Education Opinion

Independent Schools, Democracy, Plutocracy, and Responsibility

By Peter Gow — March 15, 2013 3 min read
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A reader suggested offline that independent schools might not be a good thing in a democracy.

I know where he’s coming from--the elitist tag sticks, a strange historical afterglow of the Gilded Age, when only the self-styled Right Sort of People seemed to send their children off to prep schools.

The issue isn’t about democracy, but plutocracy. Plutocrats of a century ago were surely bloated, but if they did send their children to independent schools, it was a matter of choice--the heart of democracy. Eradicating this choice would strike me as being less about democracy than something far more problematic.

Of course nothing can excuse the virulently antidemocratic racism and anti-Semitism that characterized some independent schools until living memory. Some schools resisted these in the day, but many did not. This is a historical blot that cannot and will not be forgotten but that many schools have spent the past three decades and more trying to correct.

The earliest independent schools simply filled a gap that public schools did not yet exist to fill. Their pioneers tended to be dreamers and do-gooders: ministers, philosopher-teachers, and outright idealists like Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. At the beginning they charged fees because there weren’t lots of free, open-enrollment alternatives.

Many will insist that independent schools were established to enshrine socioeconomic privilege. I won’t argue that for a century or so they did largely that, although the origins of some of the most “exclusive” schools had, at least in their founders’ eyes, a more idealistic raison d’etre: they were to educate to the children of the untethered wealthy--Robber Barons, some of them--who had neither the time, the inclination, nor perhaps even the values to raise boys and girls of intellectual and moral substance. Let there be boarding schools, they said, where these children could be taken in hand by adults with a firm sense of educational purpose and given a dose of discipline and some training in sportsmanship, serious academics, and the moral principles of muscular Christianity. In the absence of anything much better--private tutors while Mumsy traipses around Europe?--this isn’t too bad an impulse.

In Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous (1897) the spoiled son of a gazillionaire falls overboard from a transatlantic liner and is rescued by fishermen. A season aboard a fishing schooner makes a man of the lad, fitting him to eventually take over Daddy’s empire as someone who had learned a thing or two about real life. While you might not see the Gothic chapel of, say, Groton School (founded in 1884) as “real life,” exactly, relatively Spartan living and enforced regimes of sports and study gave heirs-to-be a dose of Captains Courageous-like reality therapy. It’s worth noting that a disproportion of early graduates of some these schools followed careers in public service (check out the “Notable alumni” list on Groton’s Wikipedia page). They could afford to, you might say--and you’d be right--but some created the New Deal, which was arguably pretty good for democracy.

In the era of the One Percent, it’s right to worry that independent schools might once again enshrine a separate elite; Fred Bartels has written eloquently about this. Those who work in the schools know this, and thus such issues as affordability, socioeconomic diversity, and our “public purpose” are much on our lips and on our minds. There isn’t an easy solution; perhaps ironically, it’s the established boarding schools that can offer the highest levels of need-based financial aid, and less affluent schools, despite some very egalitarian values and missions, are in the weakest position to serve broad spectra of family income.

Our job as educators is to offer what those boarding school founders of the late nineteenth-century tried to: an education steeped in moral purpose as well as authentically connected to the requirements--social, cultural, and practical--of the “real world.” We cannot, we know, simply surrender to the temptations of association with a new plutocracy.

Will our schools continue to serve the children of self-styled “elites”? Probably, to a greater degree than we like. We must acknowledge but never celebrate this, never embracing, endorsing, or excusing the concept of “elite"--our public purpose and our students’ futures demand far, far more. Our challenge is to articulate and act on that demand.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.