The Exeter Man: Rebel Without a Cause

The Exeter Syndrome: Dissatisfaction, Delinquency, Despair, and Departure

Mr. Jencks graduated from the Phillips Exeter Academy in 1954. During his senior year, he was President of the Exonian, the school newspaper.

Five years ago last September a young graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy strode into the Freshman Dean's Office, and announced that after a week of surveying America's oldest university he was distinctly displeased. His interlocutor asked him when he planned to leave. "Tomorrow afternoon," he answered.

Almost four years later two Exeter alumni combined forces with a disgruntled graduate student to publish a spectatcular hundred page indictment of Harvard in i.e., The Cambridge Review. Meanwhile their ex-classmate had spent a half year finding his bearings, two years acquiring a B.A. at the University of Chicago, and was entering his second year of medical school.

Although they were but three among seventy-five Exonians who came to Harvard in 1952, these students typified what some University administrators describe as "the Exeter syndrome." The use of such a phrase does not, however, imply that all Exeter graduates follow this pattern of agressive dissatisfaction, nor that the patern is confined exculsively to Exeter graduates.

Every year a substantial minority of the college devotes most of its energy to rejecting Harvard's ideals and evading the responsibilities which Harvard attempts to impose. This can mean anything from neurotic delinquency to mere failure to complete academic assignments, and only occasionally includes departure from the University. The Exeter syndrome is the same thing, only more so, concentrated in a smaller group of people.


There are, however, several obstacles to careful analysis. First, little information on why people dislike or depart from Harvard exists. Most of this is not available to the public, since it is not very favourable to Exeter. Analysis must, therefore, begin and end with the opinions of those who know large numbers of Exeter students.

There are, however, a few facts on the public record. Exeter annually sends about a third of its two hundred seniors to Harvard, where they compose the largest group of resident freshmen. These students are better prepared than any other group. Eleven of this year's thirty entrants with sophomore standing came from Exeter. As a group, the Exonians also do better over the years than any other group of public or private school students.

This effect is achieved by rather obvious techniques. Exeter is one of America's oldest and richest prep schools, this year celebrating its 175th anniversary with the successful completion of a fund drive which gives it a per student endowment comparable to Harvard's.

A New Hampshire Harvard

Educational techniques are familar in Exeter and have been largely modelled on those of Harvard. Exeter seeks and gets national distribution, although still primarily a New England-New York school. It has a massive scholarship program which includes more than a quarter of the student body. Admission is even more highly competitive than Harvard's.

Exeter works its students hard, grades them hard, and flunks them out if they do not perform. An Exeter B- average is usually equivalent to a Harvard B, although most people spend more time working at Exeter, since there are few diversions. The faculty is among the best paid in the country. An Exeter teacher now looks forward to a top salary of $10,000. Like Harvard professors, many of these men are more interested in their subject and their families than in their students.

The results of all this is that ninety percent of all Exeter students get into the college of their first choice, a fact which gives the Exeter pattern particular significance today. As college admission becomes more competitive, colleges will be able to demand better preparation of freshmen, and already Dean Bundy has suggested that Harvard do so. This emphasis on preparation will inevitably force other schools to put, in the continental tradition, more and more emphasis on competitive academic achievement.

Harvard as High School

Such emulation has great advantages. It is much easier to run a college which is only a college, not a remedial high school for promising ignoramuses. Nobody at Harvard wants to spend time teaching foreign languages, high school algebra, or punctuation, paragraphing and syntax. If these things vanish from the curriculum there is room for more advanced teaching.

It is worth nothing that local administrators see a trend towards academic disorientation at Andover, a school which resembles Exeter in everything but intensity. Before the process proceeds any further, however, it is worth nothing that education is not Exeter's only product. There are few statistics, but they are revealing. Exeter graduates leave Harvard in larger numbers than any other group. They see psychiatrists in unusual numbers. Despite their preparation, they do worse than the average freshmen, placing only thirty percent of their group on the Dean's List, compared to a class average of forty percent.