First Thoughts: Mission Statements of Williston Academy and Northampton School for Girls

by Richard Teller ’70, Archivist and Librarian.  Originally published as a “web extra” to the Fall 2011 Bulletin.

Sarah Whitaker and Dorothy Bement, 1925

The idea of a formal statement of mission is relatively new, but schools have always had equivalents, whether found in the prefaces to catalogs or as essential portions of re-accreditation studies.  It would appear impractical, if not impossible, to found a school without some kind of declaration of one’s purpose in doing so.  At the time of their founding, both Northampton School for Girls and Williston Seminary, as it was originally called, issued documents that not only set out their plans, but reflected the personalities of their founders.

Northampton School for Girls, which opened in 1924, was imagined by Sarah B. Whitaker and Dorothy M. Bement to be rightly considered … the lineal descendant of their former employer, the Capen School for Girls.  They said as much in a 1923 prospectus, “Announcing the Northampton School for Girls”:

The new institution … fills the void left by the well-known Miss Capen’s School, which was discontinued three years ago.

Capen, located next to Smith College in Northampton and considered a feeder school for that institution, was a highly considered women’s college preparatory school.  But it did not survive the death of its founder, principal, and sole owner, Bessie Capen.  In their prospectus, Whitaker and Bement evoked a distinguished lineage:

Mary Lyon, Emma Willard, and Sarah Porter are names to conjure with in the education of young women.  Little more than a generation ago each of these educational pioneers … saw a potential demand for education of a type that was not being adequately provided.

The prospectus continues, More than half of the students admitted to the major women’s colleges … find it necessary to take special preparation in a private school.  The present schools devoted exclusively to this preparatory work are overcrowded and have students applying several years ahead to insure admission.

Montgomery House at Northampton School, 1924

Whitaker and Bement made no apology for their academic priorities:

The Northampton School for Girls is distinctly and unequivocally a college preparatory school … The income from the tuition, $1500 a pupil, is devoted to maintaining a highly efficient staff and comfortable living accommodations, rather than the “frills and foibles” of the modern finishing school.

Later in the document they emphasize their avoidance of the luxuriant, cite an abundance of outdoor, health-insuring sports, and conclude with students must be prepared not only to pass with credit the entrance examinations, but also to carry on successfully their work in college.

Unessentials are omitted.  Efficiency is the rule.

Whitaker and Bement were efficient with words.  Eight decades earlier, Samuel Williston was not.  Williston Seminary opened in December of 1841.  It was not until 1845 that Williston published his “Constitution of Williston Seminary.”  However, in January and February, 1841, Northampton’s Hampshire Gazette published a series of five letters advocating the need for an “English College” in Hampshire County.  According to the school’s first historian, Joseph Henry Sawyer, the letters, though unsigned, were the work of Amherst College Professor William Seymour Tyler.  Since Samuel Williston was an Amherst trustee and one of Tyler’s close friends, Williston’s collusion, if not co-authorship, may be safely assumed.  And the timing of the letters to coincide with the Massachusetts Legislature’s passage of Williston Seminary’s Act of Incorporation on February 20 cannot have been a coincidence.

Much of the content of the Tyler letters would find its way into the Seminary’s “Constitution” three years later.  Special note might be taken of Tyler’s comment that the question has been somewhat agitated of late … why so large a proportion of young men enter college only half fitted.  Tyler, eerily anticipating 21st-century college faculty, complained that typically the freshman year was spent in remedying deficiencies which might and ought to be perfectly mastered in the preparatory school.

Samuel Williston, ca. 1841 (Courtesy Emily Williston Memorial Library and Museum, Easthampton)
Samuel Williston, ca. 1841 (Courtesy Emily Williston Memorial Library and Museum, Easthampton)

Writing in the first person, Samuel Williston stated in his “Constitution” that

I could in no other way more effectively 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.

Showing a prescience concerning the educational marketplace that would elude some of his successors, he wrote,

Adapting the Institution to the existing wants of the community and the times … I have designed it to be neither a common Academy or an ordinary College, but a Seminary of intermediate grade, which shall combine all the advantages of a Classical Academy of the highest order with such other provisions as shall entitle it to the name of an English [i.e., Scientific] College, and which shall be sacredly consecrated … to the common cause of sound learning and of pure and undefiled religion.

(Samuel Williston’s Calvinist-scented Protestantism asserted itself throughout the document.  Nonetheless, from its beginning the Seminary accepted students, though not faculty, of all faiths.)

The “Constitution” then described the Seminary’s two departments.  Williston expected pupils in a three-year classical course to acquire a minute and thorough knowledge of the elements of the English, Latin, and Greek languages along with the formation of good intellectual and moral habits.  He directly addressed a complaint he and Tyler shared: Bad orthography, bad penmanship or bad grammar – bad habits in any of the rudiments – if they be not corrected in the preparatory school, will probably be carried through College and not unlikely extend themselves to other studies and pursuits.

Thinking of the future, Williston added, It is expected that the standard of attainment in this Department will be elevated from time to time, as the standard of Classical Education rises in our best colleges.

Williston asserted that his ideas for his English/Scientific Department were less fully formed.  All the branches usually taught in our Colleges, the Greek and Latin classics excepted, shall be taught … with a two-fold reference to the discipline of the mind and the inculcation of useful knowledge.  He suggested that as the community seem not yet to be fully prepared for such a course, I can only enjoin it upon the Trustees, to bear it ever in mind, to execute the full design, when they can, and if it prove wholly impracticable, to approximate as nearly to it, as possible.

But in his next paragraph, Williston apparently forgot that he had intended to be vague.  He wished to supply the deficiencies in the English education of

… those who intend to pursue the various occupations of business, and have not the time, or the means, or the inclination to go through a regular Collegiate course, [so that] they may obtain a better discipline and a wider acquaintance with the various branches of science and English literature, than are now placed within their reach.  The design therefore embraces ample instruction in English Grammar, Geography, and Arithmetic, together with Reading, Writing, Orthography, and Orthoepy; in Rhetoric, Logic, and Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, and in the several branches of Mathematics and Natural Science … I desire that special attention shall be paid, both by Lectures and Recitations, to Natural Philosophy, Astronomy, Chemistry, Botany, Mineralogy, and Geology.  And I would have them always taught in their proper relation to Natural and Revealed Religion, which they so strikingly illustrate.

So much for generalities.  Williston then made special mention of his fondness for music, which he would have every pupil urged to cultivate, as an important means at once to improve the voice, to refine the feelings, to assuage the passions and to soften the heart.  This may have been the closest Samuel Williston ever came to expressing sentiment on paper.

Finally, Williston addressed coeducation.  He established a not-quite-separate and not-quite-equal Ladies Department, believing that the education of the two sexes together, so far as their appropriate studies coincide, is in accordance with the constitution and design of nature, and, under proper regulations, not only safe from serious evils, but connected with positive advantages.  He may have been less comfortable than his words suggest; his next paragraph left an opening for the Board to end coeducation if after longer trial, or under a change of circumstances, it should prove manifestly detrimental to the main design of the Seminary.  (Coeducation would end in 1864 with the founding, at Samuel Williston’s expense, of Easthampton’s first public high school.)  He concluded with a statement that might remind us of our most basic raison d’etre 170 years later:

It is my simple desire to extend and increase the facilities for the proper education of the young.

The Williston Seminary Campus, 1845
The Williston Seminary Campus, 1845

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