Headmaster’s Weekly Message

Thoughts from Chapel, the Academy’s morning assembly in historic Fuller Hall


Celebrating Our Demisemiseptcentennial

In January 1842, Joseph Fairbanks wrote to his brother-in-law Samuel Taylor, who was Principal of Phillips Andover Academy, with a question. The answer would shape the history of education in Vermont and beyond:

We have in contemplation the establishment of a high school in this place, and I wish to consult you in regard to a teacher. To enable you to judge what would answer our purpose, I will mention some points we wish to secure in the character of the school. First, we wish such a course of instruction adopted as will aim not so much to the acquisition of knowledge as to the improvement of the mind. We wish to lay the foundation for a systematic education, and fit the individual for subsequent self cultivation. We wish an efficient moral and religious influence to be constantly exerted and that the teacher should feel it his duty to cultivate the heart as well as the intellect. I have heard you speak favorably of James K. Colby of Derry, New Hampshire, (the principal at Appleton Academy in New Ipswich, New Hampshire). I wish to learn your views in regard to his capacity to take charge of an institution and give it a character corresponding to the above description. If he is the man we want, can we probably obtain him?

Three aspects of this request stand out to me as foundational to what an Academy education has meant from the beginning. First, the school values more than the acquisition of knowledge; from its beginning, it has valued developing habits of mind, encouraging young people to learn how to think. According to alumnus A. P. Carpenter in his 1877 tribute to Colby:

His pupils were compelled to depend upon themselves. In brief, he taught them to think. Under him there was no shirking. If the appointed tasks were not thoroughly mastered, he was sure to know it, and just as sure to require them to be reviewed and even re-reviewed until they were. No steps could be taken in advance until all preceding steps were thoroughly and completely understood. Under his eye no boy could ever demonstrate a proposition or recite any lesson acquired by rote, merely, without instant detection of the fraud.

Carpenter also highlighted a second aspect of the Fairbanks brothers' vision that Colby embodied: to help young people learn how to cultivate their hearts as well as their minds. Carpenter said of Colby,

His government, while of the strictest, was also of the kindest. He used few words. The tap of his pencil—how well I remember it—was more potent in his school room than that of Caesar's finger in the Roman Senate. He had a deep and wide knowledge of human nature. His words of commendation were rare, therefore they were precious. His rebukes as a rule were private and as it were confidential—therefore the more effectual. Seldom if ever did he excite that spirit of opposition which arises from a sense of shame, or from bravado, by chastising a pupil in the presence of his fellows.

Carpenter closed his eulogy of Colby with words that I think speak not only of Colby's influence, but the influence of this school throughout its 175 years:

No influence is lost. The benefits which we, my brothers and sisters of the alumni, have received from this institution, were its existence to terminate even to-day, will expire not with our lives. Our children and our children's children to the remotest bounds of time, they too shall enjoy them. Narrow in extent though it be, when we regard the whole great world, yet the influences for good which have gone forth and which shall hereafter go forth from this academy, will be felt long after these walls shall have crumbled into dust...

In honor of this 175th anniversary, I want to close with an excerpt from a letter that was shared by Edward T. Fairbanks during the celebration of the Academy's 50th anniversary. The excerpt was the last of several from alumni from around the world, ranging from a college president to a minister to a banker, and Fairbanks did not share anything except the author's first initial—W:

I hope St. Johnsbury, as well as we who live far away from that beautiful spot, appreciates what was done by the founders of the Academy, who, under God, built better than they knew.

I can think of no better sentiment with which to celebrate this anniversary than gratitude to the Fairbanks family and to those who have preserved and carried forward their legacy.