“Small but proud” read the headline on the Saint James School graduation ceremony story last week. In many respects, it was a summary of the view most Americans have of private schools. The smallness, the sense of rigidity and timelessness, the white-columned porches. They all fit together.
Private school catalogs emphasize campus beauty, state-of-the-art equipment and small class size. They also point out that students enjoy an experience and somewhat sophisticated good time made moderately democratic, thanks to financial aid.
But private schools do more than ensure that their students get into a slightly better college than might otherwise be the case, or any college at all. These are more than moral tutors filling in for busy parents.
Prep schools do all of this and more, and when they do it well are capable of producing an awesome product, given decent raw material. For others of us who have benefited from prep school training, the result has been academic salvation.
Other than getting a few kids into college, it might not be clear what other benefits these institutions offer, but there are some aspects of private school operations that offer a wide benefit to society as a whole.
Because they answer to an independent board of trustees, prep schools can easily conduct experiments in teaching techniques and styles. They can introduce new subjects to the high school curriculum.
At one time, philosophy, psychology and economics were all considered beyond high school level. After a long trial period in private schools, they are now commonplace in American public secondary schools as well.
Japanese, Chinese and Russian, once considered niche languages (now more or less essential to economic survival), got their start in private schools. There was a time when there was widespread opposition to studying the languages of former enemies — even though they were usually in the process of becoming our new best friends and trading partners.
Private schools have also offered a home to some of the most learned and original teachers. Because state regulatory standards have become increasingly layered and localized in the last 60 years, private schools have access to a huge pool of talent denied to public schools by legal fist.
There is the English literature teacher trained at Oxford, junior faculty at Yale, retired to Florida — to teach for 30 percent less at a distinguished private school — unable to meet state public school qualifications without reliving his life. Scientists trained in Europe, and linguists from China and Japan all can teach in private schools while often being denied access to even a tryout for public school positions.
When it is part of its mission, the prep school can offer a close look at a point of view, a way of life. Military schools have done this for years and are enjoying a modest comeback. Schools with a religious tradition offer the same kind of opportunity. It gives a young person the chance to at least sample a lifestyle with a point of view.
The range of prep schools is enormous; day, boarding, military, religious, secular — even an ethical culture school in New York City. The private school field is growing, particularly in pre-kindergarten, grade schools and junior high. There is enough dissatisfaction with the mainstream product that consumers can support an alternate market.
Given the clear benefits to individual students, the educational system and the cause of variety, in the life of the American mind, private education more than pays its way.
Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs. He attended private school and is a longtime member of the board of trustees of Saint James School.