Lawrenceville Celebrates 75 Years at the Harkness Table
Among Lawrentians’ most vivid memories of life at School – even if the experience sometimes gave them pause – sitting at the Harkness table with 11 classmates and a master invariably ranks high on the list. This year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the table’s arrival on campus, an event that sparked a sea-change in how classes were taught and how students and teachers viewed the educational process – and each other’s roles.
It all started with Allan Heely H’1897 ’1927, Lawrenceville’s seventh Head Master, not even two years into the job and determined to get the ear of Edward S. Harkness, Standard Oil heir and recent benefactor of Exeter, Andover, Hill and Choate. Harkness had given Exeter, then led by Lewis Perry ’1894 GP’65, $7 million to implement the philanthropist’s vision for the “Conference Plan,” and Head Master Heely was eager for a similarly grand gift.
One version of the story has Perry, whose son Lewis Perry, Jr. H’52 P’65 later became a beloved Lawrenceville master, providing an introduction for Mr. Heely, but the version reported in TIME magazine in June 1936 has Mr. Heely marching unannounced into Harkness’ New York office. Regardless of the circumstance of their first meeting, Harkness bit and asked for a proposal. Twelve days later, according to the TIME account, Mr. Heely had a blank check and a promise to “erect and endow a new administration building, split two old classroom buildings (Pop and Mem halls) into 49 conference rooms fitted out with oval tables, easy chairs and rugs, and hire enough new teachers to make the Plan work.”
The result turned education at Lawrenceville on its head. Students returned to campus that fall to find their masters seated with them at large oval tables. Class sizes shrank from 40 to 12. Gone were the rows of desks and teachers speaking from lecterns. For the first time, as many a student since has lamented, there was no place to hide. And students’ minds would be opened in ways they had never imagined.
Yet, the Conference Plan, as Edward Harkness called it, seemed a natural complement to Lawrenceville’s House System, which both fostered and supported a sense of community that distinguished the School. Like the House System, Harkness teaching encouraged kinship around the table, and bonds between students and masters developed as they explored the world of ideas together.
Ultimately, the influence of the Harkness method, as it came to be known, rocked that world. It fired a spirit of inquiry that would make Lawrenceville an intellectual powerhouse, and its insistence on participation developed the leadership potential of every student. Graduates found they were better prepared for the demands of higher education than their peers from other schools, and Lawrentians appreciated the combination of academic rigor and spontaneous debate even more when they embarked on careers. They came to realize that time spent around Harkness tables was valuable in ways that sometimes became apparent only in retrospect.
For all these reasons, Lawrenceville is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Harkness teaching at the School by incorporating a little Harkness into virtually every major event throughout 2011-2012. We’ll also be taking Harkness teaching on the road and holding dedicated Harkness events on campus. A list of upcoming events appears elsewhere in this publication – be sure to check www.lawrenceville.org/alumni and click on “Events” for updates and additions throughout the year. And be sure to visit the new Harkness Web page.
We’d also love to hear from you with your most vivid Harkness memory, and we’ll be sharing these in future issues of the VSV. Please send your Harkness stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.