Visit With a Headmaster


Mr. Wheeler is publisher of Rally, a new monthly journal of libertarian and conservative opinion geared for the young.

This article is reprinted by permission from the July 1966 issue of Rally.

My preset notions of how it would be did not even last long enough to accompany me into the school building. When I arrived at the Academy of Basic Education, on a sun-swept hilltop west of Mil­waukee, I was greeted outdoors by Headmaster and founder William B. Smeeth. There was nobody nearby; judging from the mug of coffee in his hand, I supposed I had found him taking a break.

Not at all. This was, he ex­plained after we had exchanged amenities, his composition class, Upper Form. Smeeth pointed to a thick grove that shades the rear area of the school: “One of my students.” I could see a young man wedged comfortably in the fork of a tree, apparently staring at nothing in particular, doing noth­ing at all. One in a class of nine. The others were nowhere in sight.

Such as I knew of the Academy until that moment was public scut­tlebutt, and it was all wrong. Ac­cording to the legend, the Acad­emy is a showpiece of the nine­teenth century, featuring a rever­sion to instruction by rote. If this misconception is widespread, then there is need of some image-polishing: a boy, more or less un­supervised, preparing his composi­tion in a treefork, is hardly the object of mechanical teaching pro­cedures; nor was he, I was to learn, producing the sort of un­disciplined free expression that is urged by progressive doctrine. On one point, all observers agree: the Academy gets startlingly good re­sults. Its students graduate one to three years ahead of their public school counterparts. Learning why was the reason for my visit.

Graduates Unprepared to Cope with Massed Propaganda

In 1948, the late Dorothy Sayers delivered a stunning address at Oxford, in which she expressed concern that —

— we let our young men and women go out unarmed in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made cer­tain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant bat­tery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight ar­mored tanks with rifles, are not scan­dalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smatter‑

ing of “subjects”; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell­binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education — lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school leaving-age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school-hours; and yet, as I be­lieve, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

Her answer — which seems to me, if anything, more relevant to education in this country than in England — was to teach children how to learn before giving them subject material. She proposed res­toration of the medieval Trivium, consisting of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric: the lost tools of learn­ing. To what avail, she asked, do we teach an array of subjects if the student is not also instructed how to learn? How can he learn efficiently in school; how can he learn at all after graduation? These are cogent arguments, but they are only arguments, perhaps untranslatable into practice. Miss Sayers thought so: “It is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect.”

Learning How to Learn

She did not reckon on William Smeeth. The reforms are not only functioning at the Academy; they are proving their merit. From the first day there, Smeeth puts his students to learning how to learn. This is an abrupt departure in method from what one would find in other schools, and it must ac­count for a good share of his success.

Even more at odds with public education, but more difficult to pin down on paper, is an attitude one finds at the Academy, that might best be described as a carefully nourished emphasis on the indi­vidual. This attitude soaks into the most humdrum facets of the daily routine; it is a working premise.

These elements seem to combine into a flawless pattern for success, yet I soon began to feel there was a missing intangible, something to glue them together. I found what I was looking for in the person­ality of the headmaster. William Smeeth is more than a teacher, more than an administrator: he is a man with a dream. It is a part of him no one will ever really know, although he does not always conceal it.

After I had been put at ease in the school and introduced to several of the teachers, I was turned loose to amble through the classrooms as I pleased. “The pupils are used to it,” I was as­sured. “You won’t disturb them.”

The building is not exceptional. It resembles a large ranch house, and may indeed be a former dwell­ing converted to school use by the addition of a classroom wing. I didn’t inquire. Classrooms seem to be almost randomly placed, but are conventionally and comfortably equipped.

One striking difference is the books — they are everywhere, in huge cases, sometimes in disor­derly piles; always in great num­ber, even in the Lower Forms.

The Academy does not use regu­lar textbooks to any extent, but relies on a variety of reading and reference books for its purposes. Among the encyclopedias, and in the children’s lockers, I was de­lighted to see such as Pinocchio, The Hobbit, and the Chronicles of Narnia. Older students, I learned, are awarded bonuses for outside reading.

The present student body of 129 is grouped into classes by ability rather than age. Since abilities vary in differing areas of study, there is something of a shuffle after each period. The students have no difficulty adjusting to this. It is theoretically possible for the youngest student in the school to be in the most advanced class, if his ability is up to it. In practice, it never works out that way. Abil­ity groupings can be overruled when age differences are too pro­nounced, but the need seldom arises.

Basic Subjects, Rigorous Grading, Composition, and Recitation

The curriculum is unusual rela­tive to public education, but not astonishing. For instance, the Lower Form is taught Phonetics, Spelling, Vocabulary, Penmanship, Reading, Grammar, Composition, Memorization, Arithmetic, Geog­raphy, and Music (a very fine ap­plication of the first portion of the Trivium, Grammar). Even Lower Form students are rigorously graded on all their work. Honor Rolls are prominently displayed, including one for students who have improved their work mark­edly. Later on, the student will re­ceive English, Mathematics, Latin, French, Geography, and History.

Because Smeeth believes it in­valuable for structuring the mind, composition is stressed from the beginning. Composition and reci­tation: students read what they have written before the class.

I saw no shyness about reciting. On the contrary, the students clamored for their chance. As I watched this time and again, I was struck by the contrast to a public school class, where a few of the children raise their hands every time while the rest remain dog­gedly silent. At the Academy all were eager to recite, to share with their classmates, I thought, what they were proud to have learned. It was striking. What sort of in­struction could impart a love of knowledge in children so young? I wondered.

It occurred to me that we might be dealing with exceptional chil­dren. Plainly they were not “dis­advantaged,” as the educators say of the products of poor or broken homes. The tuition ruled that out. I asked Smeeth about it: were his students selected especially for their brains? No. In fact, many are remedial cases from public schools. They are perfectly normal children. “However,” he added, “we have to get them early, before their educational experience else­where dulls their appetite for learning.”

I could concede the point with­out reservation on seeing a ten­-year-old, apparently a banana-a­-day addict, carrying a notebook pasted solid with Chiquita-brand stickers: utterly normal. I watched the same young man give a most able presentation on the culture of India, which he had researched on his own at length. After his reci­tation, he was questioned closely by his classmates for details. It was an impressive performance all the way around.

Entrance Qualifications

When could a child start? I wanted to know. Smeeth referred me to a qualification test. “The ap­plicant will be expected to (1) re­cite the alphabet and recognize the separate printed letters; (2) write or print his name; (3) count and recognize the printed numbers up to at least 20; (4) state his full address (street number and name, city, state, and country); (5) re­cite at least two nursery rhymes; (6) divide small numbers of sticks or blocks into equal piles; and (7) listen to a story and answer ques­tions.” Fair enough. There is an explanatory afternote, to parents, worth mention: “Your child will begin to show interest in reading or numbers some time between age 5 and 6. When this miraculous change takes place in the young tot, he/she is usually ready to be­gin formal academics: reading, writing, and soon arithmetic. The requirements for entrance into the Academy simply recognize this fact in the youngster’s growth pattern.” “Miraculous change” — a pretty sentiment, and an indicator of the Academy’s regard for the individual.

It is this regard, above all, that makes the school distinct; yet it is extremely difficult to articulate, much less explain in terms of pro­gram. In our several long talks, even Smeeth, who makes it work, struggled on occasion in translat­ing his view of the individual for me.

Personal Attention

On the other hand, there is a part of its programmatic applica­tion that is readily explained —teachers. Smeeth handpicks them, and there is no want of applicants. Selection is a matter of judging character. In the four years of the Academy’s existence, Smeeth has had plenty of experience at it, but still misses once in a while.

There is no advantage, he ex­plains, for the applicant to present himself as savvy in the right school of economics or politics. Neither is it a demerit. The de­cisive point is that the applicant must share Smeeth’s own intense regard for the individual. Given that attitude, the teacher will have little difficulty adjusting to the Academy’s ways, and need learn little about its form of instruction. It is thereafter simply a matter of highly personal attention to every student.

One way the teaching applicant can disqualify himself is to ask how far he is supposed to take his students during the term — Smeeth will have explained the curriculum as a whole. To one who shares Smeeth’s outlook, the answer is self-evident: “as far as the indi­vidual students will go.” A teacher accustomed to giving his charges measured doses of subject material will not fit in.

Helping the Student “Plug Himself In”

Smeeth referred to a concept his teachers had developed, to elabo­rate. “They have a catch-phrase, getting someone to ‘plug himself in,’ coming from the idea that the individual’s personality is some­thing like a switchboard. The per­sonality is complex, like the wiring in the cabinet, but you can see potentials, the plugs on the board. The teacher looks for ways to help the student realize his built-in potential. To make all the lights go on. To plug himself in.”

“There is a similar concept they find useful,” Smeeth continued, “‘probing the periphery.’ What they mean is the periphery bound­ing the student’s capabilities, which they probe from every angle, trying to get him to broaden out, better himself, ex­pand his periphery.”

The similes seem laborious, but one gets the idea, and it is not an easy idea to put across. For the teachers, of course, these are con­venient shorthand for the ex­change of ideas on how to evoke the best from this or that student.

The right stress, “plugging him­self in,” makes it clearer to the outsider what Smeeth is driving at. The critical recognition by the Academy is that development is from within. The teacher is pres­ent as a coach, or (possibly) a goad; never as one to machine-gun information into the undifferen­tiated class-group. If such a dis­tinction is permissible, I would say the Academy concentrates on learning instead of teaching. “The responsibility to learn lies entirely with the student. Our role is sim­ply to help the individual become all he can be,” Smeeth says.

“You know,” he adds, “it is a joy to be present as the child un­folds into the adult.”

The remark was a relatively rare interjection of self into the discussion. For all that, the visitor is almost immediately aware of Smeeth’s intense personal involve­ment with his ideas, and his satis­faction at putting them to work every day. In a word, he is dedi­cated. It accents his comments; it shows in his face.

“By any chance” — by then I was sure I knew the answer to my question — “are you acquainted with Dorothy Sayers’ essay, ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’?” But to my surprise, he replied in the negative. Then, “Yes!” — “I didn’t catch the name right for a mo­ment.” He shuffled through a stack of papers and produced a battered, dog-eared copy of it. Constant use had worn it to a frazzle.

How It All Began

The school-day was drawing to a close as we talked, and there was time for few more questions. How did he come to found the Acad­emy? It is a long story and not particularly pertinent here, except as it exemplifies any man who gives up an established career to start from scratch in a more ideal­istic field. Smeeth had been a highly successful businessman (he is proud that he runs the Academy in a business-like way), active in local politics, a member of the martini circuit, and all the et ceteras. The day came when he’d had his fill of it, and got out. He spent the next months seeking out superior ideas about education, although with no conscious idea of establishing a school — that devel­oped naturally as a product of circumstances, and of his researches attracting the interest of the right people. I got the impression that not until he was engrossed in the Academy did he fully understand how right it was for him.

One incidential point. Could he tell me what his morning composi­tion class had been assigned? “I told them,” Smeeth replied, “to wander through the school’s woods, select a secluded spot, and set up shop. ‘Tune in your antenna; listen; focus on the sounds, wherever they lead you. Observe. Feel. Seek out the secret.’ They were to describe what they heard, saw, felt, and smelled. And then they were to be aware of what thoughts came to them from the stimuli of their senses. Their re­sults made me ashamed of my own college efforts.”

It would be hard to get any far­ther than this from the public mythology that surrounds the Academy. I decided that on my next visit I would like to read what they had composed.

Ideas on Liberty
We Cannot Escape Ourselves

Resources of the spirit are like savings: They must be accumu­lated before they are needed. When they are needed, there is no substitute for them. Sooner or later, the individual faces the world alone, and that moment may overwhelm him if he has no resources within himself.

Distraction helps but little and betrays us when we least expect it. We can escape our physical environment and our neighbors, but we cannot escape ourselves. Everyone with any maturity of experience and self-knowledge knows that the loneliest moments are sometimes experienced in the midst of the greatest crowds and the most elaborate entertainments.

Marten Ten Hoor, Education for Privacy


October 1966

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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