the national media accompanying the President the growing numbers of minority students and teachers.
Of the current enrollment of some 1,200 students, 13 percent are black or Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian, school officials said. Ten percent of all students are on full scholarship, and 37 percent receive some form of financial aid. Boarding-school tuition is $13,500 this year, while tuition for the day school is $10,300.
“The academy is sometimes described as ‘elitist,”’ Donald W. McNemar, the headmaster, said at the convocation. “And in some sense it is true--not because of money or privilege, but because our students are more caring and giving than most American teenagers, and they come from all races, classes, and backgrounds.”
Some of those attending the festivities used the occasion to let the President know their political views. Several dozen Andover students and guests carried banners protesting Administration policies, particularly the President’s stand against abortion. Even more students throughout the audience wore armbands in support of individual choice on the issue.
“It was really our only chance to make our voice known,” said Fred Medick, a 16-year-old student from Summit, N.J.