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The Independent School in American Culture

by John F. Gummere - 1961

It is the belief of the author that it would be calamitous if there were no privately supported schools and colleges. Whatever we have to say here about independent schools, incidentally, applies with equal force to independent colleges as well. The Constitution gives parents the right to choose a school for their children. Let us make sure that they also may have the opportunity to do so.

ANY DISCUSSION OF some aspect of education in the United States ought to refer with appreciation and with gratitude to the zeal and the faith with which teachers and administrators in schools and colleges of every sort are working to improve programs, to raise standards, and to make ours the finest in the world. For this reason I begin with a "statement of faith," issued on behalf of independent schools throughout the country through the National Council of Independent Schools as a part of a leaflet entitled The Function of Independent Secondary Education in the United States:

We believe that the crisis of our times is a spiritual crisis. We believe in God and in the universal brotherhood of man. We hold that such belief should be taught and that students should be made familiar with the history and bases of religion.

We believe that the inalienable rights of the individual derive from God. We believe accordingly that the individual has inescapable duties which flow from these rights, and we hold it an obligation on the school to teach both these rights and these duties.

We believe that education, resting on freedom of inquiry and freedom of faith, is a basic guarantee of cultural continuity and of liberty itself.

We hold it the duty of our schools to teach how to meet and manage difficult intellectual tasks. We believe that all good teaching is rooted and grounded in character carefully cultivated and based on religion and ethics. From such teaching, learning will grow into a life-long strength on which a person may draw in all the private, economic, political, and spiritual stresses, strains, and joys which he will encounter.

It is my belief that it would be calamitous if there were no privately supported schools and colleges. Whatever we have to say here about independent schools, incidentally, applies with equal force to independent colleges as well. The Constitution gives parents the right to choose a school for their children. Let us make sure that they also may have the opportunity to do so.

Various investigations, conducted by a variety of schools and colleges, show that die choice of an educational institution stems from a sincere desire by parents and pupils to get what they regard as the best possible education. This choice is often strongly influenced by a desire to have students in an institution which has a religious background or control or both. Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Quakers, and many, many others want their children under the influence of religious instruction. In a great many independent schools, the approach is purely nondenominational, but it is still a religious approach.


That the choice of an independent school stems from a strong belief in its principles and purposes is shown by various figures. Three years ago, I made a study of the increases in capital and endowment of 190 independent schools in various parts of the country. During the ten years prior to this study, these schools had increased their resources by a total of $300,000,000. This is a substantial sum, even in these days; it came from gifts made by individuals, corporations, foundations, and businesses.

Statistics published by the National Council of Independent Schools (in Bulletin No. 57, March, 1960) show that parent and alumni support of these schools is even wider than that of colleges and universities. The data are as follows:

In 1958-59, the year covered by this study, nine schools received contributions through annual giving from more than half of their


alumni; four schools received more than $100,000 each from this source, and total gifts of all alumni for all purposes exceeded a million dollars in each of three schools. The grand total of support from all sources in the top ten schools varied from a "low" of 3,000 to a high of $3,048,000.

The steadily increasing enrollments, which inevitably bring with them a steadily higher academic ability of the student body, just as is the case with colleges, clearly indicate the vigorous interest of an increasing segment of the public. The effective volunteer work of parents and the zeal and hard work of the trustees (all of whom serve without any compensation) show how strongly the public supports a plan of independent education in which it believes.

Indeed, so many independent schools are being established in every part of the country that the Relm Foundation has financed the writing of a book, A Handbook for Independent School Operation. Publication is set for early 1961. The several chapters are written by men and women of long experience in independent school education. The book will be of great value not merely to those who wish to start a school, but to everyone who is interested in independent education. Moreover, educators outside this field will find it valuable, too, since schools of every sort have a host of common problems.


Great emphasis in this volume is placed upon the teacher, and rightly so. For if there is anything badly needed in our American culture today, it is a proper understanding of the work of the teacher. Independent schools succeed in bringing into the school "family" the fathers and mothers; and as they do so, they aim to promote a close acquaintance and friendship between parents and teachers. The more one understands about the workings of a school, the better one can appreciate the problems and the progress.

Parents who understand what is being done and how it is being done can support more intelligently the progress of any good school. The residue of older days and outmoded attitudes is still with us. Under those horrid conditions, the layman tended to regard "teacher" as a person apart or, at any rate, as "different" and thus to be looked upon now with unreasonable awe and now with some degree of condescension. Happily, we are seeing this strained and unnatural relationship disappear. There is no better way to accomplish this than through long and close acquaintance of teachers and parents, leading to mutual respect and the satisfactions of working together for the benefit of children. The smaller classes and the long-continued attendance of the pupils in most independent schools provide a fine opportunity for this parent-teacher association to become deep and fruitful. In fact, one finds many a life-long and delightful friendship growing out of such associations.

A very important point in this discussion is the freedom of choice of a school which the Constitution of the United States guarantees a parent. Since the matter has been decided in the Supreme Court of the United States and recently has been the subject of a kind of test case in the courts of Pennsylvania, a word about the legal position of the independent school in American culture is in order. Provided it is incorporated "not for profit," the status of the independent school was definitely settled in The Hill School case in 1952 (In re The Hill School, January term, 1952, 40 and 41, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, opinion by Justice Allen M. Stearne). The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the lower court, holding that under the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a school is classed as a "purely public charity" and is entitled to tax exemption provided that,

1. No one receives any profit or individual gain.

2. The trustees serve without pay.

3. The headmaster and teachers receive salaries in line with those paid by similar schools, both public and private. 4. Admission is open to all who can meet the requirements of health, character, and scholarship, irrespective of race, creed, or color.

The independent school, paying its own way and exempt from taxes, feels a strong obligation to serve its immediate community. It relieves the public-school system of the expense of educating a large number of pupils, and although it benefits from municipal and other services provided through taxes, all members of the school staff, faculty, and administration pay local taxes, too. Typically, the independent school succeeds in many ways in serving its area.


The independent school is relatively small. Among other things, this means that the heads of these schools almost invariably do some regular teaching. This brings pupils, principal, and faculty into a closer relationship and most certainly gives the head of the school a better opportunity to participate more intimately in the problems and the associations of his faculty.

While present conditions clearly indicate that the total capacity of independent schools falls far short of the demand and that there is consequently good reason for growth in size, these schools have managed to keep within limits which must certainly be called "small" by any standard. It is clear that in a school which numbers only a few hundred and in which pupils may spend six or seven years, a close relationship and a very intimate knowledge of each pupil is possible. In many country-day schools, pupils may attend for twelve or thirteen years. Because of the extensive program of both the day and the boarding school, faculty and students are brought together in extracurricular activities in afternoons and evenings, and helpful relationships are established aside from those of the classroom. In the course of these long years of association, there is no change in school milieu or environment—no need to adjust to a junior high school, for example, and then to a senior high school. Moreover, the grades which are included in these two types of school will be taught in large measure by the same faculty, so that the faculty know all levels of the curriculum quite well, and the pupils continue to study with men and women whom they know.

One very significant point needs to be stressed: It is what is usually called "guidance." The long continued association of pupils and teachers, plus the friendly cooperation of parents, enable the guidance of young people to be principally in the hands of the classroom teacher. Here is the person who knows the pupils; here are the people whose combined wisdom, brought to faculty meetings, affords a clear picture of each young person. In large schools and in large school systems, one has no choice but to leave "guidance" to specially-trained guidance officers. However zealous and skilled these people may be, they cannot possibly do what the united judgments of the classroom teachers in a small school can.


Given, then, these practical opportunities for cooperation with parents and for a helpful knowledge of the pupils which stems from this and from day-today experience, let us look for a moment at one aspect of the independent-school situation which has not received due attention, the matter of competition and its effects.

The superintendent of an excellent suburban school system once said to me, "I know the kind of education you are offering to students of high ability, with small classes, a small student body, both of which make personal guidance and attention much easier than it is for us. I know of the close parent-school relationships, and your freedom of choice of faculty. Well, we believe in all these things, too. We have a high percentage of high-IQ students, and we are doing everything in our power to do what you are doing and to do it just as well." I warmly applaud this statement and feel very much pleased that this able superintendent regards our school as a competitor. That is exactly as it should be. If a nearby independent school is offering some particular advantage to its students—let us take as a possible example a language laboratory—this very fact can help the public school administrator to get die funds for one of his own.

This sort of "indirect" cooperation must be supplemented vigorously by active, friendly, and direct cooperation among schools of both kinds. In the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, we have enjoyed this for many, many years. I speak of this as a former president of the Association. It is quite easy for all teachers in the several subject fields, through their organizations, to unite in meetings, programs, and studies aimed as improving instruction. Such activities promote friendships, lead to intervisitation of schools, and redound to the benefit of everyone.

A potent force in bringing together people for a common purpose has been the evaluation of secondary schools and colleges by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Evaluating committees include teachers and administrators from all types of schools and colleges. As has often been said, and as has been my own experience on evaluating committees whether as member or as chairman, the committee members get more good out of the experience than does the school in question during the actual evaluation on the premises. In fact, the whole history of this Association has been one of good fellowship and mutual respect, and its work may be regarded as a healthy example of what can and is being done in many other areas of the country to enable public and private schools to work together. Such cooperation helps to strengthen the whole educational fabric.


An important aspect of our American culture is diversity of background, of interest, of dozens of other factors large and small, all of which go to make people of every sort into a dynamic nation. The independent school aims at precisely this, be it a boarding school, which brings together pupils from many parts of the country, or a day school, which draws from many different areas of a metropolis and its environs. Here we find one of the obvious advantages of college brought to the level of the elementary and secondary school.

To further this diversity, independent schools are offering financial aid to boys and girls whose families cannot afford to pay full costs, exactly as colleges are doing. One student in eight, on the average, is receiving such aid. The aim clearly is to enable those with the best brains and ability to enroll. A great many independent schools, entirely aside from the financial aspect of the matter, consciously strive to enroll students from as many different backgrounds as possible. The results are highly encouraging.

It is precisely in accordance with the spirit of the United States for any enterprise to stand or fall on its own merits. This the independent school, most fortunately, must do. It provides a necessary service which is recognized as valuable by its clientele and by others, or else it ceases to exist. It puts everyone on his mettle and means, in plain language, that one fulfills responsibilities— or else!

Freedom of choice of faculty is another typically American procedure which the independent school enjoys. Appointments may be made after whatever preliminary procedures seem proper to those in charge. Particularly on the secondary level is this important because only those teachers who have thorough training in the field which they will teach need be considered. Of course, every administrator wishes to have such well trained teachers, but for the independent school, there is no regulatory routine which restricts appointments. Thus, heavy responsibility is placed where it belongs: precisely on the administration and the trustees. Furthermore—and this is felt by many to be of the utmost importance—the power to fire is vested in exactly the same people who have the power to hire. This, too, is typically the American way, and again it involves grave responsibilities.


There are no fixed provisions for tenure in most independent schools. Everyone knows that the protection of tenure in schools or colleges is designed as protection against injustices. It seems to many people rather distressing that in a field so vital, where the people concerned ought to be so strongly dedicated to integrity and honest dealings with one another, tenure laws seem to be an absolute necessity. Everyone knows, too, that the automatic salary-scale increases which usually accompany tenure laws cannot possibly provide proper reward for exceptional merit. It is entirely contrary to the culture of this country for excellence not to be properly recognized and mediocrity given its suitably smaller recompense. Yet the automatic-increase plan is a fixed feature of school salary scales, though with certain local provisions, to be sure, for some sort of special, if limited, recognition of competence.

Independent-school salaries are based mainly on merit, with due recognition of length of service. Obviously, this puts great responsibility upon the administrative officials and the trustees who fix salaries. However, if such officials and the managing body of a school are not competent or trustworthy, then they ought not to be where they are. Granting the need for tenure rules, we must face the fact that under their restrictions it is extraordinarily difficult to drop a teacher or a college professor who simply is not performing up to expected standards. He may once have been good but is now known to have become stale and unambitious. But you must keep him on, all the same. When any profession or any industry is forced to operate under such circumstances, it is being forced to operate in a decidedly un-American fashion.

Long typical of the American scene has been the principal of the school. In communities with a single high school or a single grammar school, such as the one in which I attended grades four, five, and six, the principal was a person of substantial standing in the community, known to everyone, a long time resident and a friend of his neighbors, who often served for a quarter of a century or longer. It has been suggested to me by one such successful high school principal that this picture is rapidly changing. Where school systems have several schools on several levels, there is a sort of cursus honorum which leads through a principalship to a superintendency of one sort or another. He feels that this results in reducing greatly the average term of service for most principals. The older arrangement had distinct advantages, and it is one which we find widely maintained in the independent school. Management which has profited from many years of experience ought, indeed, to be able to deal with the present and plan for the future. This is particularly true when the head of the school need not have an eye on a further promotion.


The independent school takes a Jeffersonian stand in the matter of top education for top-quality pupils. Those who would have it that special opportunities for the specially gifted are "undemocratic" are, to my way of thinking, very much mistaken.

Nobody objects to special education for the handicapped or to special courses in vocational schools for those who will benefit from them. How could anyone be so inconsistent, then, as to deny another specially selected group similar attention? The answer is that lots of people sought to do so, and in so doing, I believe, they did great damage to our educational program. The widespread change-over to high-ability groups aiming at advanced-placement curricula in schools of all kinds all over the country shows a heartening, albeit dreadfully tardy, awakening to the right of the talented to be taught as such. The independent school today tries to identify the able pupil and sets its curriculum and its standards accordingly. It is simply a case of the "pursuit of excellence."

Freedom to teach what faculty and administration consider wisest and most appropriate to the educational principles for which a college or a school stands is something highly cherished by the independent educational institution. While instruction in certain basic subjects forms a part of the requirements in tax supported institutions, such requirements are not different in any significant way from those voluntarily set up by the independent school. It is in freedom from special pressures that the independent school enjoys great benefits. In the fifteen or twenty years before we entered World War II, there was great objection to an exacting academic program which would require foreign languages, at least three years of mathematics, a full four years of English, plus science and history (and I mean history). Now we rejoice to see the present trend back to the "solid" studies, the enthusiasm for foreign languages in the elementary school, and the stiffening of college requirements.

In all that distressing devaluation of our academic standards, the independent schools stood unshaken. They continued to do as they have always done and as they now do, namely, to require a genuine academic course. Thanks to their freedom from domination by elements which sought to mold all schools into a single pattern, these schools maintained their ground. This I believe to have been an excellent thing for education in this country.

The place of the independent school in our American culture is guaranteed by our Constitution and is made firm by its adherence to high academic standards and by its remarkable growth in size and stature through the vigorous support of alumni, parents, and friends. Those who work in these schools continue, as always, to strive in all possible ways for the best possible education to further the cause of human excellence in all our nation's schools.


Little Rock and Sharpeville will for a long time serve as ugly symbols of the tragic urgency of the problem of race relations. Interacting with the other great issues of population control and world peace, this great human difficulty must be solved by education if the potentialities of personhood are to be widely realized. Recommended for the task by Alan Paton, Miss Violaine I. Junod discusses in this month's Record the comparative trends in race relations in South Africa and the United States. Lecturer in Native Administration at the University of Natal, Miss Junod was trained as a sociologist in her own country and England and has published widely in such periodicals as Human Relations, the Christian Century, Africa South, and others.

The problem of race relations always shades into political issues, and political education is the subject to which Dr. Raymond English, a political scientist on the Kenyon College faculty addresses himself in these pages. Editor of the recent Essentials of Freedom, Dr. English is concerned with the personal aspects of political responsibility and how the school can increase political sensitivity and informed concern in the nation's citizenry.

Dr. Francis Horn, president of the University of Rhode Island, is similarly occupied with themes of personal responsibility and sensitivity in his "Education—for What?" Former president of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and an ex-chairman of the Fulbright Advisory Selection Committee on Higher Education, Dr. Horn finds hope for the solution of our problems in the cultivation of such personal resources as aesthetic responsiveness and in increased self-reliance.

On the societal side, our March essay-reviewer, Dr. Arnold Rose, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, evaluates a clutch of recent books on American social patterns, thoughtfully considering methodological as well as substantive issues in the omnipresent challenge of how we may enlarge our understanding of our own culture in the world community.

One route to enlarged understanding, of course, is that of modern science, the language of which is mathematics. Some proficiency in this universal tongue is now required of all of us, and new thinking in mathematics instruction is discussed for us this month by Professor Howard Fehr, head of the Department of Mathematics at Teachers College, Columbia University, and well known author of such books as Essential Mathematics: A Functional Approach for Teachers.

Finally, our theme for March is the private school, that much mooted and ancient element in our diverse educational structure. It is considered for us by three eminently qualified men. Mr. Edward Hall, who has devoted his professional life to the independent school, is currently headmaster of The Hill School. Dr. Mark Neville, after ten years as headmaster of the Latin School of Chicago, recently resigned to become professor of English at Indiana State Teachers College, maintaining his association with the Latin School as a curriculum consultant. Dr. John Gummere, author of Latin textbooks and an interesting study of Pennsylvania military history, is headmaster at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 62 Number 6, 1961, p. 448-448
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3189, Date Accessed: 1/26/2022 12:29:34 PM

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