the ultra-exclusive groton school for boys -- 10/22/21

Today's selection -- from Inside Money by Zachary Karabell. The ultra-exclusive Groton School for boys, boarding school for Franklin Roosevelt, Averell Harriman, and many other 20th-century American leaders:
"[In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the sons of the ultra-wealthy such as the E.H. Harriman and Alexander Brown families] had imbibed a worldview of money, power and service that by the end of the early twentieth century had evolved into a governing creed. …
"Nowhere was the new elite more explicitly identified and its values explicated than at the Groton School for boys on the outskirts of Boston. Founded in 1884 by Endicott Peabody, it was not the first school in the United States modeled on English public schools (that field was already crowded with the likes of Lawrenceville Academy, St. George's in Rhode Island, Milton and Philips Academy Andover outside of Boston, to name only a few), but it may have been the most important in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [Endicott] Peabody was barely out of his twenties when he created Groton, but he was well connected, his father having been a part­ner of Junius Morgan's in London and Endicott himself having experienced English education firsthand. Groton, along with those other private board­ing schools of the Northeast, became the incubator of a new overclass, seeped in a stew of Protestantism, duty, honor, work and responsibility. The school motto said it all, Cui servire est regnare, 'To serve is to rule.'

"Sports were a key component, just as they were at equivalent English schools at the time. Athletics reinforced a social order maintained not just by the headmaster and teachers but by the older boys training and hazing the younger. Peabody once said that given a choice between sports and academics, he would chose sports. ‘I’m not sure I like boys who think too much. A lot of people think a lot of things we could do without.’ It seemed unlikely that the generation of young Americans at the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century was going to be hardened by war; the United States barely maintained a military after the end of the Indian Wars in the 1880s, though it did begin to build a naval fleet. But if they weren’t going to be made men by war, then a combination of sports and the cruelty of upperclassmen might season them. The Groton schedule was rigid and regimented. Peabody admired the ancient Spartans, and the school was short on creature comforts. Whatever Peabody was selling, the upper class was buying. In a few decades after it opened its doors, Groton trained not just the [sons of the ultra-wealthy E.H.] Harriman, but most of the Roosevelt clan, including Franklin Delano and two of Theodore’s sons.

Groton School, as viewed from the top of the chapel.

"The education was grounded in the classics, with an emphasis on the rote learning of Greek and Latin, along with history, philosophy and Chris­tian theology funneled through an Episcopal lens. Imbibing the wisdom of the ancients was more important than questioning its precepts. Students could probe and analyze, but challenging the basic fundamentals was no more welcome than questioning the divinity of Christ would have been in chapel. Everyone attended chapel daily, along with Sunday services and a mandatory 'sacred studies' course in the first year. Groton's moral frame­work of honor, duty, work was a distillation of the Western tradition, though not the only one available. Peabody could have emphasized love, compas­sion and humility in the face of the unknown splendor of God's creation, but that was not his bent. In that, he was certainly more severe than the Browns, … whose private faith was altogether gentler and more compassionate.
"We will never solve the chicken-and-egg question of whether the curric­ulum and mores of these preparatory schools and colleges such as Yale shaped this class, or whether this class shaped them. Alexander Brown hadn't attended these schools, yet his messages to his sons were indistinguishable from much of what Groton inculcated. The same could be said of E.H. Harriman’s autodidactic philosophy. A dash of Brown, a pinch of Harriman plus a liberal heaping of Plato and Cicero and Seneca and Aquinas were the core ingredients. It’s often been said that these schools molded the ethos of the new American elite, but it’s equally true that the ethos of their parents and grandparents molded these schools.
"Groton was the prelude to the Big Three -- Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Each had been around for more than two hundred years, and Harvard was approaching its third century. Their early roots, like those of all colleges, grew out of the church. But they changed dramatically in the late nineteenth century, increasing not just the size of their student bodies but also the scope of their influence and the nature of their curricula. By the end of the century, 65 percent of New York’s upper class sent their sons to one of three, and nearly three-quarters of Boston’s upper crust did the same. While only a very few Americans attended college at the turn of the twentieth century (only fifteen thousand bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 1890), one component of the reform movements sweeping the country was an emphasis on education. That ranged from more formal and rigorous curricula to the move toward universal public education for grad school and then high school. The Big Three were swept up in these shifts. More students clamored for admission, though those numbers pale in comparison with the early twenty-first century. In a world where more people were entering colleges and universities, one way the Big Three maintained their preeminence was by emphasizing who went there -- and who was not admitted -- more than on what was taught in the classroom."



Zachary Karabell


Inside Money


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by Zachary Karabell


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