On Serious Secondary School Scholarship

Patrick Bassett:

I’ve often said that all NAIS schools are “college-prep,” even the early childhood schools like The Children’s School (Connecticut) [age 2 through eighth grade], and the learning differences (LD) schools like Lawrence School (Ohio) [grades K – 12], and scores of other independent schools like them across the country. They, like their more traditional cousins in our membership, are college-prep because parents choose them with college in mind, believing, rightfully, that an independent school with a mission that matches their child’s needs and proclivities will be the surest path to success in secondary school and college. And all of our schools deliver on that expectation.
I’ve also often said that the early childhood programs in NAIS schools and our LD schools (or the LD “schools within a school” in the traditional school model) are often the most innovative, often the first to adopt the new thinking, the new technologies, and the new research (especially on brain-based learning and differentiated instruction). That said, we are collectively, in the independent school world, on the cusp of significant re-engineering of schools, and what it means to be an outstanding place to learn. This is exemplified by Grant Lichtman’s blogs on his journey across America to discover where innovation is sprouting up in independent schools. No better time, no better place for every independent school leader and teacher to think about where, and how, we will innovate at each of our schools.
While “Change is inevitable, growth optional” (John C. Maxwell), I’d like to note that a rapidly changing landscape does not mean that everything old should be subject to change. For me, character first is the defining quality that makes independent schools strong. The founders of the first independent schools in America knew that, as do the founders of our newest schools. For example, the constitutions of both Phillips Academy (Massachusetts) and Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire) include a charge to the masters (teachers) exhorting them to attend to the character of their wards: “[T]hough goodness without knowledge (as it respects others) is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”1 Have truer words ever been spoken? Or clearer insight into what makes great schools and successful (“good and smart”) graduates?
So, character first. And the adults are the moral mentors and models. But for college-prep schools, a second maxim should be “academics second,” meaning what one might call “serious scholarship.” While the means of conducting serious scholarship (video oral histories, crowd-sourcing, data mining via the Internet, etc.) are indeed changing, I like the case made by Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, that serious scholarship in the form of a substantial publication-worthy research paper is the entry ticket for future academic success (and selective college admissions).
The Concord Review, launched by Fitzhugh in 1987, is an excellent periodical of secondary school research in the subject of history. As Fitzhugh is fond of pointing out, The Concord Review is more “selective” than Princeton: one out of 20 submissions to the Review published vs. one out of 19 applicants to Princeton admitted. And the requirements of the paper would be daunting to all but the most ambitious student (typically 4,000 – 6,000 words, but sometimes much longer, 10,000 words or more).2 A quick scan of the research paper titles from the most recent issue of the Review reveals both the most esoteric and fascinating of subjects chosen by these young scholars.
I recommend that all teachers read (and perhaps weep about) any student essay from past Concord Review papers archived on the magazine’s website to find out what serious scholarship at the secondary school level looks, and sounds, like. (In fact, from what my college president colleagues tell me, much college student writing today wouldn’t have a chance of publication in The Concord Review.)