During the depressed years of the Thirties a good many private schools went out of business. Others cut their faculty salaries back to levels which confirmed teachers in their suspicion that of all professions they were the most vulnerable. Almost without exception the schools saw their backlog of applications and their ability to pick and choose submerged in a scramble to find enough students to meet the overhead.
These temporal matters are, however, less of a worry than the spiritual ones. The schools are soul-searching, and the headmasters and headmistresses are acutely aware that the only way to avert something close to a disaster is to convince the public that their schools are indispensable.
Public relations are a new concern to the private schools. The attacks from many quarters against anything that smacks of “special privilege,” the new emphasis on “democracy” and the rights of common men, the concern with race and religious prejudice — these constitute a threat to a kind of education which for the most part has been the special privilege of well-to-do, white, Protestant families. The private schools have been attacked in the press (as they were not long ago when a proposed bill for federal support of education included private as well as public schools); public school educators for the most part resent them or at least do not take them seriously; most newspapers seem to think they belong on the society page only. They realize they have a reputation — partly deserved, partly exaggerated — to live down. They were not prepared to face so articulate a change of sentiment as that which started during the Depression and grew in the war years. They are on the defensive, and their weapons are rather more theoretical than practical, or at least so they must seem to those who regard equality of educational opportunity as basic to the privileges of children in a democratic society.
Anyone who has discussed private schools with public school educators has been challenged to answer a question which goes beyond matters of independence and gets to the root of the system of private education. If there were no private schools, they ask, and the parents who now expend their interest, influence, and money on them were forced to patronize the public schools, wouldn’t all public education benefit? Wouldn’t these mothers and fathers be more interested in the quality of public education? Wouldn’t they bring pressure to bear to make public education more effective, and wouldn’t this improve the educational opportunities of all American children?
These are reasonable and important questions. It seems to me that the level of public education would be raised in those communities where any appreciable number of children now go to local private schools or are sent away to school. There is almost nothing, educationally, that the public schools in such places could not do if they had the financial support and intelligent backing of the whole community. But few communities could afford to have special schools, or even special classes, for the ablest boys and girls. It would be the wealthy suburbs that would benefit first if there were no private schools. This raises a counterquestion: Would not better schools in a limited number of wealthy communities constitute a social problem just such as that which the private schools now create — one of special educational privilege based on wealth?
There is nothing the matter with the basic aims and ideals, with the variety of kinds of education private schools offer. But there is a great deal that many Americans dislike in the concept of special education for the well-to-do, especially at a time when public education needs all the support it can muster. If they are to justify themselves, the private schools must use their independence not merely as a barricade against the pressures they mistrust but as a weapon in the service of the entire community.
From “Can the Private Schools Survive?,” which appeared in the January 1948 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 167-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.