A New Idea for Private Schools

WHEN Cecil Rhodes sat down to consider, toward the end of his life, how he could so bequeath his vast fortune as to promote, after his death, the purpose which had always been foremost in his heart, the result was the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford University. His hope was that by bringing together the most intellectual and the healthiest young men from every part of the Anglo-Saxon world there would result a broadened sympathy and tolerant understanding which would go far to unify the AngloSaxon world. Rhodes believed with all his soul that that world holds out the best hope for the future of mankind.

When James B. Conant became President of Harvard University he committed himself to the proposition that the main purpose of a university is the promotion of learning, which it accomplishes by the preservation, the dissemination, and the extension of knowledge. At the outset, also, he stated his belief that this purpose can best be accomplished by attracting to the university, to its student body as well as to its faculty, the best available human material. Almost the first act of his administration was to establish the Harvard Prize Fellowships as an experiment in attracting brilliant students to Harvard.

It is interesting to compare the Rhodes Scholarships and the Harvard Fellowships. The two men responsible for them, of fundamentally different types, were actuated by different motives. Rhodes was an adventurer, an empire builder, and desired to strengthen and perpetuate a particular kind of civilization, a special attitude of mind toward government, law, and human intercourse. Conant is a scientist and a scholar, and his desire is not only to strengthen a particular university, but to promote learning and scholarship. Neither could be accused of being parochial. In adopting exactly similar methods to achieve dissimilar ends, they merely emphasize the widespread confidence in education which is inherent in the human race.

Another point on which they agree is the belief that the best results can only be obtained from selected material. The holders of the Rhodes Scholarships and of the new Harvard Fellowships are alike chosen by competitive tests; they are the successful survivors from among great numbers of candidates. Furthermore, both plans took care to see to it that economic conditions should not be allowed to bar a man otherwise eligible from the enjoyment of the coveted privileges. In each case the stipend is sufficient to cover the whole college course, the only difference being that for the Rhodes Scholars the full stipend attaches whether needed or not, whereas every Harvard Fellow is expected to contribute what he can and to receive from the University only the balance necessary for proper and convenient living. Both plans recognize the wisdom of selecting the best possible material to train for the ends in view, regardless of economic status; both involve competitive selection; and both show a firm confidence in intellectual endowment as a guarantee of future achievement.

To anyone preoccupied with schools rather than with colleges, the question naturally arises whether the purposes behind both the plans which we have been considering might not be better achieved at the school level of education. The habits of mind, the prejudices, and the philosophy of most men are apt to be crystallized by the time they are eighteen or twenty years old. If Rhodes could have arranged to catch his scholars four or five years earlier, and to send them to Eton and Harrow, to Rugby and Winchester, would they not have been likely to go back to their far-flung homes more deeply and permanently affected by their experiences? After a man is twenty he has passed the plastic and impressionable years. He may become more tolerant, more understanding, more intelligently sympathetic, but his inner patterns are likely to be already definitely set. If scholarship and the love of learning are our aims, certainly the earlier years are the most promising time to promote them. The cases where the slipshod schoolboy develops at college into anything approaching a scholar are rare indeed.

These considerations, as well as the belief that the United States, no less than the British Empire, needs to guard against sectional jealousy and misunderstanding, have led me to urge the establishment at Middlesex School, of which I am head master, of scholarships for schoolboys exactly similar to those which we have been discussing, and combining the purposes of both. They are to be competitive in five divisions of the United States, they are to continue throughout the course of study, and they are to be sufficiently large to enable any boy coming from a family of moderate means to enjoy them. Unlike the Rhodes Scholarships but like the Harvard Fellowships, the stipend will vary with the actual needs of the individual holders.

The plan starts this year with the selection, after competitive examinations to be held about the middle of March, of fifteen candidates, three from each of the five main divisions of the country. There is no need to enlarge here upon the benefits of the plan both to the scholarship holders and to the school itself. Eventually there will be thirty boys out of a school of one hundred and eighty who will be the pick of applicants from every part of the United States. The whole student body will profit by improved standards of scholarship and will be shaped and moulded during the plastic years, not by a homogeneous group representing one class, but by a group recruited from an area as broad as the nation itself, representing a wide variety of home surroundings and standards of living.

The public will be especially interested in the probable effect of this experiment upon other schools and upon secondary education in general. Within my own recollection the standards of scholarship in the leading colleges of this country have been markedly improved. It can no longer be said of them that they are far behind the leading universities of Europe. No such improvement, however, can be claimed for secondary education; our children, as compared with English and Continental children, still lose at least two years’ time between the ages of six and fifteen. We need to build up a deep respect for scholarship in this country, not merely at the university level, but all along the line. We need also to place within the reach of all promising youngsters the best secondary education their abilities can make use of. Unless that can be done, many able students in the less fortunate economic groups will not be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities offered by college scholarships.

Ideas in education are not subject to copyright. If the Middlesex Competitive Scholarships succeed, the idea is available for every school to adapt to its own needs. For years the proponents of the great boarding schools have pointed out the educational advantage of the widespread geographical distribution of their students, and individual scholarships exist at many schools for boys from specific localities; but no comprehensive and systematic plan comparable to the one devised by Cecil Rhodes has yet been offered for boys of school age, even in the larger schools, to ensure a continuance of wide geographical distribution. I believe, therefore, that our experiment will be of interest to every head master and to every parent because it may serve to inaugurate a new idea in American secondary schools.

In other words, if our experiment succeeds it will be adopted — and should be adopted — by other boarding schools, and might well be modified to the use of private day schools. I am particularly grateful to the Editor of the Atlantic for asking me to describe it, because, if it is to be adopted at all widely, I believe it important to point out that, when the time comes that many such scholarships are available at different schools, these schools should attack the problem of testing, evaluating, and selecting candidates in coöperation with each other, not in competition. There should be a single examining authority acting for all the schools, in much the same way that the College Entrance Examination Board acts for the different colleges.

I look forward to the working out of our experiment with the keenest interest. If it may finally be accounted successful, the judgment must be based on broader grounds than profit to the beneficiaries or to any single school which they attend. Unless it results to a measurable extent in increasing respect for scholarship in our secondary schools, in breaking down local prejudices and jealousies, and in promoting everywhere a broad sense of national unity, it will have failed in its main purpose.