School & District Management Commentary

Homage to a Headmaster

By Jan Ophus — October 04, 2000 11 min read
Required reading for principals.

The Headmaster, by John McPhee (Noonday Press), was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1966. "[P]erhaps a third as long as a conventional biography,” McPhee writes in the preface, this taut little book describes the career of Frank Learoyd Boyden, a “small, grumpy Labrador” of a man in signature brown cordovans and threadbare, dark-blue worsted suits who administered the same secondary school for 64 years.

Between 1902 and 1966, the “Little Man,” as Boyden was known by townspeople, transformed a deteriorating school housed in “a dispiriting red-brick building” into an institution “that had reached the highest peerage of American independent schools” and acquired for himself the unwanted but nonetheless bona fide status of legend in his own time.

Every educator who wants to become an administrator, especially a high school principal, should be required to read this book. Every practicing principal should be given the book at district expense and an afternoon off in which to savor it, replenishing thereby his or her professional soul.

Why such enthusiasm for a modest, dated book whose subject, however endearingly dedicated, did after all spend his entire career in the cloistered circumstances of a New England prep school for boys during what is, surely, an irrelevant time? I’ve been a public high school principal since 1978. Over the course of those turbulent years, the “principalship” has metamorphosed into something that in my glummest moments I can look upon as not only unfamiliar but alienating. McPhee’s affectionate though unsentimental portrayal of Frank Boyden and Deerfield Academy reminds me of the ideals that shoved me into my first principal’s job all those years ago. It rejuvenates in me my inaugural understanding of what this high calling of mine requires: a passionate commitment to the well-being of young people; a capacity for stressful work and incredibly long hours, notwithstanding the consistent prospect of inconspicuous returns; humble but unflinching resolve in the face of sometimes ruthless public scrutiny; a willingness to assume levels of responsibility from which most sensible folk shrink; and the stubborn belief that one is, at the end of the day, making a real contribution to the public good.

A Pulitzer Prize winner, John McPhee has written about subjects as diverse as the Highlands of Scotland, experimental aircraft, and the formation of the Earth. He is known for the clarity of his style and the thoroughness of his research. It has been said of his work that however dissimilar his subjects appear, they are in fact unified around a theme: the tension of the old confronting the new.

The Headmaster has barely 109 pages of text. Thirty-five pages of black and white photographs provide a charming postscript and a concise visual record of Boyden’s more than six- decade tenure at Deerfield Academy. Though the book isn’t organized chronologically, it has a narrative feel. Perhaps this is the effect of McPhee’s brisk style, one declarative sentence following hard on another, as in this anecdote that reports Boyden’s first day in Deerfield:

The day was Tuesday, Aug. 12, 1902. The temperature outside was in the high 80s. But Ephraim Williams, a retired cavalry officer with one leg and a walrus mustache, stood in his front parlor with his back to a blistering fire. He had a shawl over one arm and a fan in one hand. He explained that he never knew when he might suffer a chill or a fever. In this atmosphere, Boyden met other trustees as well. One of them said to him, "It's a tossup whether the academy needs a new headmaster or an undertaker." They frankly did not know whether to hire him or close the school, but if he wanted the job he could have it.

More likely, my sense while reading The Headmaster that a story was unfolding can be accounted for by the fact that, a practitioner myself of the craft in question, I read the book anxious to learn what McPhee would reveal as the secret of Boyden’s success.

McPhee does work quickly. Within the first two chapters, using spare but telling detail, deftly inserted quotes and anecdotes, he gets Boyden from graduation at Amherst to the slightly “out of plumb” community of Deerfield, Mass., and its moribund academy—taking on at age 22 his first and what would prove to be his only job; establishes what barely halfway into his tenure would be the received view in education circles, that he was “one of the greatest headmasters in history"; and offers some provisional assessments of what did set the man apart, the chief among them that, simply, “He is lost in the school, and there is nothing of him but the school.”

It’s then that McPhee arrives at what for me is as much the nub of a compelling tale as it is the key feature of a portrait. Here’s the headmaster struggling to express himself on the subject of education:

"People come here thinking we have some marvelous method," he says. "We just treat the boys as if we expect something of them, and we keep them busy. So many of our things simply exist. They're not theory. They're just living life."

And so the secret of Boyden’s Deerfield Academy was that it had none—or, at least, no “secret” if what is meant is, say, a novel way of enticing youngsters into learning or an esoteric scheme for organizing them, or some hitherto undetected supernova-of-a-curriculum. No, the real key to understanding both Boyden’s leadership and Deerfield’s excellence is recognizing that everything about either that is worthy of note can be surmised from the substance of the homely remarks quoted above and from the laymanlike quality of the headmaster’s speech whenever he is called upon to address “education.”

To Frank Boyden, school was, well, school. Defining it was to him as unnecessary an undertaking as defining the activities of walking or breathing.

To Frank Boyden, school was, well, school. Defining it was to him as unnecessary an undertaking as defining the activities of walking or breathing, the commonplace arrangements of family or home. An “intuitive and untheoretical man,” writes McPhee, his was a world of givens. Schools (one can almost hear him thinking) are facts of life, have been so for a very long time, and are likely to persist for another very long time. These schools are places where boys or girls, or boys and girls, are present. These young people are to be valued. If you’re a grownup who happens to be among them, ask much of them; then guide them in their activities, using the techniques that occur naturally to you as an adult. They’ll respond. Don’t make it too complicated. It’s just “living life.”

The headmaster had, McPhee writes, “no intention, until he was in his late 40s, of making education his permanent career.” For a long time, he thought he might become a lawyer, and he studied law whenever he could in the evenings during his first 20 years or so at Deerfield. No books on education other than the likes of Building a Championship Football Team or Phillips Exeter Academy: A History occupied the shelves in his study. He enjoyed reading about horses. His favorite books were Agatha Christie novels. His doctorates—from 17 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—were all honorary. In a very real sense, Frank Boyden, “one of the greatest headmasters in history,” was, with regard to the expertise we expect from someone in his position, a layman.

That he responded haltingly to interviewers’ questions about his “field” should, therefore, not surprise us. He’d never undertaken any of the study that would put the professional educator’s lingo at his disposal. He had no education “secrets” to impart because he didn’t survey his work with the mind of the “trained professional,” bent upon observing nuances, making fine distinctions, creating categories, and thus endowed with understandings available only to the initiated. In the words of his wife, the redoubtable Helen:

"He is the least scientific person in the world. He has the craziest ideas. But what is it that makes a person have such strength? Why do I always do what he tells me to do? He wasn't interested in education when he was 16, and he isn't now. In a larger way, though, he is a man who believes that education equals public welfare. That's not a small thing to be. Anyone can be interested in the Latin derivations of words."

Somehow, then, Boyden’s extraordinary effectiveness was a consequence of what he was not and what he did not have: He was no education expert, and he had no trailblazing ideas. He certainly was not that which the modern principal is increasingly desired to be by school boards, superintendents, and business councils—some fantastically endowed creature, as I’ve mentioned earlier, both alien and alienating to my generation of principals.

Here’s the gist of an ad for a high school principal’s position taken from the classified-advertising section of this newspaper. Though the ad appeared in the mid-1990s, its clone could be culled from the edition that appears in your mailbox next week:

“Wanted: Experienced, expert, instructional leader needed to plan, staff, and administer a new high-tech high school which will incorporate a Math/Science/Health magnet program as a school within a school. ... In addition, she/he will have demonstrated application of Site-Based Decisionmaking, Total Quality Management, Middle School Concepts, Learning Styles, Outcome-Based Education, Cooperative Learning, Technology Grantsmanship, and Funding Sources [sic]. She/he will possess skills in organization, time management, communication, human resource development, delegation, and problem-solving.”

Behind this torrent of educationese is a school district that believes in the existence of education “secrets"—lots of “secrets.” It’s also a district whose conception of a principal, almost certainly the monstrous outcome of an overly representative committee, is of an expert who will (a) sort through the manifold choices before him or her in a dispassionate way, (b) choose the strategy perfectly suited to the current climate or market, and (c) engineer just the right results for ... for whom?

Nowhere in this ad are students mentioned, much less an expectation that candidates for the job demonstrate an interest in the welfare of young people or, dare it be said? a love of them. By contrast, from the beginning of his tenure at Deerfield Academy, Frank Boyden made “the boys” the axis around which all of his administrative and educational concerns revolved. This is not to say he was able to succeed at his job of creating and maintaining an outstanding secondary school on the basis alone of his affection for and his dedication to his students. Far from it. The organizational, fiscal, and personnel demands of his job were tremendous. He, however, approached them as would not a layman but a resourceful steward or, even better put, a loving, responsible, able head of household.

McPhee reveals some remarkable aspects of Boyden’s immersion in the life of his school. We learn, for example, that he played on the academy’s athletic teams until he was 35 years old (breaking his nose twice while playing football) and coached the football, baseball, and basketball teams well into his 70s. In the beginning of his 64-year tenure, the headmaster located his desk at a card table set up in the entryway of the main building. Placing it there allowed him to be among his students, enjoying exchanges with them, observing their moods, and noting their problems. Most importantly, it put him in a position to run the school with a “light rein,” no predetermined rules or penalties necessary, thank you.

Up until 1962, he personally gave his students their grades. The school did not use report cards. Its headmaster thought it important that he have a “private talk” with each of the students six times a year, letting them know how they were doing and learning what their views about the school were as well. When a Deerfield graduate experienced academic difficulties in college, Boyden would send a teacher to tutor the alumnus. “If anything was amiss morally or psychologically, he would go himself ....”

Veteran principals know that trends follow upon fads that succeeded the trends of before; they’ve learned that “new paradigms” are like Russian boxes, each one hiding another within.

Veteran principals know that trends follow upon fads that succeeded the trends of before; they’ve learned that “new paradigms” are like Russian boxes, each one hiding another within. And they’ve been taught by long experience that most reforms stem less from “lateral thinking” than from strained analogies of one kind or another. Because they cannot fathom the enduring singularity of the American school, education reformers constantly survey the social panorama looking for an institution that schools could be “like” if only they would allow themselves to be better.

"My philosophy—I can't express it, really: I believe in boys. I believe in keeping them busy, and in the highest standards of scholarship. I believe in a very normal life. It generally seeps in. I try to do the simple things that a well-organized home does for its boys."

Today’s principals find themselves in a time when the ruling analogy would have them operate as if kindergartners were like “raw material,” graduating seniors “products,” parents and employers “customers,” and themselves CEOs. Frank Boyden’s almost instinctive conception of school as not just “like” but indeed an extension of the home stands in tonic contrast to our zeitgeist’s dehumanizing vision of what schools are all about.

But when all is said and done, school principals must understand that efficacy is less the result of technique and knowledge than it is the consequence of character—one’s personal ability to love and to serve.

So much so that The Headmaster strikes me at this point in my career as a potential manifesto, maybe a call to arms.

High schools should not have any more than 500 students. (Boyden would not permit Deerfield to rise above that number.) Schools must concentrate on creating climates within which feelings of intimacy, security, and mutual concern prevail. (“The thing I have tried to build is a unity of feeling.”) Schools must actively promote their students’ personal development. (“The object of the school should be the development of character.”)

Certainly, the adults who serve the young people in our schools must be skilled and must possess high levels of expertise. Ours is a complex world; the burdens it imposes on educators are onerous, growing, and, so far as I can tell, unavoidable. But when all is said and done, educators, particularly school principals, must understand that efficacy is less the result of technique and knowledge than it is the consequence of character—one’s personal ability to love and to serve. And here Frank Learoyd Boyden—ever humble, barely articulate, unfailingly to the point—deserves the last word:

"[I]n my work [I] have just gone ahead from day to day without any particular theory or any particular policy except a real personal interest in the boys, in their work, and in their activities."

Jan Ophus is the principal of North Bend High School in North Bend, Ore.

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