We Need Private Schools

Novelist and anthropologist, who graduated from Groton in 1920 and from Harvard in 1924, OLIVER LA FARGE had taken part in three archacological expeditions to Arizona and in others to Mexico and Guatemala before settling down to write his first novel. Laughing Boy, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. Since 1933 he has taken a leading interest in Indian affairs; and more recently, during his residence in New Mexico, he has taught and lectured on the two subjects dearest to himanthropology and English.



WHEN President Conant of Harvard, as he then was, issued his deprecation of the private school system in the United States, and declared that the American scheme required that all should be educated alike in the public schools, he exploded a bombshell that was followed, for the most part, by a stunned silence. The New England private schools and their congeners west of the Alleghenies were bowled over. It was as if their own had betrayed them, for Harvard has always been par excellence the college of the private schools.

The most vigorous rebuttals came from those denominations, including the Jewish, that maintain schools as part of the activity of the organized church, as distinct from the relatively self-sponsored church schools, usually Episcopalian, of New England. Their arguments were based upon the right to a religion-centered education; none, so far as I know, challenged Dr. Conant ‘s interpretation of the American scheme or his concept of the public schools, both of which are open to serious challenge.

In the early 1940s I wrote an autobiographical book in which I devoted two chapters to my own school, Groton. The chapters wore incomplete as a description of the school, purely subjective, and concerned only with certain personal experiences. They were highly uncomplimentary and, I understand, caused considerable pain in Grotonian circles. They also brought me in about the heaviest fan mail I have ever had, a good half of which was from fellow Grotonians. Had Dr. Conant set forth his thesis at that time, I should have applauded it.

Since then a series of happenings has caused me to observe public schools, and the public school product, especially in the West, as private school men, other than those who teach in colleges, usually do not have an opportunity to do. A number of observations, scattered and disorganized, have slowly been brought together, like so many iron filings, by the magnet of Dr. Conant’s thesis, leading to the conclusion that it is based upon misconceptions. Being a Harvard man, it startles me to find myself writing these words about one of Harvard’s great presidents — perhaps my chief reason for writing this article is to test my own defense.

When I wrote what I did about Groton — none of which would I change — I left a world of favorable things unsaid because I took them for granted and assumed that everybody else would. I thought it superfluous to state what I imagined one found in practically all schools except the most deprived. It is only recently that it has become apparent to me that a great many schools, including a number of private schools, fail to provide that most fundamental thing of all, an education. This failure seems, on the whole, to occur more often among public schools, although of course there are fine public schools, just as there are gifted individuals who will get themselves an education anywhere.

Long before the war, in the course of my work in anthropology, I became aware of “the uneducated Ph.D.” By this I mean the man who has qualified for a doctorate in a specific discipline but is sadly ignorant of anything outside it, and almost always, apparently as a correlate, is unable to express himself clearly, whether in the technical or the common language. These also are likely to be the men who cannot relate their special knowledge to the world in general, and most often present the familiar phenomenon of the scholar who is an ass in all things outside his field. In my own science it is striking to note how few exceptions there are to the rule that the anthropologists of real stature, the makers of theory and philosophy, the shapers of the science, are men and women of cultivation and broad, general education. This does not mean, of course, that they are all private school graduates.

A portion of my military service was spent in Franco. It was startling to find that, among the thousands of American college graduates, officers, who were dumped there, the one who could speak even the most elementary French was the rare exception. Most of those that I met could not even ask the basic question “ Combien?” until they had picked up the word —as like as not from an enterprising enlisted man. I made a point of asking as many of these men as possible how it was that they had no French, when they must have had to “present" it to enter college. The answer was always the same, and usually in the same words: “I took three years of French in high school in order to get into college. Then I just forgot it.”That is as pretty an example of schooling without education as one can find.

One of these men was an officer with whom I spent some time also in Britain, on an assignment that caused us to keep traveling about. He had his doctorate in English and taught English literature in a western university. He knew remarkably little English or British history. When we visited the Tam o’ Shanter tavern, he was well up on Burns, but an ancient, thronelike chair that was said to have belonged to Robert the Bruce interested him only vaguely. As to the relationship of architecture to literature and to history, so important in Britain, he had no conception of it. He could not tell Norman from Perpendicular. Like most people, he had a vague idea that half-timbered houses were Tudor, but the succeeding Stuart period and the preceding whole-timbered construction were news to him. He was intelligent, and a fine companion, and he was fascinated to have two periods of Gothic superimposed on Norman shown to him in a church, and on another occasion, Roman tiles in the lower courses of a wall. In view of his specially, it is fair to call him a fine specimen of the uneducated Ph.D., and while his college obviously gave him very poor training, not all the blame can be laid there.


MORE recently, through teaching and lecturing, I came into contact with the western undergraduate, who typically has entered college on a high school certificate. Western undergraduates are delightful; considering them simply as people, I’d rather teach them than Easterners. What I have to say of them is not leveled at them as Westerners, but as public school products, and I believe it will prove to be true of similar products from many parts of the East and South.

In a class of thirty, at least fifteen will dread what they call “essay exams.”An essay exam is anything requiring written answers, as against checking off multiple choices or true-or-false statements on a prepared sheet. A quiz of ten questions requiring answers averaging fifty words apiece is feared; a major examination question, calling for several pages of answer, is a pure horror. The reason for this is clear in their contorted faces as they put pen to paper. It is painfully clear when one reads their exams. They can’t write.

While these people are not brilliant, they are not all stupid, by any means. Most of them can read well enough, as is apparent from their grasp of what the course text books contain; some even read voluntarily. They take an average good part in class discussions. They are semiliterate in a sense we do not usually think of—they can read, but they cannot write. They cannot spell, punctuation is quite beyond them, the mere formation of a written word troubles them. They seldom can reproduce correctly any technical term, even though it occurs frequently in the textbook and has been written out for them on the blackboard, its derivation explained, and its meaning expounded.

In these classes one finds, also, a resistance to any discussion that roams beyond the literal confines of the subject. In teaching general anthropology, the teacher can feel that he is losing some of the class if he refers to Babbitt or to Shakespeare, or speaks of the urban modernism of Rome as shown in Horace’s Satires. (A good part of the class will never have heard of Horace.) These are all references that are likely to come up in conversation among professional anthropologists. There is a definite resistance to erudition as such, except that which is an inescapable part of the subject being taught. This is generally true only of a minority, but a large enough one to make the teacher go warily. He tends to narrow his presentation and to teach, in fact, as if his students had never left high school. He cannot assume that he and the class have any common points of reference arising from voluntary reading. The result is that he is inclined to give an inferior course, lacking in depth.

In this class of thirty there are likely to be two or three private school graduates, usually girls. On native intelligence, they should place around the middle of the class, but their elementary education is so superior that they are able to rank in the top third without special effort. Specifically, they can write, and they are not hostile to the broader references. They have no fear of “essay exams,”even prefer them, and the instructor must watch out for the fine old custom of writing “bull.”

I discussed the condition of noneducation with a dean of a good western university who had taken on an assignment in regard to qualifications for admission that brought him into personal contact with many of the schools of the state. He answered with descriptions of sparsely settled, poverty-stricken counties, of county school boards the members of which themselves had neither education nor any real concept of it, and of principals and superintendents who did not know the difference between “its" and “it’s.”

His remarks made me think of a summer school student I had had, a schoolteacher from a rural area. She was about forty-five and was taking summer courses because, under some rule that I do not understand, unless she could get a master’s degree she might lose her position. It was almost impossible to form a fair judgment of her native intelligence; my impression was that she was slightly below the class average. She was a history teacher, and presumably knew some history; apart from that her education was nil. Her “essay” quiz and examination papers, and the rather simple thesis required in that course, showed a fair grasp of what had been taught; the grammar, spelling, and the misuse of words, the spoonerisms, were so wild as to be hilarious. I do not mention this unfortunate hack as a sample of public school teachers; I would suppose her to be exceptional. She is pertinent because, while not a Ph.D., she was a person whose business was books and learning, yet she was not really literate.

I said above that the two or three private school graduates are likely to place in the top third of the class — not at the top. The rest of the top third will be made up of public school graduates, and without exception they will be reasonably literate and not hostile to erudition. I think of one sophomore who had become interested in ecology, and as the university gave no courses in that science as such, had worked out his own curriculum. He disputed the description of the Arctic in a required book, and after he had convinced me and the head of the department, gave the class an excellent lecture on Arctic ecology, backed by a number of photographs he had accumulated.


WHAT I have written so far sounds like a general attack on our public schools. To some extent, any fair discussion of the place of private schools in the American scheme must be, not a general attack, but an attack upon the excessively large number of inferior public schools, since if all of them were excellent, there would be no raison d’être for private schools except to inculcate a given religion. Nonsectarian private schools would simply disappear, and the enrollment at many church schools, particularly the more expensive ones, would drop off.

American public school standards are set by the communities. This does not necessarily mean that, the schools reflect their public’s average concept of education, or the majority concept (if either exists in clear form). As is the case with most aspects of American government, American education is under the influence of citizens who are especially interested in it. At elections, many voters know nothing about the candidates for the various educational positions. The county superintendent and the important school board may be put into office simply by a Republican or Democratic swing. Usually, however, nominees are selected by the group especially interested in the school system, and this group often carries elections.

Within limits, that group can lift the schools above the standards of the majority. If it tries to initiate conspicuous or controversial changes, the general public becomes interested and may slap it down. The ma jority will always be alert, and frequently reluctant, when it comes to increasing costs. Lest we grow impatient with the majority, we should remember that it often protects the schools from being debauched when the specially interested group is crackpot or corrupt.

That in certain communities we have schools that are well above what we should expect from the general cultural level of those communities is due either to a large and effective specially interested group, or, as in my own state of New Mexico, to a well-organized and effective teachers’ lobby. Such a lobby exists, of course, to serve the teachers’ interests in matters of pay, tenure, and pensions; but to the credit of the profession be it said that the teachers are vitally interested in improving the quality of the education they are allowed to give.

What all tins comes down to is that the public schools are very uneven. They range from splendid to awful; they differ sharply from state to state, county to county, city to city, and city to country. Uniformity of education is a myth. What parents can get for their children depends upon where they happen to reside. If equality of opportunity means identity of educational advantages, then it does not exist in this country now and it will be a long time a-coming.

But — and here, I think, is Dr. Conant’s error — equality of opportunity does not mean identity of advantages. That distinction starts with the innate ability of the people themselves; the clever man makes use of the opportunities that the stupid one does not even notice. He was born with advantages. Nor, for all our trend towards uniformity, do we hold up identity as a goal. We look with favor upon individuals or groups who secure themselves advantages, be it better purchasing or marketing, or better housing, or automobiles, so long as in so doing they don’t step on other people’s faces. We do not insist that everyone have the same house and the same car, but that it be open to him, if he be able and industrious enough, and perhaps have a bit of luck, to get for himself the best car and the finest house in the nation. If someone does not like the community hospital or the public golf course, which the majority finds excellent, he is free —and most Americans will hasten to tell him so — to see if he can find others to join with him in setting up private ones more to his liking.

There is nothing at all American in telling a man that if he wants a better education for his son, the only way he can get it is by selling his house and his business and moving to one of those communities in which the public schools are superior. That is, in fact, exactly contrary to the philosophy of American democracy. It is a form of insistence that all be held down to a level, rather than that we keep trying to raise all to a level.

Those last words bring up the argument that the discontented parent should devote himself to raising his own community’s school to the level he desires. That is good in theory, but in practice it is all too often not feasible. Lack of funds, general mediocre standards, or a combination of both may forbid it. It is one thing to work for a civic improvement, quite another to sacrifice one’s child to it — and not get it.

Many parents want what they call “a better education” for their children. By this they may mean the academic training or the surrounding circumstances and atmosphere that are so important a part of the educative process. Many of them are thinking of the incorporation of religious training, without which as a built-in part of the whole they consider education incomplete. All too many are thinking of social prestige. Whatever the real goal, the aspiration is legitimate and thoroughly American.

There Is nothing in the American pattern that makes it objectionable for these people, too, to band together to secure what they desire, whether they found a school or pay the tuition fees of a going one. One effect of this, especially in the ease of boarding schools, is that the children are cut off from social contact with a cross-section of American society, or, rather, of the society of a particular community, and may therefore grow up less good democrats, with less ability to understand their country. It does not have to follow that this happens; that particular limitation can be cured in many ways.

There are also many provincialisms, of which denominational provincialism and money-class provincialism are only two. Nothing is more provincial than the really pure New York City product or the Boston Irish; the dead-end kid and the boy from the isolated village in the desert of southern Utah are no closer to the wholeness of the American than the Grotonian. Nor are snobbery and separationby-wealth confined to the private schools. The flashy rich boy in public school, buying toadyism, has just as poor a preparation for life in a democracy — perhaps poorer.

Not all private schools give what the parents think they are paying for. I know of some expensive ones that oiler a child less, on all counts, than any good public school in New Mexico. The fact remains, nonetheless, that parents can get a superior education for their children in private schools, regardless of where they reside. Like owning a Cadillac or wearing tailor-made clothes, the superior education costs money, just as it takes extra money to go to Dr. Conant’s Harvard instead of to a state university. That the best private schools (and Harvard) knock themselves out raising and giving scholarships is beside the point; in our democracy there is nothing against buying something better if you can afford it.

Nor does our democracy permit much danger of the formation of an educational elite, any more than it does an elite of wealth. A proportion of private school graduates tend to huddle together, withdrawing from the discomforts of social democracy, but they are ineffectual. They may consider themselves an elite, hut they aren’t worth worrying about. (And all this is true, also, of a proportion of Harvard men.) The ones who go out into the world and take part, the ones who make themselves felt, soon forget to think about what school their friends, enemies, co-workers, and rivals went to. When they meet someone from their old school, they do admit a bond, but it is far weaker than many others they have formed.

The private schools, also, can make contributions to public education. Those private school men who send their children to private schools still pay the public education tax, and some of them interest themselves in their communities’ schools. To that interest they bring a background of better education that is of real value. Also, it is easier to persuade people to try improvements in schools, or in anything else, if examples of those improvements are already in existence.

Finally, and by no means least, today the private schools, including the big Catholic parochial schools, are the last rampart against the dead hand of the educators of educators. The private schools on the whole have a freedom in selecting their personnel that would be difficult to maintain in a system that is subject to politics. They choose teachers on a basis of character, apparent ability, and depth of knowledge of the subject to be taught, and are relatively uninterested in training in “education.” Other things being equal, a Ph.D. in English would be a thorough qualification for an English teacher in a private school. He would not, like one such Ph.D. I know in a public school, have to get himself an M.Ed. before he could have promotion with tenure. By and large, the private schools have not bought the dreadful theory that if a teacher has studied education, he does not have to have a real mastery of the subject he is teaching in school.

That illiterate history teacher haunts me. I should like Dr. Conant to meet her. If earning my living required me to five in her community, I should be sending my children to private schools, even if it meant shipping them all the way to England, where they do things backwards and where private schools are called “public.”