Intimidation and humiliation as pedagogical tools

June 2018

I recently attended an alumni lunch with the new (2017) headmaster of Boston Latin School. It is the oldest school in America, founded in 1635, one year before Harvard. It is a Boston public school with an active alumni group who have created an endowment of $43 million. It is also a college preparatory school, restricting attendance to those with the ability and the desire to go to college.

The Headmaster (Principal) is Rachel Skerritt, an energetic young, black, Latin School alumna — with excellent speaking skills. One of the things she went over was the admissions policy and the attrition rate.

When I attended, anyone with B’s or better in grammar school could be admitted, and roughly 600 entered the school in grade 7 (Class VI) and 300 in grade 9 (Class IV). They use a system like this for some state schools in Texas, now. On the first day of school, the headmaster would tell everyone to look to the right and look to the left. Neither of those boys would be here when you graduate, he said.

And, indeed, my graduating class was only 265 as I recall.

Sometime after I left they switched to an exam for entrance and made allowances for lower-scoring minorities, which got them sued in federal court. It’s a long story but they ended up with an admissions policy controlled by an algorithm — half based on grades, and half on the exam.

This system brings in only about 450 kids in Classes VI and IV, of which roughly 400 graduate. Why, I wondered had the different admissions system changed the attrition rate from 66% to 10%?

First I wondered if it could be that what used to be an all-male class is now 45% female.

Then my daughter reminded me that I have told her of something that my classmate at both BLS and Brown, Professor James Hercules Sutton, told me: The two major pedagogical tools at BLS were humiliation and intimidation. Perhaps they have stopped doing that, my daughter suggested, and fewer kids are driven out?

I think she may be right. I had always assumed that the kids who left (like my older brother) didn’t have the ability to make it through, but maybe most of them would have made it had they not been treated so badly.

As a sign of how powerful those techniques are I remember being asked by my 11th-grade math teacher if I were going to major in math at college, and I said I didn’t think I was good in math. He looked at me as if I were nuts.

Later I realized how crazy that was. I was in the advanced math class at the toughest school in the city. Three kids in that class went directly to Harvard and MIT after junior year. I got 732 in the Math SAT.

Intimidation and humiliation are powerful tools. And I think they were employed because the school administration had no choice. The building holds only 2400 students in classes of 30 or more, and in my day they had 900 coming into each class. They needed to force at least 500 to leave in each class.

Today they admit only 450 per class and graduate 400. Half as many come in, but a third more graduate.

How many kids got damaged by that earlier policy?

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