Sorting It Out: Independent School, 1972–1991

Spring 2006

By Michael Brosnan

IN THE LATE 1970S, RICHARD HAWLEY, then dean of students and teacher of philosophy at University School (Ohio), wrote in Independent School, "The 1970s will be remembered as the decade in which the novelties that erupted in the 1960s got sorted out and integrated into the general culture." He was writing, in part, about the emergence of illicit drugs, especially marijuana, in the popular culture and its subsequent impact — but it's an apt description of precollegiate education at the time. In a way, education in the 1970s was dedicated to making sense of the 1960s.
Activist Tom Hayden, in a speech to the Cum Laude Society that was reprinted in the magazine in 1979, puts it another way, "The people of the 1970s have learned too much; they are in the shadow of the knowledge of the 1960s."
Still, to read back issues of Independent School from the 1970s is to enter a world with its own set of concerns. The Vietnam War would come to a ragged end, Richard Nixon would resign in shame, the U.S. economy would tank, an energy crisis would suddenly erupt, and the lingering distrust for the Establishment — or at least the way the Establishment behaved — forced a deep introspection by the nation and by its schools. If the 1960s were rebellious years, the 1970s were disquieting years — a nation puzzled by where it had just been, and anxious about where it was going. And, in the shadow of the knowledge of the 1960s, educators argued extensively and passionately about the direction of education (one of the most oft-used phrases in the magazine at the time was, "Schools must..."). There were those who embraced more experimental modes of education — the open classroom or non-graded course, for instance — and more experiential programs. They believed thoroughly in the notion that schools must focus not merely on college preparation, but on helping children to develop their unique talents. "Schools," wrote one English teacher, "should be militant about preserving the pursuit of joy." But others felt that schools were quickly losing their way by dismissing tried and true methods of schooling for these untested new ideas.
The progressive view had its most ardent promoter in Peter Dzworkoski, then assistant curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature at Yale University and a former independent school teacher. Critical of the way education was content to turn out "machine stamped replicas of human beings," Dworkoski battered the status quo with a heavy dose of sarcasm: "Perhaps we are naturally reluctant to tamper with an educational system that has helped produce the present state of high moral leadership, economic quality and stability, racial peace, and enlightened and upright citizenry, victory over crime and poverty, and the social and environmental bliss we now enjoy."
But, even among educators with progressive leanings, there were doubts about the 1970s' version of progressive education. Pricilla Vail, a learning specialist at Rippowan-Cisqua School (New York), who would become a frequent contributor to the magazine, found herself at the beginning of her teaching career assisting in an open-classroom school. Although she started with great enthusiasm, she soon came to see the dangers in implementing a new approach when that approach is only partly understood. "Where laissez-faire, let-it-all-hang-out situations whose goal is to keep children happy and unthreatened exist," Vail noted in 1975, "they have diluted the real concept of open classroom to nothing more than permissive education." Indeed, her detailed description of children's lives in the open classrooms she observed is deeply unsettling.
Jonathan Kozol, although a long-time critic of the status quo, also found the steady desire for a diet of new things troubling. "We go on from movement to movement, thing to thing," he wrote in 1973. "Each of the things we do may be a good thing in itself, but 'moving on' is not a good thing if it is a way of thinning us out, of spinning out our worth or squandering our capability for love and for vocation along a boardwalk of inadequate completions." In the end, he argued that, while there is for each of us the need to learn and grow, there is "an even deeper need to find one solid core of concrete action and specific dedication in one neighborhood or in one city, with just one group of children and with just one group of allies and with one set of loyalties and with one deep dream of love and transformation."
As if in response to Kozol's concerns, there would follow a steady chorus of voices arguing, as Douglas Heath did, for quality education with a "humanistic core." What is striking, and comforting, in reading back issues of Independent School is the optimism found in the writing of most teachers. It seems the closer one gets to students, the less dire the world seems.

Of course, the debates of the 1970s were not just about how best to run a school, or even over falling national test scores. The economic doldrums of the mid-1970s, as well as a growing sense of government intrusion in education, challenged the very survival of many independent schools. Indeed, a significant number of schools closed in this decade, while many single-sex schools decided to merge with other single-sex schools. (Single-sex schools made up over 60 percent of the NAIS membership in the mid-1960s, but dropped to 28 percent by 1978.) Because of this upheaval, the debate over school choice and vouchers grew to a crescendo.
Interestingly, the arguments for choice offered at the time tended to promote choice less for reasons of equity and justice, as it's promoted today, and more as a central tenant of American democracy — or as Harry T. Reath, lawyer to the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, put it, the "key to quality education in a pluralistic society." Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) believed this so deeply that he helped sponsor a bill allowing for tax credits for private education, similar to those offered for higher education at the time. In a speech at the NAIS Annual Conference, reprinted in the magazine, Moynihan makes a compelling case based on the history of private education and his reading of the First Amendment. Another writer, Thomas W. Vitullo-Martin, who ran his own policy research and analysis firm at the time, argued that, "without choice, parents will not be able to decide what is more or less important. They will lose responsibility for that part of their lives, and they will feel the loss of freedom."

But the concept of choice was not embraced by all. John J. Roberts, from Westminster Schools (Georgia), put his thumb directly on the concern: "Above all, [these] programs would render private schools less private."
Meanwhile, computer technology started to demand attention. While, at the beginning of the decade, one would find ads for such high-tech products as the Rateometer Reading Pacer and self-correcting typewriter ribbons, there were new ads for Digital Computer Co. ("If you don't know who's doing what with educational computers, it's not our fault.") and, later, for workshops on computers in the classroom (including learning BASIC programming). One writer referred to electronic technology in the classroom as "the electronic dragon." The only area of strong agreement in the magazine was on the topic of diversity in schools — not just among students, but among faculty and administrators. Paralleling this push was an equal effort to improve gender equity and come to a better understanding of gender roles in education. Still, language proved to work against these efforts. The key question in education, one writer argued in the 1970s, should be, "What should a man do with his life?"
The 1980s

Activist Tom Hayden, writing in 1979, looked into his crystal ball and didn't care much for what he saw. Anticipating much of the 1980s and beyond, Hayden argued against the inevitable. "We don't need a knowledge explosion," Hayden said. "We need control over our knowledge. We don't need more ideas than we can think about. We need only those ideas that have some kind of merit. We don't need more and more talk, books, position papers. We need to do something about the overdevelopment of the university and the educational complex and the underdevelopment of the thinking of the American people."
Hayden's wishes aside, the 1980s, in fact, would be about growth and change — about the knowledge explosion. And, yes, it would turn out to be a decade chock full of position. For independent schools, it would also be an era in which the schools would carefully weigh their role in the public sphere while tackling with alacrity some of the nagging educational shortcomings of previous decades.
In the larger sphere of education, the debate of the 1980s focused on tuition tax credits. Under the influence of the Reagan administration, there was a subtle shift in the discussion, with the focus on getting more of the government off the nation's back. This, in turn, fueled broader discussions within the independent school community about its connection to public education and the public good. While supporting tuition tax credits at first appeared to be a no-brainer, it's interesting to watch independent school educators put on the brakes and start asking questions. Should independent schools, for instance, favor tuition tax credits when it means less money for a public educational system already in trouble?
Richard Barbieri, then a philosophy teacher at Milton Academy (Massachusetts), writing in 1982, captured the general sentiment of the time: that "independent schools should collaborate with public education.... because they need us, because we cannot be the sort of places we want to be without helping them."
Yet, the form of such collaboration was difficult to pinpoint. Regarding tuition tax credits, Richard W. Ekdahl, executive director of ISAS, warned that "tuition tax credits might jeopardize the positive aspects of independent schools in two ways.... First, they might lessen the feeling of commitment in both parents and students. Second, they would provide the federal government with an avenue to impose potentially damaging regulations."
The NAIS board publicly expressed concerns over tuition tax credits, especially while public schools were being shortchanged. As John Esty, Jr., NAIS president, wrote in 1982, "Many of us in the private sector feel in the long run the current, and fairly scandalous, inattention to public education will be bad for us in the private sector, too. We do not want to see a two-tiered system, where those with the money go to private schools and those without the money go to public schools."
Rather than any scheme to divert tax money to private education, what turned out to be the most far-reaching event of the 1980s was the publication of "A Nation at Risk: An Imperative for Educational Reform," which, through its deep criticism of U.S. public education and call to action, set off a flurry of reform efforts that are still felt today. Indeed, the whole standards movement today is essentially a spin-off of that single report.
The magazine editor at the time, Blair McElroy, thought "A Nation at Risk" so significant, she dedicated an entire issue to the topic and reprinted the 12-page "Open Letter to the American Public" section of the report.
Equally significant was NAIS's own report (with the National Association of Secondary School Principals), "A Study of High Schools," which led to the publication of Ted Sizer's Horace's Compromise, as well as The Shopping Mall High School by Arthur Powell and American High Schools Since 1940 by Robert Hempel. In the magazine, Sizer outlined his eight principles of essential schools, with particular focus on the "critical triangle of student, teacher, and subject, and the climate in school in which the triangle functions." These would eventually be the guiding principles of the essential schools movement.

Yet, while keeping one eye on the national educational issues, Independent School also paid a great deal of attention to life within schools. As one former teacher put it, "Students are wearing shoes again, the faculty room arguments about relevance have subsided, trendy micro-courses are gone from the catalogues, [and] student protest has become an essay topic in the final exam on U.S. History." Meanwhile, the magazine was chock full of articles on gender education, diversity, professional development, trusteeship, moral education, service learning, global education, and, of course, technology — the last of which makes for some of the more humorous writing simply because we have moved so far since then. Consider the question posed in one article: "Will word processing make a difference in the way children write?" Or the article that debated the relative values of PASCAL and BASIC language for teachers when writing their own programs. Or even the careful delineation between "computer literacy" and "computer-assisted learning," and why both are important.
Still, there were voices that seemed to understand all too well the concern of technology. "Our present education, with its emphasis on preparing the young to fit into our technology, should instead be directed to examining critically the ethics and practical results of this technology...." Another educator looked into his crystal ball and asked with worry, "Will computers... provide the future foundation of our common culture, the means by which we experience one another? Not a shared history or language, nor an appreciation of arts and science...., but a multi-cabled web of monitors, megabytes, microprocessors, and daisy wheel printers?"
Substitute gigabytes and laser printers and he pretty much nailed it. Some of the strongest writing focused on the moral issues in education. In this decade, the magazine would publish Peggy McIntosh's ground-breaking essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," and also run a long interview with McIntosh that focused in part on the connection between women's issues and diversity. In the interview, McIntosh criticizes schools for their hierarchical views: "Most schools convey to their students a Darwinian proposition that life is a matter of survival of the fittest and that of necessity, it contains many hierarchies in which only a few people reach the 'top.' School makes people able to see what the 'top' is and urges them to go for it."
Two of the magazine's more frequent contributors in the 1990s, Michael Thompson and Edward Hallowell, first appeared in the Fall 1986 issue, both on the topic of the "pressured child" and both urging schools and parents, as they would for the next two decades, to consider the psychological and emotional development of children and adolescents as carefully as their intellectual development. Two other frequent contributors, Priscilla Vail and Jane Healy, would also weigh in thoughtfully on this subject.
This was also an era of concern over nuclear war. One writer emphasized the positive: suggesting that schools should "channel the current preoccupation with nuclear war of today's youth into a lasting and serious concern for global security issues, political as well as economic." To this end, the NAIS Academic Services Committee issued a report in the magazine on teaching students about life in the nuclear age — and about "informed participation as citizens in the consideration of issues of nuclear power and weapons."

Today's push for global education has its roots here. "We must equip our children to live in our changing world with knowledge and understanding of the other people who inhabit it," wrote John Wilson, English teacher at Belmont Hill School (Massachusetts). But "before we can bring a global perspective into the schools, we have to develop one among the faculty."
In some ways, the radical movement of the 1960s managed to keep a hold on education after all. It's easy to hear its echo in such writers as William Hiss, director of admissions at Bates College, who said, "Young people should not be prepared for the world, but be prepared to change it."
Every era seems to have its counterweights, of course — those Thoreau types who like to throw a wrench into the machinery. And, among them, Charles Stringham stands out. In "Four Brandywine Portraits" (December 1980), Stringham (a pseudonym) rails against the desire to characterize types of students and teachers by portraying real-life, complex people. In the end, he concludes, "What can be generalized from the brief sketches above is, I believe, clear: absolutely nothing. And it is just this nothing that is the central business of those of us who work to make schools run. Most of any school day, term, or year consists of frustrating, engaging, irrelevant, dramatic, inspiring, ridiculous encounters with the irreplaceable souls who compose the community. The imprints left on our consciousness from each unique encounter compose the whole substance — punishment and reward — of school life."

"Students are wearing shoes again, the faculty room arguments about relevance have subsided, trendy micro-courses are gone from the catalogues. "
In the end, reading Independent School of the 1970s and 1980s is worth it not only for the views of those who can help outline the essentials of a quality education, or help teachers and administrators improve their craft, but also for those startling voices like Stringham's, whoever he or she is, reminding us that the complexity of life is such that we'll never succeed in pinning it down. But oh the joy in trying.
Michael Brosnan

Michael Brosnan was the longtime editor of Independent School magazine.