1879. Williston Seminary, transitioning not altogether painlessly into the post-Samuel Williston era, had a new Principal, Joseph Whitcomb Fairbanks. Fairbanks was finishing up his first year, having replaced the unfortunate James Morris Whiton, who had failed to finish his second. Innovation was not Fairbanks’ strong suit, His greatest talent lay in getting along, a skill that had escaped his predecessor. (Yes, class, we’re setting you up for a future story!)
But in that first year, he had an idea: printing the Williston entrance examination in the Annual Catalogue. It had not been done before. For a variety of good reasons, including the possibility of scaring away potential candidates, it would not be repeated. But 138 years later, it opens a window on what the entering Junior (i.e., 9th grade) or Junior Middler (10th grade) was expected to know.
Note that this is a “specimen” exam. The actual test would have had different questions. But try them! Would you have been admitted to Williston in 1879? (Please click images to enlarge.)
One confesses that many of these questions seem written to be annoying, demanding multiple conversions of equivalent measures or, in the geography section, asking for a deal of trivial knowledge. To travel from Vienna to London by water requires cruising down the Danube some 1,000 miles in the wrong direction, east to the Black Sea. And so on. But how did you do? (You weren’t expecting an answer key, were you?) Continue reading →
A recent social media discussion among members of the Class of 1968 recalled Horace Thorner, English master from 1943 to 1970, a scholar whose breadth of interests and talents was truly extraordinary. Thorner was a poet of frequent insight and technical virtuosity. Some of his work has already appeared on this blog. (See “The Round World Squared.”)
For the school’s 125th anniversary in 1966, Thorner was asked to write a celebratory “Ode to Williston.” Commemorative poetry is tricky; it is hard to avoid either hyperbole or mawkishness. Thorner was reasonably — though not entirely — successful. But his chapter on founder Samuel Williston is especially perceptive; Thorner, writing for an audience that perhaps expected the old hagiographic legend, captures the essential conflicts in the man better than others have managed using many more words (see “The Button Speech” ).
II. The Founder
Who was this man? There is no simple rule
To separate the warm flesh and the blood
From such another statue, pale and cool,
As since the time of ancient Athens stood
In lifeless grandeur in the public square,
Defying time and tempest, lightning, flood,
But never living, never quite the bare,
The unadorned, the simple human truth,
Standing in unabashed completeness there.
Indeed, he was ambitious as a youth,
A start for marble statues, but God's will
To spoil his eyes left him uncouth,
Compared to what he wanted for his goal,
To preach, just as his father had, to strive
With old New England devils for the soul.
He had his children, none of whom would live,
And felt God's wrath, but trusted and was brave,
Adopted others Emily would love —
A stern man but a just one and no slave
To outward polish in his speech or act,
Never forgetting that his father gave
A life of service to the church, a fact
That well accounts for all the generous years
He took such care his parish never lacked.
We see the flesh through marble, know his fears
To board a ship on Sunday well may show
A man whose God laughed little, lived on tears.
He may have driven bargains hard. We know
The history of most great fortunes proves
The man who rises, steps on some below,
And afterwards he finds that it behooves
That he appease his conscience by his tithes.
Some great philanthropists had cloven hooves.
But whether conscience prospers or it writhes,
The good it does lives after it, and so
They well deserve their shining laurel wreathes.
Williston wrote his conscience long ago
Into the charter of his school. The words
Still shine upon the fading page and glow
With all the brightness of crusader's swords.
"Knowledge without goodness" — so they read —
"Is powerless to do good." The phrase affords
An insight to the sturdy heart and head
Of Williston, for they were words he chose,
Although, indeed, they had been elsewhere said.
On this foundation, then, the school arose
Between the winding river and the hill
That speak God's strength in action and repose.
Horace E. Thorner
Naples, Italy, February 1966
All eight sections of Horace Thorner’s “Ode to Williston” are too long to publish here. Readers who would like copies of the entire poem may email firstname.lastname@example.org.
June — the seniors have graduated, the underclassmen have finished assessments (which are what we at kinder-gentler Williston used to call “exams”), and a lazy green quiet has settled onto the campus. Our parting shot to our returning students: “Goodbye, and don’t forget your summer reading!” It has been so for nearly a century.
I have a confession. Back in the summer of 1966, prior to my entering Williston Academy’s 9th grade, I was handed a list of perhaps half a dozen books. Now, I loved to read, almost at the expense of any other summer activity. And there was good material on the list, most especially Walter Edmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk, which was an exciting story, although in retrospect, I don’t recall its subsequent mention even once in David Stevens’ English 9. But also on the list: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Now imagine yourself in 1966, as a 13-year-old boy who has recently discovered the works of Ian Fleming and is anxious to get back to them (albeit under the covers with a flashlight), but is faced with endless pages of prose about living in the woods and planting beans. I tried. I really did. But I couldn’t do it. And in the ensuing 51 years, I’ve tried several more times but, apparently scarred by my adolescent experience, I still find Walden barely readable. I think of Thoreau as the guy who put the “trance” in “transcendentalism.”
A summer reading requirement at Williston appears to date from the 1920s. No syllabi have surfaced from that early date. However, we have a list from 1941, which is worth reproducing in its entirety. (Please click images to enlarge).
Once one gets past the still-valid point about a “foundation for effective expression,” as well as whiff of testosterone, one notes that the requirement – a minimum of three books – isn’t especially onerous, despite a suggestion (“hearty cooperation”) that one attempt “as many as possible.” Where something doesn’t appeal, students are encouraged to move on. And nowhere is there even a hint of a test or paper in the fall.It is interesting to note what is, and isn’t, here. So many of these authors have fallen utterly out of fashion, never mind out of the canon, that some names are unrecognizable even to a pre-elderly librarian. And with few exceptions, almost everything is by American or English authors, the overwhelming majority of them male, and only one identifiable as an author of color. Continue reading →
Recently one of our better students asked me whether I knew of any good quotes from Samuel Williston that he could insert into a term paper. “Don’t know,” I responded. “What’s the paper about?” “Doesn’t matter,” he said; “I’ll work them in.” Suppressing my instinct to initiate a conversation about such pedantries as relevance, context, and provenance — the kid was, after all, in a hurry — I dug out a document prepared at the request of former Head of School Brian Wright back in 1991, and in reviewing it, realized that it was good blog fodder. So . . . here is Samuel Williston (the fodder of us all), in his own words.
“Whereas God in His Providence has bestowed upon me a goodly portion of this world’s possessions, which I ought to use for His glory, for the dissemination of the Gospel of the blessed Redeemer, and for the greatest good of my fellow-men — and, whereas, I desire to be instrumental in promoting the cause of correct and thorough literary and Christian education, and for that purpose have lately followed an Institution which is established at Easthampton, Massachusetts, and incorporated by the name ‘Williston Seminary’ […]” Preamble, Constitution of Williston Seminary, 1845
“Believing, that the image and glory of an all-wise and holy God are most brightly reflected in the knowledge and holiness of his rational creatures, and that the best interests of our country, the church, and the world are all involved in the intelligence, virtue, and piety of the rising generation; desiring also, if possible, to bring into existence some permanent agency, that shall live, when I am dead, and extend my usefulness to remote ages, I have thought I could in no other way more effectually serve God or my fellow-men, than by devoting a portion of the property which he has given me, to the establishment and ample endowment of an Institution, for the intellectual, moral and religious education of youth.” Continue reading →