Our Great Private Schools


THE world always changes its skin during each successive generation — whatever the historians and even the anthropologists may say. The changes, however, are small and build themselves up invisibly toward transformations and convulsions; and we are inclined at first to credit them to the epoch in which we see them. Then come philosophic persons who by reading pamphlets, inscriptions, and old newspapers find out a great deal more about the subject than anyone can possibly know, and become in their turn subjects for the curiosity of later publicists.

All that we can be sure of is that great landslides of opinion and reorganizations of society do take place, very often within a single generation, and that apparently they have occurred during the last century with intensifying rapidity. The rise of the industrial classes in England, and the heart-softening influence of one hardly knows what, swept over England in a single generation. The antislavery cause, which changed everything in the United States, rose, spread, and prevailed within a generation. I am almost afraid in drawing attention to certain well-known features of our American education that the transforming forces are already secretly at work which will reshape them before I have finished the paper. For the influence of the speculative classes is, to my mind, always illusory; and the chief difference between Europe and America is that the American hopes for the best while the European fears the worst.

If one can imagine a Laocoön surrounded, not by two sons, but by a whole gallery of struggling young athletes, — all of whom are in the toils of the same gigantic serpent, — one will have an image of our universities and of our most important private schools, struggling against a domination which they understand but vaguely, and which is crushing the intellect out of them.

Behind these protagonists there looms the whole vast public-school system of the United States, with its millions of teachers; its thousands of statutes and regulations; its complexities of religious and racial antagonism; its dangers due to the enormous commercial value of its textbooks, and the enormous political power involved in its management. We must keep this great world of popular education ever in mind in thinking of the higher education, not so much because new light is likely to appear in high quarters, — for it generally shines forth unexpectedly from men who have had few advantages, — but because our public schools are an integral and living portion of our higher education. The high schools follow the colleges and are followed by the schools below. Ideas and practices run up and down through the structure, and the influence of our private schools is felt throughout the whole organism.

I must mention the universities in introducing the subject of these private schools. The new wealth of the world has looked on the old habitations of American learning and seen that they were good. We ought not to be surprised at this. It represents but a fringe of the world conquest recently made by the beneficiaries of prosperity. These new classes claim Switzerland and the Riviera; they move into the country places of England; they have rebuilt and refurnished the hotels of the world to suit their needs. The seashore foams with them, the hilltops bristle with them, the restaurants regurgitate them all over the globe. In America they are less differentiated from the older stock than they are in Europe, because in America the older classes have themselves been lifted by the recent waves of wealth, and the aristocracy of the land, such as it was, has been both vitalized and vulgarized in the process. This new class has no use for learning; but how can we wonder that it values and understands the seats and homes of learning which were among the most enchanting features of our elder social life? Are these picturesque academies not a part of that old furniture which has become more precious than marble and serves as the décor, the plunder, and the pride of our newer palaces?

We can do no more than face the whole situation honestly — hope that our smaller colleges may be saved from the fate of the great ones, which were naturally first attacked because their social prestige made them desirable; and try to see junctures where sound practices may creep back into the crippled institutions, while we hold our minds open to relief that may come from elsewhere.


The position of the schoolmaster is the axis on which the whole question turns. It is said that the recent age of triumphant science can be followed to its source in the thought and the experiments of a few men of genius; as, for instance, that the whole of our electrical knowledge was foreshadowed in the teachings of Faraday. At any rate the rise of a new learning is to be looked for among the thinkers and teachers of the land. If there is to be a new kind of school it will be developed by a new kind of schoolmaster.

At present our great private schools are, as I have said, locked and bound into the same system that controls our universities. The same clientele supports the universities and the schools that feed them. Our well-to-do, ingenuous, socially ambitious, and intellectually vacant industrial classes dominate in both fields. Every private school has its alumni association whose business it is to get money for new dormitories, infirmaries, gymnasiums, running-tracks; to hold high the traditions of the place and prevent its graduates from sending their sons elsewhere.

A hard thing it is to hold a school together: it is one of the hardest business problems in the world. In this country the effort to do so has resulted in making our schools into flocks and communities over which the shepherd keeps his eye, an eye in which the rays of moral duty, religious authority, and business sense meet as at a focus. The pastor knows his own; he rushes to California to marry an alumnus or to baptize a firstling; he becomes in time the friend and counselor of several generations. Yet he becomes also — and this is the part of which he is not so conscious — the servant of his age. He can only lead in the direction where the sheep are going — driven as they are by the overmastering trend of the times.

One cannot but rejoice in one aspect of these private schools. The historic spirit of the old world — indeed the best spirit of the Middle Ages — survives in them. It is a proselytizing spirit, of a pure and noble kind, alloyed, as it was during the Middle Ages, by the worldly and the practical, by concessions to contemporary abuse.

It is with some compunction that I say anything derogatory of these great schoolmasters of ours; for they have long appeared to me to be among the noblest people in the country. Indeed they stand in a class by themselves — Christian evangelists, very sincere and very effective. But they have become, in spite of themselves, the figureheads of certain fashionable tendencies. Candor compels me to note this. And besides I am sustained by the example of many recent theologians who make no bones about criticizing Saint Paul himself.

If anyone wishes to get a glimpse of the clientele of our chief private schools let him take a bird’s-eye view of the progeny of our bourgeoisie. Let him board the train of ten or twenty drawing-room cars which deliver the precious freight to Boston from New York on the closing day of the Easter holidays.

Here are scholars indeed! Small or large, pink or brown, lithe or brawny; but one cannot see the boys because of their clothes, sticks, hats, cameras, golf clubs, traveling-bags, cravats, badges, portable jewel-cases (or what looks like them), strange sportingjackets; and all this plunder is as fresh as paint. Of course I know that these boys are dressed up and outfitted with the very minimum of what their parents and the headmaster think decent — the bare necessities of school life; but one needs time to get used to the idea. I know too that such things are merely externals, symbols, as it were, like the tonsure of the priest. They are the symbols of Sport. I cite them in passing as an indication of what the private schoolmaster has to deal with in his clientele.

The boys are as a rule not infant prodigies, nor the victims of early cramming, not children who know the Psalms by heart or who have heard of Julius Cæsar. They do not know as much of history or literature as a village boy of like age knew in the America of fifty years ago. Their outlook upon life is that of their parents. They wish to keep in the swim of the epoch. Social success in the larger meaning of the term is their aim, an aim in which learning for its own sake counts for zero.

There is one thing, however, which counts for one hundred per cent: it is College. Each of these urchins is headed for some Alma Mater whose claims have been dinned into him from infancy by his father, his elder brother, and his family connections. College loyalty is the only religion he knows. Each boy goes to school as toward a sluice which shall deliver him to the Mecca of his soul. And this religious idea is kept alive in him by the vision of the ultimate college examinations — the Clashing Rocks through which he must pass to save his soul alive. The vision dogs his dreams; it stands between him and his teachers; it stands between him and himself. Thus an enormous moral pressure is put on him to make him do an intellectual thing — and this on an urchin who has never been taught to use his mind.

The worst is that this vision of college examinations is colored by what current science calls the ‘fear complex,’ a very withering kind of obsession; for fear is the most common and the worst enemy to intellect.

I may, perhaps, be permitted to give a personal anecdote.

In my youth I very seldom secured a mark of more than 75 per cent or less than 60 per cent on examinations. In fact I always passed them. Nevertheless at the age of forty, when I was laid low by a siege of nervous prostration which involved a dark room and complete rest, I dreamed every night during many months that I was trying to pass an examination and could n’t get through. There were tensions in my system, left over from the strains of twenty-five years before — mental cramps and images of fear. They had to be thawed out of me by something which almost resembled a dissolution.


You will see that fate has thus surrounded the scions of our peculiar wealth with a state of things that makes any normal development of intellect all but impossible. Their natural endowments are commonplace; their earliest surroundings are nonliterate; they are delivered to the schoolmaster under the bond and ban of an obsession.

How can they find the leisure to be truly interested, truly absorbed in any thought? How can they ever find out anything?

I do not favor the abolition of examinations; but examinations ought not to be the sword of Damocles, or depend on something which the headmaster cannot control. Who shall exorcise this spectre in the imagination of our boys? Not the schoolmaster; for this man is in the grip of the same terror. Can he reform the college examinations, or step aside to reform the parents of his boys and the atmospheric conditions under which he is with difficulty holding his flock together? It is more important to his school to get his boys into college than to educate them.

Let us consider one of the forms in which the spectre rises. The reading and writing of English is easily learned by the old-fashioned way, namely by reading good books, learning poetry by heart, and practising composition under the friendly eye of any educated person. Any private school has need only of a young master with a talent for letters, to whom the younger boys may be turned over and who will keep them in sight till they graduate. Such treatment would fit the boys in English for entrance to any college in the world. Moreover the learning is so easy that the boys need hardly know they are getting it. Why then does not every private school engage some literate young instructor to teach English? Because the boys will be met at the college gates by a written examination and by a system of marking which follows a certain Book of Rhetoric; and the boys know this. They come to their school-teacher with a book about English composition in their hands and say, ‘We see here that prose is divided into (a) narrative, (b) argumentative, and (c) didactic. Teach us this.’

The colleges themselves are manacled. I found a very clever young instructor teaching some sort of prescribed English to a freshman class at Harvard. After listening for forty minutes to the Choctaw I said to him, ‘Why do you not throw that book in the fire and help the boys to learn to express themselves?’

‘Because my schedule imposes the book, ‘ he replied.

The textbook mania in all its forms is due to the sudden expansion of our population, which has swamped the teaching professions, and the universities, in their quandary, have been seeking to make manuals do the work of men. I think that the influence of science has had something to do with these college malpractices; for in science, textbooks are essential and they can be accurate. In the departments of the humanities they are a makeshift and are always a little misleading. In the matter of English composition they are a crime.

Once fill the young belly with the husks of rhetoric and you ruin the stomach. Your truly talented child will spew them up; but your average child will accept them and suffer, retaining only a lifelong disgust for reading and writing and a belief that they are difficult and recondite studies.

Our overindulgence in textbooks is intimately tied up with another mistaken practice. Any conscientious schoolmaster will tell you that he spends three fourths of his time on the lower two thirds of the class. The clever boys master the book at a glance and may therefore be neglected. Is not this near-madness? Are not those clever boys the hope of our nation’s literacy?


It is clear that the gates between school and university must be reset; but if you inquire how this is to be done you ask a hard thing. Any university is so large, complex, and rusty a system that one cannot get private intelligence to bear upon it. Any particular question falls within the purview of I know not how many Boards, Committees, Overseers, and so forth. The great presidents are wholly taken up with finance; the faculties are frightened and powerless. One has hope from the schools and from the association of headmasters till one comes to close quarters with them, and then one realizes that a certain hopelessness extends its paralysis here also. With the schoolmaster there are always lions in the way. Many years ago in talking with James G. Croswell, the headmaster of the Brearley School, and one of the most intelligent men I ever knew, I was struck with a non possumus quality in him as to changes that seemed easy and obvious to the outsider. A technique of which I knew nothing forbade them; a practical wisdom — whether of the world or of the spirit I could not guess — closed the door.

One way of laying the ghost of college examinations would be for some school to cut loose from the whole college system and prepare its boys for an imaginary college — giving them what they ought to know, in the headmaster’s discretion, and letting them take their chances at the universities. Such schools will be founded, I make no doubt, and will attract a kind of boy who has less sporting-goods on his small person.

In the meantime something might be done on a small scale and, as a sample, — I tremble as I proceed, for I know the suggestion will be thought utopian and almost foolish, — if the great headmasters of the land would make a mass attack on some particular university, concentrating their force on a single point, as, for instance, on entrance examinations in English, they would undoubtedly be successful. They could undoubtedly induce some one university to say, ‘We shall allow our entrance English to be determined by a talented young man of letters; send up your boys.’ It is clear that any educated examiner could determine in ten minutes whether any boy knew enough English for admission to a university. A dictation would settle the point. I believe that such a man could deal with twenty boys in an hour. And such of them as failed could be sent to a summer school where intelligent methods were followed. Once let our colleges burn their books of rhetoric and the schools too could destroy them.

This reform would be a godsend to the whole intellectual world of the coming generation; for the boys could learn to use their mother tongue.

It will be seen that I am not endeavoring to start a campaign for getting the automobiles off Fifth Avenue or the stockbrokers out of the club windows, or to save our greater universities from the conquering hordes that have camped out in them in such a joyous throng. No, nor even to reform the fashionable boarding-schools, where the seething top of our social whirl can be studied so conveniently. The fresh springs that regenerate the mind of the world bubble up from unseen sources and no historian can give an account of them. New shrines are built about their chalices and thirsty people find them out as if by magic.

Yet something may be done to the older contrivances and water supplies by intelligent tinkering. And there is this encouraging fact about life, that any step in the right direction, any better adjustment of strains, loosens the tensions of the entire universe; and therefore it is worth our pains to examine the joints and hinges of society and to study the paths and byways of the world’s mystery as we pass through them.