by John Potter
For the full decade of the 1950s my elementary and secondary education took place in Cornwall, in southwest England, a remote and economically depressed region. I felt oppressed from beginning to end. I was not a happy camper. The majority of my classmates were sons and daughters of farmers and farmworkers and a constantly changing population of gypsies.
Corporal punishment after the age of eight was routine, and not simply for misbehavior. If a student, in the eyes of the headmaster, consistently underperformed academically or spoke out of turn, he would be forced to bend over and hold his ankles while the headmaster beat him with a bamboo cane. Faced with this ongoing threat and consequent sense of disempowerment, students became indifferent to school, at best, and much more interested in developing their physical attributes. Boxing, for example, was a constant subject of both conversation and impromptu student-organized tournaments. If you stayed away from the tournaments you were rubbish; if you attended, you’d be browbeaten into taking part, prepared or not.
By any modern measure, what happened to students in this particular school in Cornwall would be widely condemned. My formative academic years left me particularly sensitive to injustice, especially in educational settings, and led to me founding this school in which, I would argue, academic oppression is virtually nonexistent.
I frequently refer to our school as “dialogic,” a place where interpersonal communication is the lifeblood and where a unique state of equality exists within the community: students to teachers, students to students and so on. This dynamic is facilitated greatly by everyone being on a first name basis. Given the values we have come to represent, if there were ever a sense of oppression in this setting, the source would be rooted out quickly by students and teachers alike.
And so we thrive.
Because our school is located in affluent Fairfax County, adjacent to affluent Loudoun County and affluent Montgomery County, and because the nation’s capital is filled with the highly educated professionals it requires, the kind of oppression students here live with is the polar opposite of that with which I grew up. Much of the talk here is about the imperative of getting into an Ivy League school, or a “public Ivy,” a la William & Mary or UVA. The talk I grew up with was almost exclusively about football, boxing, cattle, sheep, chickens and so forth. (Amusingly, both now and then the weather was a constant topic of conversation. Then, because farming depended so heavily on the weather; now because it affects traffic so profoundly. It is no coincidence that weather and traffic are reported on many radio stations every ten minutes. But I digress.)
I am saddened when I hear about students who feel helpless in the face of constant academic pressure to gain admission to prestigious colleges and universities. It reminds me a bit of the pressure I felt, when I was growing up, to do well in the boxing tournaments. That, however, was peer driven. The obsession with prestigious colleges in the greater Washington area is, I believe, primarily parent driven and mostly misguided.
At The New School we are quite clear, as a college prep school, that the imperative is finding the best college fit, and that calls for active student input and realistic expectations, usually determined by round table discussions among the major stakeholders—primarily the student, and secondarily the parents and the school.
I use college admissions to illustrate my point about oppression because it is the front and center focus of fear and hope in this area. As a parent at a local public school lamented to one of our parents, “The principal only applauds the achievers. The parents only blame the teachers. The teachers only cater to the achievers. What’s in it for the “AVERAGE” student? Not much. When matriculating at James Madison University or Christopher Newport University is viewed as a career turn toward flipping burgers, the heated pot can boil over.”
I close with a plea to families everywhere. We have great kids who need to find their own way. Let’s take the pressure off and let them do just that.