Boarding Schools

Ben Williams is Headmaster of Cate School, a selective independent boarding and day school for 9-12 grade in Carpinteria, California.  He is also Chair of the Board of the Association of Boarding Schools and a board member of Ethiopia Education Initiatives.

Twenty-two years ago, as a candidate for the Head of School position at Cate, I sat before the assembled faculty to answer their questions about my suitability for the job.  About half way through the 90 minute session, a long serving teacher who was also an alumnus of the School stood up and said, “Assume I am a parent of an applicant and tell me why I should send my child to a boarding school.”

 Everyone in the room, it seemed, perked up after that query, wondering perhaps if I would be stumped.  But for me, boarding school was never a question.  It was a given.  My father was a Headmaster in the northeast, at Lawrence Academy, so I grew up on school campuses.  And when I was approaching ninth grade, I asked my father if he would take me to interview at a few schools.  His answer, “Absolutely.  Let’s go find you your school.”

 But I didn’t tell that story to the faculty.  My questioner wanted to know how I’d convert the skeptic, and so I referenced instead a saying that is familiar to most parents, or at least should be.  “If you let your child choose his or her own path, it will always lead back to you.”  Letting go is something we parents struggle mightily with, for how can our children grow and mature without our guidance, supervision, and tutelage?

 In fact, our children do not lose such mentoring when they leave for boarding school, they simply supplement it, gain partners and teachers, discover themselves in a new context, and ultimately mature more quickly and more fully into young adults.  My own experience certainly affirms that truth.  I am one of three boys who grew up in boarding schools to parents who believed in not only our possibilities but in all that we could learn from the faculty members, coaches, counselors and mentors who supported and inspired us every day.  All of us now run boarding schools, trying to do for subsequent generations what was done for us.

 There is simply no more personal nor comprehensive education available than that which takes place in a residential community.  The proximity of teachers and students, the breadth of engagement, the focus and commitment not simply to personal goals but to the community in which we all live, and the depth of inquiry and scholarship lead to not only outstanding intellectual development but to an understanding of citizenship and service.  Every student who attends a boarding school appreciates fundamentally that he or she is part of something larger than him or herself.  With all due respect to other forms of education, they simply can’t come close to offering the foundation and the purpose intrinsic to residential education.

 Such a paradigm in Ethiopia, realized with the impending opening of Haile-Manas Academy, is sure to empower not only the individual students who choose that path, but the collective as well.  Culture, especially in schools, informs aspiration, gives it purpose and character, and ultimately builds the most responsible and forward thinking citizen leaders.  This is a school for Ethiopia, truly, and the contributions of the HMA graduates will be broad and conspicuous.

 As always, education is the key – for a student, a family, even a country.  In building a home and a school for Ethiopia’s young people, HMA and its soon to be fortunate graduates will show the way.

Ben Williams