We provide the best secondary education in America. Really?

“This school,” they kept telling us, “provides the best secondary education in America.”

“You,” they kept telling us, “are the elite, the future leaders of America.”

“All of you,” they kept telling us, “will go to the best colleges in America—if you can last until graduation.”

No, it’s not me! But the outfit and the haircut could have been mine. Do you recognize whose picture this is? The answer is revealed in the second list.

The truth is that my experience at Phillips Academy in the early 1960s was… let’s see, how do I say this politely?… mixed. Yes, mixed. There is some truth to what they told us. And then there is, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

(Note that Phillips Academy is commonly known as Andover, but its name is not Phillips Andover Academy! It can be called “Phillips Academy Andover,” but never Phillips Andover Academy. You’re confusing it with Phillips Exeter Academy!)

So, do I start with the positive or the negative? We’ll do ten of each. Maybe I should start with the positive and end with the much more interesting observations, the negative ones. So here are a few of my positive take-aways from my Andover experience, in no particular order:

  1. Perhaps most importantly, I learned to write better. This was not so much because of direct instruction but because I was given the freedom to write. In particular, my AP English teacher, Dudley Fitts, often gave us homework that just said “Write something.”
  2. I learned a lot of Ancient Greek. That option was actually one of the main reasons I chose Andover over alternatives like George School and Deerfield. In 1961 I had a passionate desire to learn Ancient Greek, and I still love it today. I took four years of Greek at Andover, followed by two in college. The Andover courses were wonderfully intense; for example, we read Plato’s Apology and Crito in second-year Greek!
  3. I learned a huge amount (both process and content) from the best course at P.A., American History—which was actually a required AP US History course, familiarly called APUSH by those in the know. No textbook, just five hours of class and 20 hours of research each week and subsequent note-taking: we would be given a topic and a list of resources, and we would have to research both the facts and some commentary. Similarly, my aforementioned AP English course was spectacular.
  4. More generally, I was extremely well-prepared for all five of the Advanced Placement exams I took in my senior year: BC Calculus, Latin, Greek, and the two in the previous paragraph, US History and English.
  5. I made some lifelong friends. As a typical introvert, I didn’t make a large number of friends, but the ones I made lasted.
  6. We had an opportunity to do some self-directed work in linear algebra as part of honors precalculus, and I took full advantage of it. The word on the street was that my teacher was a non-intellectual jock, but that characterization didn’t match my experience.
  7. I became somewhat familiar with a powerful world that I could never be part of—a useful but uncomfortable lesson.
  8. We had a few worthwhile extracurriculars that I got to participate in—mostly ones that you would probably expect, like chess club, Forum (a political discussion organization with prominent guests), and archaeology club. Why not the school newspaper? I don’t know.
  9. Perhaps surprisingly, there were some really good talks in chapel and assembly. Andover had the clout to attract many interesting and prominent speakers in all sorts of fields.
  10. Finally—and unexpectedly for some—we had a schedule that contained a remarkable amount of free time, and I learned to thrive in it. There was no such thing as a study hall! When we were not scheduled for a class or other obligation, we were free to be where we wanted to be and to do what we wanted to do, as long as we didn’t leave campus. (See #10 in the second list below.)

And now it’s time to start that second list, the negatives. These are only a few of my negative take-aways from my Andover experience, again in no particular order:

  1. My friends and I were subjected to an excessive amount of social pressure. Yes, I know, that’s normal for high school, but I especially resented the pressure to conform to values that were clearly the wrong ones.
  2. My friends and I were persistently bullied—mostly in a low-key way, but persistently nonetheless—by the dominant social group, the so-called “Regular Guys.” The most prominent bully was a future president of the United States, whose picture you see above: George W. Bush. He was also the head cheerleader (it was an all-male school).
  3. Because the school was all male, I never learned to interact socially with female friends until college. Girls were an alien species. My most frequent teacher (he taught me Latin in grades 10 and 12, Greek in grade 11) even told us so. Repeatedly. Direct quote: “Andover will go coed over my dead body. I don’t know how to teach girls. They’re an alien species.” Sure enough, when the school announced that they were going coed (two years after I graduated), he…well, he didn’t die, but he retired.
  4. Right from the start I had to figure out how to cope with imposed Christianity, including required chapel. When I complained, I was told that it was actually interdenominational—a combination of Episcopalian and Presbyterian! Further complaints led to a thoughtful explanation by the school minister (also my Bible teacher): “You don’t have to be here. There are plenty of other students who would like to take your place.”
  5. You may have gotten the impression from the first half of this post that the academics were uniformly wonderful. They weren’t. For instance, my third-rate physics class was terrible: third-rate in fact. Andover couldn’t find an Honors Physics teacher and had to drag one out of retirement; he told us right from the start that he had no idea how to teach PSSC physics (he was correct) and that he hadn’t learned anything new since 1921. Physics should have been a great class for me as a math and linguistics person, but it certainly wasn’t.
  6. My sophomore English class was also third-rate. The less said about that, the better. More generally, however, there was a major flaw in the entire department: in my senior year, when I asked why we had never read any American literature, I was told “This is the English Department, not the American Department.” Actually, even that so-called explanation was a lie, as we read plenty of non-English literature (in translation): Homer, Sophocles, Ibsen, and so forth. And, I admit, we did read one tiny amount of American lit, but not any of the great authors you might imagine—we read poems by Jean Valentine as part of AP English, the course which (as I wrote above) made up for it all.
  7. My required sophomore Bible class was also third-rate. (Are you sensing a theme here?) Unfortunately, of the two teachers, I got the boring one, not the exciting one.
  8. I never got the opportunity to take bio or chem! That’s because we were allowed to take only five courses per year. Since English, math, Latin, and Greek took up four of those slots each year, I had only one slot left for history or science (or anything else, like art or a modern language): these were filled by required Bible as a sophomore, physics as a junior, required APUSH as a senior. Sigh.
  9. We all had to participate in an inappropriately competitive physical education program. No gym class, which I guess was fortunate, but also no non-competitive sports. I should have joined some of my friends in javelin, a.k.a. “social spear,” since I wasn’t going to get any life-long learning out of the experience.
  10. And finally there’s the long and inappropriately constraining set of rules, from dress code to chapel attendance, to which we had to conform. You can find the entire 88-page rule book (from my senior year, though other years are also all available) in the Internet Archive. Highlights ranged from the uselessly general (“An Andover student will at all times and places conduct himself like a gentleman.”) to the annoyingly specific (“Each boy, unless Posted, on No Excuse, or on General Warning, may take two out-of-town excuses each term. Day and overnight excuses count the same. Excuses may not be taken on consecutive dates. Note: The weekends of November 2-3 and November 16-17 in the Fall Term are not considered as consecutive, nor are the weekends of January 25-26 and February 8-9 in the Winter Term or the weekends of April 18-19 and May 2-3 in the Spring Term.”). I think my favorite is “Every student should make it his duty to know all the songs and cheers before the first major contest.” I never did. Or maybe my favorite (not actually in the rule book, but communicated orally) is that we were required to wear a tie and jacket in the library except when reading a magazine, when we could remove the jacket but not the tie. It was the only school where students would hide a textbook inside a magazine.

In conclusion, let’s cycle back to the three words of wisdom that I quoted at the start of this long post. Was it the best secondary education in America? Are we the elite? Did we go to the best colleges?

I don’t know; you be the judge.

Categories: Teaching & Learning