Reflections on a Century Of Independent Schools

By Arthur G. Powell — May 19, 2010 12 min read
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Prep schools became more mainstream not only because of what they abandoned, but also because of what they retained.

But a vocal minority of private school leaders actively opposed the word independent. They were proud of being private. More to the point, they believed the independent designation was highly misleading. Just because schools were governed by boards of trustees didn’t make them truly independent. They were dependent on their boards’ preferences and money, on parent wishes, on college-entrance requirements, and on the wisdom of state governments to avoid crippling regulation of curriculum and teacher licensing. Although many schools celebrated their isolation from the wider society--they were walled gardens, in one headmaster’s memorable phrase--these dissenters knew independent schools were creations of a powerful segment of American society, and not immune from influences of the larger culture.

In the second half of the century, the boundaries between independent schools and American society became far more permeable. In important respects the schools became even less independent than they had been. State intrusiveness increased, federal regulation grew beyond the wildest imagination of any pre-World War II school head, and vulnerability to lawsuits became a permanent source of anxiety. Above all, the students changed. Not just in the sense of increased racial and economic diversity, although this was substantial, but perhaps more important in the sense of values and expectations. Unimagined affluence in the hands of youth, the liberating power of numerous modern psychologies of development and growth, and the tremendous educative influence of the youth-culture industry delivered by the new mass media all forced schools to take greater account of student preferences. Schools lost authority as students and their parents became familiar with the roles and rights of consumers. These consumers became the “market” with which schools had to communicate and which they had to understand, and--in the end--please. By century’s end, it was possible to discern in independent school literature a pragmatic conception of accountability based mainly on the idea of the satisfied customer.

So independent schools today operate very much in the real world, exposed to many of the main currents of American life. Most no longer are exotic places, as most surely were as late as the early ‘60s. Still flourishing then were single-sex schools, formal relations between teachers and students, strict dress codes, required religious observances, overwhelmingly white student enrollments, girls’ finishing schools, and the image of boarding school as the quintessential independent school experience. Today most of these signature features have been downgraded or abandoned, because the schools and their market sought to eliminate the social exclusivity they implied. In many respects, the prep schools now resemble affluent public schools without vocational education.

Shorn of their most exotic features, what remains most distinctive about independent schools? The answer is other traditional characteristics, which have proven to be perfectly in tune with the needs of public school reform in the century’s last two decades. The prep schools became more mainstream and respected not only because of what they abandoned, but also because of what they retained. (The softening of religiosity in Roman Catholic schools had the same general effect. The discovery that Catholic school characteristics might help advance public school reform could occur precisely because formerly contentious religious features of those schools withered away.)

At the heart of the realization that independent and other private schools have a constructive message about school improvement is a national end-of-century consensus about the central problems reform should address. One problem is weak academic standards--for all students during the years when it seemed the Japanese and Germans would “defeat” us economically, and for poor and minority students in more recent times when the first position is less tenable. A second problem is how to reduce the isolation of young people from healthy adult interaction and supervision.

The independent school story in these two areas can be quickly sketched. To combat poor student performance, they urge higher expectations, more requirements, and more focused institutional missions. To combat impersonalism and student anonymity, they urge smaller schools, smaller classes, and greater personalization. To combat apathy or resistance and to encourage commitment, they urge various versions of school choice. To combat youth’s increasing disconnection from adults, they urge strengthening schools as communities and extending their reach to students’ out-of-class lives. To combat teachers’ and principals’ feelings of professional impotence, they urge school-site management and greater within-school decentralization of decisionmaking.

By and large, this story is powerful and instructive. School reform today embraces most of its elements, from highly visible successes like Central Park East Secondary School in New York City to the explosive charter school movement. Even reformers suspicious of excessive decentralization, who prefer standards to be set outside individual schools, find the independent school story applicable. Throughout this century, independent schools have relied heavily on standards set outside themselves--the prewar College Boards, the postwar SATs, and especially Advanced Placement. External examinations of the right sort can legitimize and make accountable schools’ work with critical constituencies such as knowledgeable parents and college-admission officers.

But to tell only this one story would miss the larger point that independent schools can inform thinking about school improvement in less well-known ways. Perhaps their least-told important story--because it is not sufficiently problematic to enough Americans--concerns the distinction between the independent schools’ heavy emphasis on academic achievement and their much weaker emphasis on cultivating enduring interests of mind. The latter aim celebrates reflective intellectual life, which lies at the heart of all school encounters with the liberal arts. Interests of mind suggests activity broadly concerned with ideas voluntarily engaged in mainly for the pleasure and satisfaction of the activity itself. Activity includes doing things where the doing or its result is readily visible to others--making a watercolor, writing a letter to the editor, leading a family discussion about some public issue. Activity also includes the less visible, more private inner lives of people--what they think about, talk about, read, watch, and listen to. Activity can mean goal-directed projects, such as solving a problem or puzzle. But it may equally mean activity with no tangible end product except the enjoyment of the activity.

All too often, in observing independent schools over two decades, I came upon evidence that this sort of educational objective was weakly valued and nurtured. Here’s but one example. A small group of juniors loudly argued in their school cafeteria about the causes of the Civil War. Some other juniors wandered by, observed the raging debate, and proclaimed their puzzlement. “Why are you talking about this here?” they asked their classmates. “We’re not in class anymore.” The onlookers were perfectly willing to discuss the causes of any war in class or through homework essays. They cared about good academic performance just as much as did the cafeteria conversationalists. After all, this was an independent prep school. Doing academic work was part of the school’s ethic. What perplexed the observers was that a few peers cared enough to continue the conversation beyond the classroom--when they didn’t have to and when they weren’t being watched or assessed. It never occurred to them that an academic obligation could become voluntary, pleasurable, and enduring.

I have long believed that independent schools should nurture lifelong intellectual curiosity and passion as a primary mission. They should be, as David Riesman once argued, a countervailing force against prevailing cultural mores hostile to the life of the mind. If they are ever to be aggressively independent in any one area, it should be in this one, where they can capitalize on their unique advantages of economic privilege, academic orientation, and historic association with the liberal-arts tradition in higher education. Some do this, but most do not. It is worth exploring why this is so.

If these advantaged schools are not unusually welcoming toward the life of the mind, it is hard to imagine schools less advantaged and independent from mass culture being so.

If these advantaged schools are not unusually welcoming toward the life of the mind, it is hard to imagine schools less advantaged and independent from mass culture being so.

Their attitude is not a recent one. Independent schools have not fallen from a former golden age of intellectual enthusiasm. Academic achievement has always trumped intellectual engagement, because the results of academic performance have important short-term consequences on college admission. The long-term results of intellectual engagement are notoriously vague and hard to measure. No incentives exist to assess long-range school effects, especially in such areas as mental habits and activity. Further, academic studies have often been justified to independent school parents on grounds of their practical utility, rather than by their capacity to deepen understanding of the world and the human condition. It’s not the substance of these subjects but the general skills derived from them that educators usually celebrate--problem-solving, critical thinking, and the like. Even the recent enthusiasm for “understanding” as an educational aim tends to define understanding primarily in the narrow, pragmatic, and scientific sense of being able to “apply” ideas to new situations. The capacity and interest to dig deeper into an idea gets short shrift.

Moreover, the central goal parents have had for independent schools throughout the century is neither academic nor intellectual, but what is usually called character development. That the meaning of character development has changed considerably, along with the means of bringing it about, is less important than the tenacious resilience of the general idea. The dream of transforming a student in the sense of values (especially values distant from the life of the mind) and behavior toward others is what created most independent schools and sustains them still.

Especially in the first half of the century, religion, team sports, and even academics were considered character-building mainstays (the latter because they taught discipline and perseverance in the face of difficult and often unpleasant tasks). Later on, the idea of character development became more specialized, professionalized, and programmatic. Psychological and therapeutic approaches supplemented and often supplanted religious ones. Decent character became defined almost as much by what it sought to prevent (low self-esteem, substance and other abuses, intolerance) than by what it stood affirmatively for (kindness, honesty, altruism). It is easy to understand why schools invest large sums on workshops addressing chemical dependency and nothing for weeklong immersions on the future of Russia. Our absorption with mental health and happiness is an understandable fact of modern life, and will expand in all schools according to available funding. But given limited resources, it is another obstacle to emphasizing interests of mind.

One more long-term independent school circumstance must be considered. Over the century such schools have had to figure out how best to serve a student population of very diverse academic capabilities, but where most students are college bound, all parents are paying the same high price, and all deeply believe their children to be special in one way or another. To put it mildly, an emphasis on intellectual culture has not proven effective in dealing with this fundamental pedagogical problem. Independent schools know how to increase the academic performance of average students through a combination of personal attention and strong work expectations. But they have no comparable success in instilling a love of learning in students who are not especially talented academically.

So they try another tack. They commit themselves to providing opportunities where virtually any worthwhile interest can be discovered. Intellectual pursuits become only one of many school offerings. Schools assume that every student has the potential to do something well. The job of the school is to help students find that something. Despite small size, independent schools are under great pressure to mount additional programs and expand facilities--the arts and sports are current examples. It is no accident that they have been heavily influenced by Howard Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligences. Instead of seeing his ideas as diminishing intellectual values, they regard them as liberation from narrow educational ambitions. They validate a broader curriculum and teaching style in which every student can find success. If privileged parents insist that prep schools help all their children discover something they are good at, it is not hard to imagine the same impulse soon present in all parents. The effort to maximize human potential thus places the topic of enduring intellectual interests further back on the burner.

Over the century, but especially since the 1960s, independent schools have become much less independent from political and cultural influences. They have lost most of their exoticism, and are less exclusive, snobbish, elitist, and different than they once were. Most are proud of these changes. And one undeniable advantage is that their central remaining traditions stand out. These are of constructive use to the ongoing public school reform debate. That is good for all schools and for independent schools.

But the mainstreaming of independent schools into American society has also exacted a price. It has increased, I believe, the barriers that prevent them from becoming more ambitious educationally. In particular, they overemphasize short-term academic achievement for short-term ends. In so doing, I admit, they usually satisfy their immediate constituencies. Yet I wish they were less afraid of being called “elitist,” a wonderful word that to them now suggests, unfortunately and incorrectly, the taint of social superiority rather than the constant aspiration for intellectual excellence. Genuinely elite schools do not just ape conventional high-end school reform (technology and multiculturalism are current enthusiasms). They relentlessly pursue the cultivation of enduring interests of mind. This ambitious goal, even if undertaken against the odds, best justifies their oft-stated ambition to be private schools with public purposes. They should rediscover the proud and democratic dimensions of elitism.


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