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EXEMPLARIA VITAE MORVMQVE

The main entrance to Memorial Hall, on the campus of The Lawrenceville School. In Owen Johnson’s story The Varmint, Memorial Hall became “the abode of Greek and Latin roots, syntax and dates, of blackboards, hard seats and the despotism of the Faculty.”

In the first-century debate about whether to send young children to school or educate them at home, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was squarely on the side of school.

The two major assumptions in favor of home instruction – that schools corrupt morals, and that a child will get more individual attention from a private tutor – did not sway the author of Institutio oratoria.  The morals of the young, according to Quintilian, could be as easily corrupted at home,[1]  and children could be as effectively taught at school – even in a large one, for the best instructors tended to attract the greatest numbers of  scholars.   School might not be the right choice for every child, but it was for most.  What mattered above all was that those entrusted with the education of children teach not from duty, but from love.[2] 

Schooling in New Jersey had a fitful start and a haphazard development.  The earliest schools were linked to established churches, and their pupils could be expected to achieve little more than a basic literacy.  Provisions for higher education, made chiefly with the intent of training ministers, led to the creation of two colleges (the modern Princeton and Rutgers Universities).  As it became evident that candidates for the ministry were inadequately prepared, particularly in Greek and Latin, the “grammar school” appeared to remedy those deficiencies.

The American Revolution lent impetus to a new model, a bridge between the traditional grammar school and the free public school which then existed only sporadically.  Free public education would not become universal until the late 1800s:  for most of the century the academy, “with its classical façade, and a cupola with the bell on a wheel,”[3] was the site and symbol of learning in nearly every village and town in New Jersey.  Billed as preparatory institutions for the sons (and sometimes daughters) of the well-to-do, and of those wishing to get ahead, academies taught more than just the scions of the élite; they also raised the level of schooling overall, and advanced the idea that an educated citizenry was indispensable to democracy.

An 1811 almanac documented academies in most of  the state’s population centers from Hackensack to Salem.  The list was incomplete,[4]  admittedly and forgivably, for it failed to include a school opened the year before with only nine students, in the tiny village of Maidenhead (soon to be renamed Lawrenceville).  Located midway between Trenton and Princeton, this academy would grow in size and prestige to become one of the best-known preparatory schools in America.

Maidenhead’s academy was founded by its Presbyterian pastor, Isaac Van Arsdale Brown.  An early advertisement promised no departure from the traditional grammar school plan,[5]  but an essay by the Reverend Brown reveals somewhat progressive thoughts on education.  Although he wished to shield his pupils from any hint of immorality or irreligion, and would even resort to bowdlerized versions of classical authors in order to do so, this was a small part of a much grander scheme to replace the widely disparate textbooks then in circulation with a standard edition of student texts.[6]  Brown also favored a broader program of courses, embracing the study of the “useful” arts alongside the literary: an experience of the “mechanical employments of life,” even for the college-bound pupil, promised healthy physical exercise, would mitigate the evils of competition, and might even eliminate the necessity of corporal punishment!  Most remarkably for the age, Brown contended that schools must adapt to the varying abilities and interests of their students: the nation, he felt, had need of “more good mechanics and not so many dull literati!

The seal of The Lawrenceville School, as inscribed at the Class of 1891 Gate. The words “John C. Green Foundation” were eliminated in a redesign of the seal in 1954.

What support Isaac Brown’s proposals may have had outside Lawrenceville is not known, but by the 1830s his academy was admitting and training youths for success in business and agriculture, alongside those bound for college and professional careers, and under the name of “The Lawrenceville Classical and Commercial High School” would do so for half a century.

As fate would have it, the youngest member of Isaac Brown’s first class, a local boy of ten named John Cleve Green, did not continue his schooling past the Maidenhead academy.  He went on to amass a sizeable fortune in international trade, overseeing shipments of tea, textiles and opium from Asia.  At his death in 1875, Green left a large sum to his residuary legatees, to be disbursed to “such persons and objects . . . as they may deem best and as may in their judgment be such as I would approve.”[7]    For $25,000 the John C. Green Foundation purchased the school at Lawrenceville outright.  A new headmaster and board of trustees then embarked on a bold plan to reform, expand and redesign the campus, of which the most conspicuous outcome was a vast, picturesque “Circle” dotted with stately “houses,” around which – in imitation of Eton, Rugby and other British boys’ schools – the daily life of the students would hereafter revolve.

With the initiative and seemingly limitless resources of the Green Foundation at work, Isaac Brown’s old academy faded from memory.  The “new” Lawrenceville soon became legendary in its own right, due in no small part to Owen Johnson’s entertaining series of Lawrenceville Stories.  These popular books captured the waning years of the century, and through them legions of readers enjoyed the exploits of Lawrenceville students and the tyranny, real or perceived, of their instructors – none more memorably portrayed than Lucius Cassius Hopkins, known to all as “The Roman, master of the Latin line and distinguished flunker of boys.”[8]

After the death in 1897 of John C. Green’s last surviving legatee, legal ownership of the school passed from the Green Foundation to the trustees.  The physical design of the campus today still vividly recalls the Green legacy, and so too – with a bit of ironic wordplay – does the Green family motto, VIRTUS SEMPER VIRIDIS, featured prominently on the Lawrenceville School seal.


John F. Pingry in 1886, in the fiftieth year of his teaching career. (Image courtesy N.J. Historical Society)

In 1836, a teenaged graduate of Dartmouth College came to Elizabeth to teach and prepare for the ministry.  Once ordained, he left the city to become a pastor in Fishkill, New York, but teaching was his true calling and New Jersey was to become home.  Having revived the academy at Fishkill, John Francis Pingry moved to Newark in 1853 and founded the Pingry Select School for Boys.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Pingry left Newark and went back to Elizabeth, setting up a school there which would soon be regarded as a premier preparatory academy.  The popularity and influence of the Pingry School reached even outside New Jersey,  but would remain for some thirty years anchored in the humanity of its principal, and the mutual respect existing between him and his charges.  At his resignation, after more than a half-century of teaching, he could think of “no place of duty … happier than the schoolroom, and no companionship more pleasant than that of the scholars.”[9]

Juvenal’s fourteenth Satire, about the corruption of youth by their parents, is a text that the gentle Dr. Pingry and his scholars are not likely to have read together, but it was the ultimate source[10]  of a pointed saying he is said to have placed on the back wall of his schoolroom, where he and not his pupils would always see it: MAXIMA REVERENTIA PUERIS DEBETUR.

Pingry remained in Elizabeth until his death in 1894, and his school stayed for decades more.  With its transplantation in the 1980s to rural Somerset County, the bronze seal bearing Pingry’s Latin motto went as well. It is now set in the pavement before the main entrance.

Copyright © 2012 by Gregory J. Guderian

The original version of this article appeared in the Bulletin of the New Jersey Classical Association, Spring 2009, pages 5 and 6 (.pdf).

^ 1] “Utinam liberorum nostrorum mores non ipsi perderemus.”  Inst. 1.2.6.  ^ 2] “Sed neque praeceptor bonus maiore se turba quam ut sustinere eam possit oneraverit; et in primis ea habenda cura est, ut is omni modo fiat nobis familiariter amicus, nec officium in docendo spectet sed adfectum.  Ita nunquam erimus in turba.”  Inst. 1.2.15.  ^ 3] Nelson R. Burr, Education in New Jersey 16301871 (Princeton 1942), 201.  ^ 4] “It was the writer’s intention to have given an account of all incorporated academies, and of the most noted schools, throughout the state.  He regrets that he has not been more successful in obtaining documents for the purpose.”  Timothy Alden, comp. New-Jersey register and United States’ calendar (Newark 1811), 100.  ^ 5] Gerrish Thurber, “The Lawrenceville School 1810–1960” Proc. of the N.J. Historical Society 78:4 (Oct. 1960) (233-56), 234-5.  ^ 6] Memoirs of the Rev. Robert  Finley D.D. …, with brief sketches of some of his contemporaries, and numerous notes (New-Brunswick 1819), “Note M:  Hints for improving schools and colleges,” esp. 277-83 (edn. in–12o), 347-55 (edn. in–8o).  Isaac Brown’s proposal for the standardization of texts would, inter alia, correct the countless typographical errors found in American printings of the Latin and Greek authors, a cause of “very great injury” to the progress of learning.  ^ 7] Thurber, 243.  ^ 8] Owen Johnson, The Varmint:  A Lawrenceville story (© 1910; Boston 1930), 14.  ^ 9] Herbert F. Hahn, comp. The beginning of wisdom:  The story of Pingry School (1961), 14.  ^ 10] “Maxima debetur puero reverentia.  Si quid / turpe paras, nec tu pueri contempseris annos, / sed peccaturo obsistat tibi filius infans.”  Sat. 14.47-49.

The old seal of the Pingry School of Elizabeth, now outside Martinsville, Bernards Township, Somerset County.

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