The Way We Were: Independent School Bulletin, 1941–1972

I'VE BEEN DOING SOME HEAVY READING THIS FALL — literally — leafing through the bound volumes of the Independent School Bulletin. The magazine, which would drop "Bulletin" from its name in 1976, began the month before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, becoming the first and, to this day, only magazine focused primarily on precollegiate independent education. What's so striking about the early years is the way these volumes open windows on a school world like and unlike today's, showing us how much we have changed, and how much abides.
 
The magazine was first of all a gathering of the clans. The Bulletin spoke to the members of the Secondary Education Board (later to merge with the National Council of Independent Schools to form NAIS) of school life, and in great detail. Here you could learn, for example, that during one summer "the unpaved portions of the driveways have been macadamized" at a New England school. For several years, the Bulletin undertook to list all new faculty appointments, in a section that grew to 30 pages by 1956. Here one might find, for example, that Theodore R. Sizer, A.B. Yale, began teaching algebra and English in 1955 at The Roxbury Latin School, after previous experience at Hopkins Grammar.
 
The Bulletin also assisted members and job seekers, in language that would now " dismay a school's lawyer and most of its faculty. A school announcing it "will need in September a gentleman to teach French and Spanish" is balanced by another "seeking an outstanding young woman (25-35) to teach first grade," while a third looks for a "twofer": "Experienced applicant with wife who could also teach preferred." Candidates presented themselves as "Married man, age 39, with three children," "Man 39, single," or simply as "Young Man Available." And what modern administrator will not quail at the bluntness of this ad?: "Director of Development — this interesting position at a girls' boarding school will be open in June, 1962, to a qualified woman who can type accurately."
 
Even in its articles, the Bulletin followed ancient proprieties. For decades, women were bylined with their marital status: as late as 1973, for example, school head Jean S. Harris was identified as "Mrs. J. Struven Harris."
 
No wonder, then, a female teacher was inspired to submit one of the few poems ever published in the Bulletin, making the case for "the ladies":
"And who so brave as to wish to be
Inheritor of the pronoun 'She'? –
Driven by instinct, by reason flown;
Creature of dry, redundant bone;
Parasite, wastrel, denter of fender –
Who would be part of the feminine gender?
A comic-strip classic, half hag, half child,
Mocked, berated, deplored, reviled
From Savonarola to Schopenhauer;
Ever inadequate to her hour;
Reputedly monstrous, at best sub-human –
Who would choose to be born a woman?
Though mahogany wishes be only fulfilled in plywood
I tell you, ladies, gentlemen, scholars, I would.
I would be I and never another:
Daughter and sister and wife and mother;
Would be importuned and tested and moved;
I would be loving; I would be loved.
Pretty I'd be, and wooed and feted
Whether at rest or accelerated;
Brilliant; and quoted; and Educated."
But the magazine also reached out to several wider worlds. Since its founding organization specialized in testing and in college preparation (even into the 1970s, the association offered subject area tests in various disciplines), the colleges had a prominent place in its pages: the first issue's feature articles were by the presidents of Harvard University and St. John's College.
 
Even more, the Bulletin had a remarkably international outlook, instigated, but not limited, by its inception in wartime. The issue for May 1942, for example, featured articles on "A French School and the German Occupation" and "A Major's Thoughts on Schools and Schoolboys." With war's end and the founding of the United Nations, the Bulletin consistently looked to the global issues that faced independent schools, and to education around the globe as well.
Besides the expected pieces on the British system (One English writer assured his 1945 American readers that "Eton, in spite of its exclusive outlook towards the rest of the community, is democratically organized within itself. The son of a prime minister or a noble will have to 'fag' during his early years there, and his 'fag master' may be the son of an entirely undistinguished person."), independent school readers could also learn about life in German, Indian, Chilean, African, and Norwegian schools, as well as read reports from "The Conference of Internationally-Minded Schools" and consider the cases for teaching about Asia and Africa, and including Russian and German language instruction.
For many years, the Bulletin was predominantly a curricular publication, offering articles on the teaching of almost every discipline, with English and Latin often taking pride of place. Because differing opinions were welcome, almost encouraged, the magazine had a way of drawing out passionate criticism of current educational trends. In 1948, for example, one teacher wrote, "If the English teacher can bring himself to abandon much of the useless drill on non-existent rules, the question arises concerning what is to be done with the time no longer usurped by grammar exercises." Fifteen years later, just before the dawn of radical curriculum change, another spoke as if the barricades had already fallen: "Literary criticism, with its crashing symbols and muted metaphors, has pushed grammar and syntax into a drawer labeled 'OBSOLETE,' and has made the study of English an optic calisthenic, or an exercise in 'reading between the lines.' To read where there is only space is to read, of course, nothing.'
 
Blunt opinions were part of the day's style. Any reader who thinks those were more civilized times can only wonder if the 21st-century magazine would accept this teacher's 1959 encomium on his life in boarding school: "Where else can I teach a boy Homer and how to pick up his pajamas, turn him from a coddled, pampered, overfed, chauffered little nincompoop into a self-starting, self-activating human being?" A year earlier, another master offered this — apparently needed — piece of advice: "Nicknames which poke fun at the student should be eschewed. Such tags as 'fatso,' 'blimp,' 'splinter,' help not. It is far better to call the student by his first name."
 
On the other hand, in earlier days some subjects were discussed at a depth that is hardly comprehensible now. For those of us considering issues of keyboarding and interactive whiteboards, it is hard to imagine that in 1961 one advocate praised italic handwriting instruction because "....when the italic shapes are fully learned, the pupil can be shown how the same edged pen.... produces for children in the Near East their native Arabic script; how a shift to a flatter pen-angle will produce the classical Roman... and finally, how a shift to a steeper angle creates the Hebrew characters used in the scrolls of the Torah."
 
Technology slowly rose to the attention of schools, first in the form of audiovisual equipment, then in the language laboratory, the use of film in the classroom, and, finally, in the form of the computer, seen first as an office machine. Signs of an invasion were met with concern in 1967: "Not long ago, an electronics representative warned a teacher at an independent school in the East that within a few years 'we shall have a computer able to correct and grade a composition as well as a teacher can.'" But more confident spirits doubted the likelihood of this dystopia. Two years later, one writer observed, "A ten-page news release from IBM came to our desk in October and started us thinking about the age of automated education — programmed teaching and teaching machines. In our dream there is a huge machine and a very small child. The machine delivers a question to the child, who after a suitable period of thought feeds back his reply — whereupon an expression of horror flashes across the machine as it regurgitates a punched card bearing the words 'Good Lord, I wasn't prepared for THAT answer!'"
 
Schools were, more and more, prepared for the issue of learning differences. As early as 1947, a psychologist took a Freudian approach to the subject, reporting that "We were able to identify a number of cases of non-readers in which there were marked evidences of maternal rejection. Many of these were further complicated by very marked sibling rivalry. A few were complicated by bilingualism and several others by glandular disturbances." But, only a year later, a new terminology and approach appeared: "What is Specific Reading Disability? Admittedly, the name is not a good one, but it is better than the popular terms 'mirror reader' or 'left-hand reader,' which over-emphasize one aspect of the condition. It is nothing more than a descriptive name meaning inability in an otherwise normal, healthy, and intelligent child to master reading, writing, and spelling as easily as he masters other subjects." Through the writings of Anna Gillingham and the Scandinavian researcher Edith Norrie, the Bulletin paid great attention to the subject long before many schools had even heard of dyslexia.
 
" A ten-page news release from IBM came to our desk in October and started us thinking about the age of automated education — programmed teaching and teaching machines. In our dream there is a huge machine and a very small child.... " 
On many other occasions, the Bulletin was in advance of its time. Who could have expected, for example, that the first article on the benefits of integration would have appeared six years before the Montgomery bus boycott? Or that our concern for the hurried child today is only 40 years behind the times?
 
One writer noted in 1965 that "The old days of ease are gone, and the challenge to excellence now reaches down to the elementary school. The intellectual pressure on the young student increases correspondingly." A year later, a high school teacher took up the issue: "I often look with wonder on the extent and intensity of current independent school English assignments. I give heavy assignments myself, but I know I never had such assignments when I attended an independent preparatory school 15 years ago.... Today the amount of reading in the English curriculum has increased threefold." That same year, a school physician observed that "the current, almost hysterical urge to hypereducate " ON
adolescents in order to move them to higher and more complicated educational levels may be a source of so much frustration and discouragement as to push some adolescents to suicide."
 
Finally, in the department of plus ça change, each decade of the Bulletin took arms against one or another aspect of popular culture. Although the enemy changed decade after decade, this 1946 jeremiad can stand for many others in its defense of literacy and learning against new media and new mores: "I suggest a crusade against the radio programs which blight the ether between about four and six every day.... the afternoon serials are killing the love for, or the instinct for, reading.... You and I read Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and perhaps even Tom Swift. Our children sit and absorb, with less than no mental effort, Terry and the Pirates, Captain Midnight, Superman, and more additional trash than this magazine has time to name."
The Bulletin of course covered innumerable topics besides the ones mentioned here, from "trusteemanship" [sic] to long-range planning, Social Security to financial aid. But its most exceptional voices seem to have come out of the classroom. None was more astute, I think, than this late 1950s student at Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), responding to an essay question asking him to assume the guise of a voter in 1932. He looked back, apparently, to his grandfather's time, and created this letter:
 
Dear Nicky,
Don't they teach you history at Groton any more?.... Of course your mother and I shall vote for Mr. Hoover this November. Mr. Hoover represents the Republican party, the party to which your family has always belonged, and which acts in your family's interest.... Franklin Roosevelt used to be a gentlemen. I graduated when he was in the Fourth Form, and I remember him as a rather handsome boy, quite a good sailor... .
 
Readers of the 2050s should expect no less of Independent School when it is long past the century mark.
Author
Richard Barbieri

After 40 years as teacher, administrator, and school head, Richard Barbieri is now helping schools deal with a range of interpersonal and organizational communication issues. He can be reached at richarde.barbieri@gmail.com.