An Historical (and Current) Sampler of Independent Curriculum
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(Author’s note: I’ve been blogging for years at Not Your Father’s School, but this post so relates to the purposes of the Independent Curriculum Group that I have decided to migrate to the ICG Blog for a while.)
Born and bred on a school campus, I am perhaps inevitably drawn to the history of schools, and in particular the history of independent schools. When I was in college my father bought multiple copies of James McLachlan’s 1970 American Boarding Schools and distributed them among friends, colleagues, and his eldest son, and in my late grandfather’s library I ran across several biographies of revered teachers and leaders at British schools. The foundations of Andover and Exeter were known to me from youth, as it were, and I even read (my father was behind this, too) The Lawrenceville Stories. (I later got in trouble for reading aloud from these at the start of my English classes at a boarding school where I taught; I thought they helped the kids get settled, but my bosses thought that the antics of Edwardian-era schoolboys with funny nicknames might set a bad example.)
Recently I’ve been drawn to the histories of several schools that haven’t, like the Phillips schools and Lawrenceville, become household names. These schools aren’t ICG Partners (though of course I have hopes), but since their founding years they have set a kind of standard for independent curriculum that aligns beautifully with our 2015 Principles. Each took root as what we would now call “experiential” schools, each being at the outset a world of its own with very clear purposes around, especially, character and a sense of justice.
Hillbrook School in Los Gatos, California, is today a vibrant JK–8 day school, with a beautiful and well utilized woodsy campus and programs that foster creativity and of course (this being the heart of Silicon Valley) innovation and independent thinking. At the Hillbrook campus epicenter lie a cluster of down-scaled cottage-y structures with rounded corners and whimsical shapes: a living reminder the school’s founding during the Great Depression by a couple of Eastern women who decided to start a school (then The Children’s Country School) for children from families in dire straits and built the place into a thriving hub of engaged, active learning, complete with plenty of outdoor work and a handful of homely precepts like friendliness, reliability, and vigor that live on in today’s student experience. The little buildings were once part of The Village of Friendly Relations, a townlet built—literally—by the students and that operated as a kind of socialist paradise for many years. It’s a story that makes you realize that our forebears may have done all the great work in education that ever needed to be done. It is also a story that has been captured in an excellent short book by Hillbrook teacher Paul DiMarco and a complementary video. It’s very much worthy of the hashtag #MustRead.
In Lake Placid, New York, North Country School has been providing a similar kind of experiential education since 1938, having grown out of a summer camp established some years before. Founded by Progressive idealists who believed that outdoor life and work are good for kids, North Country’s program has featured from the git-go an encompassing farm program. I’ve watched students there chipping frozen horse pee from stable floors at 7 a.m. in below-zero temperatures, and students also grow and process much of the food consumed on campus. North Country’s program takes great advantage of its surroundings, the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, which also have a fascinating social and industrial history. (At one point, for example, the abolitionist John Brown lived with his sons in a Lake Placid “exurb” that was perhaps the best established multi-racial, social-justice-purposed community in the United States before the Civil War; Smith is buried there, his grave a pilgrimage site for many.) The school’s website tells more, and I long for the day when a comprehensive history is written.
Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys in New Mexico closed in 1942, so its short history is only history, although there is an excellent museum in the eponymous town that has some wonderful photos and artifacts from the school. To capture the flavor of the place take your imagination to the opening Boy-Scouts-on-horseback scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Los Alamos was a school in which the students were organized as a Scout troop and where much of the real learning took place on horseback. Meeting the existential challenges of life in the high desert was at the core of the Los Alamos curriculum, with excursions in and around northern New Mexico and occasional social events with a small girls’ school in Santa Fe (that my mother happened to attend). There is also a fine history book, Los Alamos: The Ranch School Years by John D. Wirth and Linda Harvey Aldrich, which of course ends when the United States government decided that the school’s isolated, clear-aired campus would be just the place for a team of scientists and engineers to develop the atom bomb. My mother remembers learning the startling news that the boys and their school were gone—without explanation.
I’ve been meaning to write about these schools for a while. Living as we do in the era of “innovate or perish,” it’s fun to see that some of our most idealistic notions around original, hands-on, problem-solving-driven learning are in their ways old hat. Hillbrook, North Country, and Los Alamos were out-of-the-box, “cutting edge” schools from their inception, inspired, established, and nurtured by educators whose interest and belief in children was no less deep or creative in its manifestations than any of today’s most innovative new schools.