Prep Schools Then and Now

Prep Schools Then and Now

If Connecticut were to establish its own version of Siberia, a place to send chronic miscreants, it would choose its northwest corner — the coldest, hilliest, woodsiest, most isolated spot in the realm. In this insular province, on a windswept hilltop above the one-horse town of Lakeville, Timothy Dwight, president of Yale, and Maria Hotchkiss, heiress to a munitions fortune, along with several accomplices, founded the Hotchkiss School in 1891.

Since then, generations of young people in grades 9-12 have been sentenced there to learn about the world while living apart from it. And learn they did — under the stern gaze of headmasters with nicknames like "the King" and "the Duke" — or it was back to the real world with them. Eventually, all would be set free, including notables like John Hersey, Henry Luce, and assorted Fords and Pillsburys.

Even though its students, especially the youngest, may have felt lonely from time to time, Hotchkiss itself was hardly alone. The last gasp of the 19th century saw a virtual gulag archipelago of boarding schools spring up in the hills and vales of Connecticut, among them Westminster in 1888, Taft and Choate in 1890, and Pomfret in 1894 — followed soon enough by Salisbury, Kent, Westover, Ethel Walker, Loomis, and Canterbury. These upperclass institutions shared many characteristics, including a strict Puritan view of human nature. Samuel Phillips, who founded Phillips Academy Andover in 1778, wrote that one of the prime reasons for establishing the school was "to guard against the first dawning of deprived nature" in growing boys.

Sending pubescent boys and girls away from home to be educated and raised — either through apprenticeship, to a schoolmaster, or another family — was a common practice in colonial New England. but the Industrial Revolution added other reasons for affluent parents to ship their progeny out, helping to fuel the explosion of prep schools.

"The old well-to-do upperclass and those who had become rich from industrial development jumped at the chance to send their kids away from the blight of the cities, which were being inundated with immigrants, and into the country to be educated," said Christopher Armstrong, Hotchkiss '63.

In other words, the gentry felt it was was losing its iron grip on society and sought to establish a series of microcosmic societies where their control could be maintained. Schools such as Hotchkiss were the result.

Remote and demanding as public schools often were not, the private schools also were designed to be pipelines to Yale and other Ivies . One of Timothy Dwight stated goals was to turn Hotchkiss boys into Yale men. After graduating with the right people from the right schools, these students would be off to Wall Street, to the bar, or to the family business (or perchance a classmate's family firm). Many alumni aver that after the rigors of Hotchkiss, life ever after seemed easy by comparison, that the momentum gained from coming off that hill in Lakeville made the real world seem like a walk in the park.

A. William Olsen, class of 1939 and headmaster from 1960 to 1981, recalled the Hotchkiss of his day: "Schools like Hotchkiss, when I went there and also taught there in the 1950s, were little enclaves off in the country — we weren't even allowed radios when I was a student — preparing a reasonably homogenous group of people for college. Those who attended came generally from the same socioeconomic background — that would even include those who were on scholarship." Financial aid in those days largely went to the nouveau poor, well-to-do families who had taken their lumps during the Great Depression.

If Hotchkiss and schools like it were a bit narrow back then in both makeup and mission, they did the job they were designed for extremely well. Half of Olsen's classmates went on to Yale, and two of three went to the Ivy League. Twenty-five years later, in 1964, Hotchkiss still delivered one-quarter of the senior class to New Haven and another quarter to the rest of the Ivies. Today, about one in three go to the Ivies; one in ten to Yale.

But as routine as 1964 must have seemed to those at Hotchkiss, storm clouds were gathering in the outside world. While civil rights protests intensified in the South, the class of 1964 had but two blacks among its 78 members, and one was from Uganda (the school's first black graduate was class of 1955).

Because of the social turbulence of the 1960s and 70s, the world at large and the school on a hill are now much closer than they used to be. In fact, choosy academies like Hotchkiss are now demographically as diverse as many public high schools, where integration has not always taken root. Blacks and Hispanics at Hotchkiss make up 10 percent of the student body and Asian-Americans and foreigners represent another 10 percent. Educational consultant William Risely said, "I see Hotchkiss as very much a flagship in the sense that it has anticipated the significant changes in our culture, essentially the issue of social mobility. There is extraordinary social mobility in this country today, and Hotchkiss has recognized this and has aggressively sought out first-generation prep-school families — kids whose parents didn't go to boarding school — and has brought them into the fold."

While Hotchkiss also has liberalized the rules that once gave it the ambience of Stalag 17, a significant and willful gap still remains between what is permitted on the 485-acre campus and what is taken for granted in the world beyond. "When you come here, you sign away a lot of what it means to be a teenager — things like drinking, smoking, going to school games — or at least put it on hold," said Kelsey, a senior from Fairfield and president of the school. Hotchkiss students are so busy with their own academic regimens (classes six days a week) and extracurricular schedules (sports or some substitute afternoon activity are compulsory) that it seems they rarely get a chance to cheer on their varsity teams. And even when they do, faculty in attendance make sure the rooting doesn't get unseemly. When an opponent is shooting a foul shot in the Hotchkiss gym, he or she can count on the home fans being as quiet as church mice — behavior that in this rowdy age borders on being un-American.

Students caught drinking or doing drugs at Hotchkiss are history. No counseling, no second chance. Smoking is also forbidden and a third offense may result in expulsion. Among the worldly pleasures students surrender are cars and the opportunity to spend much time with the opposite sex. Visiting between male and female dorms is restricted to certain hours and only permissible in common rooms, not student rooms. The school paper has been calling for "room visitation rights" for Hotchkissers ever since girls arrived on campus in 1974 — so much for the power of the preppy press.

Hotchkiss ranks on the ultra-strict end of the spectrum among peers such as Choate Rosemary Hall and Deerfield. And lest there be any doubt about the official position, the Hotchkiss handbook does not mince words: "Hotchkiss is not the appropriate place for sexual intercourse between students."

There have been changes in the rules at Hotchkiss, such as more weekends away from school and no mandatory attendance at daily chapel or meals, the latter being informal cafeteria style rather than old school sit-down affairs. But Hotchkiss is fundamentally the same place it was in 1964. More than a few of the same teachers still roam the halls and classrooms, insisting that their charges write and think with clarity. If pressed to characterize a typical Hotchkiss applicant, Wesleyan Dean of Admissions Karl Furstenberg said, "If there is a common quality to Hotchkiss kids, it is that they are very well prepared: they have been exposed to more in terms of writing and critical analysis than might be true at most high schools. It's a lot like a selective high school."

Blair Torrey, Hotchkiss '50 and an English teacher at the school since 1956, seems as permanent and as solid as the brick dormitories, and as little changed. His nose still looks like a blacksmith mistook it for an anvil — the legacy of guarding a hockey goal without a mask. And he is clearly in better shape than many of the students he once taught and coached. He opens his class on Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton's gloomy turn-of-the-century novel, with a pop quiz. There is the faintest wisp of a groan from one of his nine students (the average class size is 13, with some having as few as four). Eight of the fledgling scholars set to writing while the ninth has clearly been caught unprepared. After class, Torrey approached the boy, who wants to be a writer, and said simply, "You should read this book, she's a wonderful writer." Enough said. Later he explains that the changes in Hotchkiss' student population also have brought about the diversification of the traditional reading lists, which now include many more works by minority and female writers.

"I'm not kidding about this subliminal sexuality here," Torrey said midway through the class. He reads a passage from the novel that includes a grim image of a dead cucumber vine, his voice rising at times to a near bellow as he strides about the small room, gesturing, his charges arrayed in desks surrounding him. Pulling teeth is not necessary: one question draws in almost every student, some straining their hands like grade-schoolers to join the discussion. When he asked them on another occasion to describe the Hotchkiss campus, then in the depths of mid-winter despair, in Whartonesque prose, they had a field day. "They really got into the oppression of it," Torrey said with a toothy grin.

If anything, Hotchkiss students today appear more enthusiastic than ever. The addition of young women seems to have added a livelier tone to discussions. And both genders are almost eerily polite, as well as eminently attentive in an age when many high schools have become either war zones or bastions of apathy and ignorance. "There are certain negative things about a public education that aren't here," said Director of Admissions Parnell Hagerman. "Disruption in the classroom, disrespect for adults and disrespect for learning do not exist here. It is just the reverse. In that respect, Hotchkiss is a hermetically sealed environment."

In her six years on the job, Hagerman is credited with both helping to diversify the student population and helping to keep Hotchkiss' dorms filled during a national drought of high-school-age youths. For example, in Connecticut 9th to 12th graders peaked at 200,000 in 1975, falling to 132,000 by 1988. A map of the United States on the wall of Hagerman's office has thick black lines crisscrossing it, with big black circles around unlikely locales like San Antonio, Texas and Helena, Montana.

"We projected six years ago that there would be a real decrease in 13-14 year olds," she said. "You couple that with the cost of these place [Hotchkiss is $14,700 a year] and you've got yourself a little bit of a problem if you don't have an aggressive travel stance." But because most prep schools have gone coed and are actively recruiting minority and foreign candidates, there are a great many more potential applicants to woo than in bygone days.

Hagerman has nearly doubled the admission staff to seven, four of whom travel regularly — not simply around the country, but around the world. She circled the globe several years ago, stopping in places like Hong Kong and Thailand, and next year plans to take headmaster Robert A. Oden Jr. with her for recruiting sorties to England and France. Among the 15 foreign students (more than 10 percent) in this year's senior class of 145 is Olga Filippova, the first Soviet to study in an American high school without sponsorship of an official organization.

Hagerman also has established an inner city recruiting network that targets urban schools with both high percentages of minorities and high test scores. If kids measure up scholastically but not financially, Hotchkiss offers aid. Twenty-seven percent of students get assistance, with the average grant being $10,000. There are no full rides.

While Hotchkiss is certainly interested in diversity for its own sake, self-interest is also a factor. Universities like Yale, which went coed in 1969, had beaten Hotchkiss to the punch in diversifying their student populations. If prep schools remained lily-white, male upperclass bastions, they would have seen their college-placement performance slip even more than it has already. The introduction of standardized College Board tests after World War II made steady inroads into the special relationship between prep schools and leading colleges.

"We realize that what we are doing is necessary, that for Hotchkiss to maintain its ranking as one of the top ten schools in the country, we have to continue to appeal to the best and brightest, which doesn't necessarily mean the most wealthy," Hagerman explained.

So make no mistake, these are not regular kids. And while it might be somewhat harder for a "legacy candidate" — the son or daughter of an alumnus — to get into Hotchkiss today than decades ago, the word elite remains very much in fashion here. "We want to be an elite school in the best sense — an an elite by merit," said Headmaster Oden, who is 43 and completing his first year on the job. "We'd like to get the very most ambitious, the most able, and the students with the finest character from wherever they come from. An elitism of character, brains and ambition is our past, our present and our future."

The choice of Oden last year was intriguing in many ways. The school's ninth headmaster stands out for his deficiencies. He never attended Yale, but rather Harvard, class of 1969, Phi Beta Kappa; he never went to prep school, having graduated from Vermillion High School in South Dakota; he has never taught at a prep school. A distinguished professor and scholar of religion at Dartmouth for 15 years, Oden holds five advanced degrees and has mastered 10 languages: among them Arabic, Hebrew and several that haven't been spoken in millennia.

The last headmaster to come from outside the Hotchkiss/Yale axis lasted just two years, from 1981 to 1983. To this day Timothy Callard isn't entirely sure why the trustees gave him his walking papers, and Hotchkiss people also are vague about what went awry, speaking of chemistry and style. One thing is clear: his wife's habit of breast-feeding her infant in chapel was seen by many old guard faculty members as bad form.

In several respects, though, Oden seems like throwback to an earlier, legendary "head," George Van Santvoord — "the Duke," whose feudal reign lasted from 1926 to 1955. Like him, Oden is an avid fly-fisherman and a towering intellect with an immense curiosity and thirst for learning. While casting knee-deep in rushing water he can identify the insects that his wily prey (which he catches and releases) feed on, as well as the flora gracing the riverbanks. This spring he plans to head a special project on aquatic environments, trout and fly-fishing.

Of course, comparing anyone to Van Santvoord is heresy. We have it on no less an authority than John Hersey that when the Duke waded into frigid freshets, he scorned hip boots. But like him, Oden brings to his new post strong feelings about the direction Hotchkiss should be taking.

Francis "Fay" Vincent, the commissioner of Major League Baseball and a Hotchkiss grad ('56) headed the search committee that chose Oden. On Vincent's desk in his New York City office are three photos: one of his father, a signed candid of President H.W. Bush, and a portrait of Van Santvoord. "I once asked the Duke what being headmaster meant, and he said, 'Picking a great faculty,'" Vincent recalled. "I think that is correct and that Robert Oden will bring strength to Hotchkiss academically, that he will be able to build a good faculty. I think it is important for Hotchkiss to move toward even greater intellectual and academic primacy."

While Vincent is envisioning increasing scholastic vigor, students are lobbying to have every other Saturday free of classes. In fact, most observers feel that Hotchkiss is more demanding today than ever. "I think the academic demands have increase," said the consultant William Risely. "Students get a rigorous, robust education at Hotchkiss, a Renaissance model of academics, athletics and aesthetics. But I believe the future of private schools lies in how they deal with nonacademic needs of the kids." Foremost among those needs is the old-fashioned Puritan work ethic. "One of the things that most American kids lack — and prep schools are playing an important role in providing — is powerful work habits, which are not being demanded of them by public education or their parents," Risley said. "Kids going from Hotchkiss to anywhere in the country are not going to be overwhelmed by the work load. In fact, sometimes they rest on their oars for a couple of years."

If Hotchkiss under headmaster Olsen in the 60s and 70s had to come to grips with a volatile American society, the school's challenge today, as Oden sees it, is to make its students more aware of the world at large. "Why is it that the kind of geography exams that American students take result in such pitiful conclusions?" he asked. "Why is it that the kind of languages that I think we ought to be offering over the long run are not being offered? To pick my own area of study, there are very few independent schools that teach Arabic. On the other hand, I know of very few first class French or British schools that don't offer it. Now there may be some accidental colonial reasons for that, but there are a billion Arabic speakers in the world, and I don't see why studying Arabic is this country is viewed as exotic." Oden believes that what might seem exotic today will be old hat in a few decades. "I predict that in 30 years, independent schools will say, 'Well, of course, we're offering Japanese or Chinese or Arabic — how could anyone ever have doubted the importance of doing that?'"

Not that the Hotchkiss curriculum has been stagnant. There are about 150 course offerings today, two and a half times as many as in 1964, when the lineup was remarkably unchanged from the time Van Santvoord arrived in 1926: the usual humanities (history was strictly oriented toward Western civilization), the de rigueur dead and living languages, math, sciences, and a smattering of the arts. The core remains but now electives include "Architecture and Design," four levels of Russian language study (two taught this year by visiting Soviet instructors), and a new course called "History of Ancient American Civilizations," the first to focus on Central and Latin America.

Besides continuing such curriculum trends, Oden wants Hotchkiss to explore more exchange programs with foreign schools. In fact, he may show the way himself, since he is being considered as a trustee for a foreign university. "If I do become a trustee, I see that as an important component of my job as headmaster — not as a distraction from it," he said. "It's part of my essential moral and philosophical feeling — more so than economic, although this is also powerful — that is is one globe, that we are all part of a large family."

Like most families, the Hotckiss family is not a universally happy one. The school can be, at the same time, wonderfully exciting and intimidating. There are impressive facilities: an expansive photographic studio, two hockey rinks (one indoors), a modern and expanded library, and more than 20 tennis courts (three indoors) — not to mention a nine-hole golf course. But there also are many small single rooms where students can feel alone and overwhelmed. Oden himself is concerned that life at places like Hotchkiss can tend toward the frenetic, with little leisure time left over to read a good book that isn't on the syllabus or cast for a trout, the latter being something he has done just once in his six months on the job.

"At home I didn't have to work that hard and I got really good grades, I was easily in the top three or four in my class," said 10th grader (an lower middler in Hotchkiss speak) Joe Bryan. "But here suddenly the top three or four in my old school are the equivalent of everyone." He said that he was so busy his first year just keeping up that he didn't have time to think or complain about Hotchkiss' strict rules, something all students get around to sooner or later.

"I don't know why, but most of the time I wish I hadn't come," said Kris Atteberry, a first-year tenth grader, at an informal group discussion about life at "The Kiss." He added, "I can deal with the schedule — I just don't like the environment. I'm from Montana, and the East, the whole prep-school culture, is so different. Maybe my feelings will change with time." Later he chimes in on a more positive note, concurring with others that the teachers "are so much better than the ones at home."

Hotchkiss now has counselors and a staff psychiatrist and various remedial programs to help students who are having trouble adjusting to the rigors, both academic and social, of boarding school life. In simpler times, Van Santvoord took troubled boys into his own home to help them make the steep grade.

Hotchkiss is still a small enough community that everyone knows everyone and faculty members will stop the occasional downcast boy or girl in the halls to ask what's wrong. The school does not like to lose its young people and has a reputation for not doing so. In a profile of Van Santvoord reprinted in his book Life Sketches, John Hersey recalls that its most regal headmaster had a habit of approaching students in the halls and asking them questions like the one he posed to young Hersey: "What was Stradivarius' first name?" It wasn't until later, Hersey writes, that he realized what the Duke — this frightening man with "Jupiter's eyes" — was up to. He was telling the homesick student, then in his first week at Hotchkiss, that his headmaster knew not only his name but also that he played the violin. Hersey, nonetheless, could not answer the question: a precious few could pass Van Santvoord's impromptu quizzes. But in this indirect fashion, generations of stammering boys were made to feel welcome and to realize that there were worlds of things they had yet to learn.

"Do you know what a salmon kill is, David?" asked A. William Olsen Jr., my old headmaster, as I was scribbling down his address (Salmon Kill Road) to send him a copy of the magazine. At 40, I should know these things, but as the silence lingered, it was apparent I did not. "You probably think it is where they killed salmon," he said into the void. In my ignorance, that was exactly what I was thinking.