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Williams Has Too Many ‘Nice Boys’: Part 2

What follows is an excerpt from The Concept of the Gentleman at Williams College: 1929-1939, my Senior Honors Thesis in History. Part 1 is here.

Headmasters of the lesser known preparatory schools also quickly wrote to President Dennett. Wilson Parkhill, a Williams alumnus and headmaster of the oldest private boys’ school in America — Collegiate School — sent a letter inquiring what Williams wanted in regard to future students. He pointed out that out of a graduating class of twenty-three students, for or five had wanted to go to Williams. After the speech,

two of them are going to Dartmouth, one to Amherst, one to Harvard, and the other is undecided as to just what he will do. They are the best boys in the school — not the ‘nicest’, particularly, but high type. When such a thing as this happens, it makes me think a little.

To these headmasters President Dennett wrote long replies, rebutting their criticisms and explaining what he had meant to say. According to Dennett, the naming of private schools other than Hotchkiss was “sheer fabrication by some unknown reporter.” Furthermore, the newspaper account had been inaccurate in other places. He had said that Williams was not about to step down its work for the high school student, and had also observed that preparatory school students were generally well-mannered and were pleasant to have around since they gave few disciplinary problems.

However, to increase the heterogeneity of the student body, Dennett wanted the rugged boy at Williams, who he believed still existed in the village, farm, and industrial districts. As it was this rugged boy was scared away not by the truly nice boys at Williams, but by the “nice boys,” the snobs at Williams. Dennett explained:

Although I should not wish to admit it publicly and have often denied it, there is a subtle kind of snobbery on the Williams campus which does us no good. Within the last few days a recent alumnus has told me of having invited three non-fraternity men to his fraternity house for dinner only to have them made obviously quite unwelcome by his fraternity mates. Last night I spoke to some of our undergraduates about it and they said that that kind of a situation would not be uncommon on the Williams campus. That is the kind of ‘nice boy’ stuff that does us no end of harm.

Dennett was worried because he was privy to information which the private school headmasters did not have: what public high school students and teachers thought of the social situation at Williams. Arvie Eldred, Executive Secretary of the New York State Teachers Association, wrote to Dennett after the Boston speech and said:

I believe the reason why we are not getting more high school boys at Williams is mainly a social one. The high school boy desires to attend an institution where he is going to have equal social privileges… There is a belief among the high school boys in New York that to get recognition from the faculty he must come from one of the ‘good’ schools that are mentioned in the dispatch.

The head of the college preparatory program at Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, echoed the same feelings:

I have been led to believe by the college authorities at Williams and , also, by the graduates that if one did not have the right social standing it would be almost impossible to enter your college, and my experience has been along those lines…

During recent years I have never made an attempt to send anyone there for I found that it was much easier for a boy to get in Yale, Harvard, Columbia or Princeton that it was to break down the social barriers at Williams.

The one school authority who was not indignant at President Dennett’s speech was George VanSantvoord, the headmaster of the Hotchkiss School. He had been the main speaker at the alumni dinner; Dennett had said only a few introductory remarks. He wrote President Dennett:

I’m sorry you felt you should write me about any possible misunderstanding of your remarks at the dinner in Boston. Anyone who was present could not have failed to grasp the ideas you presented. The mischief came from the fact that the reporters lifted two or three sentences out of the speech and played them up. Several people have asked me about it,…& I have told them all that they would have approved of your talk if they had heard it, as did the audience that night. I’m sorry you have had trouble over it!…

Best wishes to you for your war on the Philistines!

As a preparatory school headmaster, Mr. VanSantvoord should have been one of President Dennett’s fiercest critics; instead, he understood perfectly that Dennett wanted a more representative student body made up of qualified public high school students, as well as qualified private school students. The audience at the dinner also understood Dennett’s point. The many letters written to Dennett after the speech did not come from disgruntled alumni who attended the dinner — they came from people who read the newspaper report.

And the newspaper account could be interpreted in a number of different ways. Dean Keller has pointed out that the speech brought both preparatory school students and public high school students to Williams. The preparatory school students came after reading that most Williams students were, like themselves, private school graduates, while the high school students applied after noticing that the college desired more high school graduates. In fact, one high school student, after reading of the speech, wrote directly to President Dennett and asked to be considered for admission in the fall.

continued in Part 3

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