Monthly Archives: May 2013

Liberal Arts at Independent Schools

The below is an excerpt from Headmaster Dr. Peter Quimby’s address at the 2013 Boston Business Leaders Luncheon.

Master Moody (the first headmaster at The Governor’s Academy) created a curriculum that he believed would prepare students for college and life beyond college—to be leaders in a rapidly changing social and political landscape. In those days, preparation for leadership was not related to any particular vocation—it was a broad-based training of the mind that would allow people to succeed in many different areas of life.

As we enter the midway point of a curricular review at the Academy, we are focused on the skills that we believe students need to be successful when they leave Byfield, no matter where their future studies or careers might take them. This is not a set of work-readiness skills, but a set of competencies that we believe will establish a solid foundation for students as they continue to grow and develop as productive citizens and members of society. To let the cat only partially out of the bag, let me give you a sense of what we have in mind. Students should be able to:

  • Think critically and solve problems
  • Collaborate effectively with other people to achieve a common goal
  • Communicate effectively in written, oral, and electronic forms
  • Be thoughtful and engaged readers
  • Access and analyze information
  • Adapt readily to new situations and information
  • Understand themselves as members of a larger community, acting within a moral and ethical framework

These skills will be further refined, and there are at least as many skills on the list as may seem to have been left off. What is important to note for this conversation is that none of these skills are tied to a particular discipline. They are all, however, tied to our mission of moving students from the beginning of adolescence to the threshold of adulthood. When I speak to prospective parents, I tell them that we seek to turn boys and girls into young men and women of character. This isn’t something that happens solely in algebra I, or a fine arts course, or in a science lab. It happens when adults share their lives with adolescents and push them to see talents within themselves that lead to accomplishments they may not otherwise have believed possible. At its core, this holistic experience we offer is a liberal arts education. When we hear the phrase, the liberal arts, we tend to think of higher education, but liberal arts values are our values.

In classical antiquity, the liberal arts, or artes liberales, were subjects of study that were deemed essential for a free person to master in order to serve as a productive citizen. Liberales derives from the Latin root “liber” or “free,” to distinguish free persons, that is to say citizens, from slaves. To be a citizen was to be free, both legally and intellectually—free to think creatively, to solve complex social problems, to bring ethical and moral values to bear on critical issues of the day. While the content of a liberal arts education may have changed since classical times, or since Master Moody created the Academy’s first curriculum 250 years ago, the goal of preparing citizen leaders has not.

As we enter what may be the most important year in a long and distinguished history—our 251st year—the signs of future success for the Academy are promising, indeed. A seat in a Governor’s classroom has never been harder to land as we saw record numbers of campus visits and applications in the admission cycle just completed. The incoming freshman class will be the most talented in the history of the school—I told the parents of admitted students that when I listened to the accomplishments of their children, I wondered as an alumnus whether I would now be admitted to the school I now lead!—yet the quality of our pool has not caused us to stray from our core values. We still look for students of character who will contribute to making Governor’s the closely-knit community that had led so many of us to stay so close to our school for so long.

Independent schools are able to offer students the kind of holistic education that for generations has served our country well. It is no accident that parents from other countries send their children in large numbers to be educated in the United States. Our system of higher education, and our boarding schools, are the envy of much of the world. And yet, most international indicators of primary and secondary school achievement suggest that as a country we lag significantly behind our peers in both the developed and developing world. As we eliminate artistic and musical programs from our public schools, cut back on recess, eliminate field trips that have the potential to broaden children’s minds and lift their sights to new possibilities, and tie teacher’s hands by measuring their success through the standardized test results of their students all in the name of achievement and accountability, we drain creativity and a love of learning from our classrooms, and from a future generation of citizens.

We are seeing a shift away from a liberal arts education at the high school level and toward a more utilitarian, vocational model that represents a radical departure from the educational practices that have served our nation so well. But despite this fact, I remain hopeful about the future of education in our country. Independent schools like Governor’s are able to offer something of value that preserves the very features that have distinguished our nation’s educational system for generations, even if that goes against other contemporary educational trends. From where I sit, the future of both our school and our country look bright, indeed, so long as we invest in our most precious resource, our children.

You will have an opportunity in a moment to witness first-hand the reason for my optimism. Our next speaker, Andy Werchniak, is a senior from Hampton Falls, NH, who has immersed himself fully in all aspects of school life. He leads the band that plays in the auditorium on Friday’s as the school assembles for morning meeting, he is a two-sport varsity athlete, competing in both soccer and wrestling, he runs our Guild program that showcases individual student artistic performances and has for the last three years been a peer leader and trainer for our Anti-Defamation League group. He volunteers for the Special Olympics, plays in an elite Jazz combo group, and on top of all of this has an academic record that would knock your socks off. He was elected to membership in the Cum Laude Society in the fall of his senior year, a singular honor, and received the Harvard Book Prize at the end of his junior year. But Andy’s greatest claim to fame may be that he was the subject of one of my tweets—for the record, I have tweeted 10 times. I was so moved by the remarks that Andy made to the freshman class in the fall that I tweeted the following quotation from his address: I am a stronger college applicant, a stronger student, and a stronger person because of Governor’s. No words could please a headmaster more.

When I invited Andy to speak, I asked him to talk about the ways in which he believes his education at Governor’s has broadened his horizons. Andy will attend Dartmouth College, and I am delighted that he is here to speak to you today.

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