Middlesex: A Private Boarding School
"Middlesex School," says the catalogue, "is a boarding school for boys which accepts a limited number of students from the immediate vicinity as day boys. The School, which is in the country about three miles from the town of Concord, Massachusetts, was founded in 1901 by Frederick Winsor, who served as Headmaster until his retirement in December, 1938, when Lawrence Terry succeeded to the Headmastership. The enrollment for the year 1957-1958 is one hundred and ninety-four boys, from twenty-six states."
This catalogue description hasn't changed much over the years, except that recently the enrollment figure has increased markedly each year. But with the present figure, Terry says, the school has reached a "real limit." The limitation is partly physical: Middlesex's six "houses" and dining hall are becoming uncomfortably crowded.
Yet perhaps more important than the physical limitations is what Terry describes as "a strong feeling that we want to remain a "small school." The cause of this feeling is a little hard to define, for it stems from a variety of sources. One of the advantages of the small school might seem to be the low faculty-student ratio (about one to eight this year). But this is not much different from many good, much larger schools, like Exeter, whose faculty-student ratio is almost the same as Middlesex's.
Importance of Small Ratio
Much depends, of course, on what advantage is made of this ratio. Unlike the facilities of most larger schools, most of the Middlesex faculty lives on or close to the school's campus. Each of the six "houses," which hold between 25 and 30 students, has quarters for a married master and at least one other instructor. The master, a senior faculty member, also acts as an advisor to the students in his dormitory. This task involves at least one conference every two weeks to discuss bi-weekly grade reports. But the master's job involves much more--seeing that the younger students are in bed on time, collecting the required Sunday night letters to families, quieting disturbances, and occasionally having parties.
All of this indicates one general characteristic of a small private school: the large amount of faculty attention lavished--for better or worse on all students. With a school of 194 it is still possible for the faculty to discuss every individual student in the faculty meetings following each set of exams. And in bi-weekly meetings the faculty, with two-week grades at hand, can discuss the most pressing problems at length. Not all students need, or want, or appreciate such close attention, but for many it is the most important service a private school can offer.
But this feature of the school is rather unobtrusive--the students themselves are usually hardly aware of it. Other features of a small school are mare apparent to them. There is a diversity of interests arising naturally from the variety of ages, the wide geographical distribution, and the differing social and financial backgrounds. And this diversity is probably more apparent and more important in a small school or college than in a large one. Terry points out the ease of finding a small clique of people of similar interests at a big school--the ease of finding "a satisfying number of others" of similar interests.
Unity Possible Result of Size
But some would also note that the small size of the school generates a sense of class unity, even perhaps school unity. The school this year graduated 35 students, a group small enough so that even though obviously diverse in interests and tastes it could often plan and act as a whole--such as in putiting on the traditional "Hook Night" show to raise money for the Yearbook. And 194 is a small enough group so that most students get to know at least the names of everyone in school before the year is very old.
Terry also describes another feature of the smaller school--the relative ease with which "a boy in a small school gets to be somebody" if he wants to. This is as true in studies as it is in extracurricular activities. If there is any intrinsic value in being first in one's class or captain of the football team or editor of the school paper, then a smaller school, offering less competition, makes it more likely that a boy will be able to "find himself" in some activity. Of course the quality of the finished product is rarely as high as in a more competitive atmosphere. Middlesex cannot hope to compete with Andover or Exeter in football, nor can it turn out as impressive a newspaper or literary magazine, but there is not as much feeling of the need for such excellence.
The trouble with this atmosphere is that it may become too easy, that the omnipresence of the faculty may leave the student unprepared for the sink-or-swim life in college, and that the lack of adequate competition for the bright student may remove the stimulus to do any kind of good work. Middlesex does attempt to develop a sense of responsibility about many things in the students' life. Faculty members supervise virtually all study halls, which are required for all but students in the top two classes unless they have honor grades. But by the time a students in the top two classes unless they have honor grades. But by the time a students gets to be a senior, he can stay up all night, smoke, go to Concord whenever he pleases, and sleep through breakfast. Yet he still can't skip classes, and his housemaster still discusses his grades with him every two weeks. It is hard to determine just how much responsibility one can put on a student, and if Middlesex is occasionally a little constricting.
Again, the question of competition as a stimulus to scholastic activity is a complex one. Some find the battle for first place in the class or for the honor roll a sufficient spur to hard work. But there are bright students who are unmoved by such competition, and for them, the increasing pressure on college admissions offices is often the activating force, at least in their final years of school.
In fact the college admissions situation has become increasingly influential on all students, and on the operation of the school. For one thing it is bringing more students, and is bringing them earlier. Parents evidently feel that if they are going to get their children into good colleges, they have to get them started early. So applications to Middlesex, and particularly to the younger classes (seventh and eighth grades) have been unusually heavy this year, and much of the growth of the school will be in these younger grades.
This influx of applicants has required much more selectivity than was allowed in the past, and as those who survive the admissions race are turning out to be brighter each year, the college pressure has worked in two ways to make the curriculum stiffer in school--in bringing more able students each year and in requiring more achievement for admission. This year and next will see broad changes in certain areas of study at Middlesex. In the field of languages, three years of German will be offered, instead of only two as before. German will now be in direct competition with French as a language study. And in extending this program, the school has eliminated one of the banes of college applicants--the two-year language study. It had found that less than three years of any language left even the brightest students in a difficult position on College Board exams. Their scores, even if good for second-year students, were not likely to be high enough to impress colleges. And in further changes, Middlesex now starts people on languages earlier in their school career if they wish--it is possible to start French in seventh, eight or ninth grades, and Latin and German are similarly pushed ahead.
Science and Math Revisions
The Sciences and Mathematics programs have also undergone revisions, with a particularly strong emphasis on biology and natural history courses and a new advanced math courses giving a solid introduction to calculus. There has been a particularly large demand recently for the Physics and Chemistry courses which are electives in the upper two classes, and the teaching of these subjects is now being brought up to date with the assistance of an M.I.T. science teaching program. But this does not mean that the school feels an increased need to push all students ahead in the sciences. One math teacher observes that only the most mature as well as bright students will be able to take the most advanced math course. "The rest," he says, "need the old pound and repeat." And science courses are only required for the youngest two classes.
Teaching in the sciences and languages has improved since Sputnik I. Yet Terry denies that this public awakening is responsible for the school's curriculum changes. In fact he thinks it quite unlikely that Sputnik-inspired pressure will have any effect on the school, unless it be indirectly, through pressure on colleges. Rather, the changes have evolved naturally, through faculty turnover and normal self-evaluation.
The Place of the School
Relatively untouched by the waves of public opinion now hitting the public schools, small independent schools like Middlesex can continue to operate pretty much as they please. If the front-page place of education in the past eight months has had any effect in relation to the prep school, it has been to diminish the public conception of the private school as a "nest of snobs." While the larger private school, or even the very good public school, may offer a better and more varied textbook education, neither can provide the individual attention and the chance for personal development which, ideally anyway, the small private school gives