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News > From the Archive > From The Archive - Twelve months a 'Yank'...

From The Archive - Twelve months a 'Yank'...

Recollections of a US school exchange from 1951

As we approach Thanksgiving Day in the US, this Thursday November 24th, we thought it would be an ideal moment to bring you this story from our archive. Originally published in The Campbellian, Vol 12, December 1951, by Terence Patrick McCaughey (3215), the article recounts his experience of a school exchange at a boy’s boarding school in New England. We hope you enjoy reading about Patrick's experience and wish our US community Happy Thanksgiving! 

To expose oneself to the discipline of school-life for an extra year is at first sight an unnecessary ordeal; but to do so in a foreign country, especially if that country be the United States, is to minimise the trial. In America, the idea of having an Irishman in one’s school may be described as ‘cute’ or alternatively as ‘swell’. If he personally turns out not to be altogether unfriendly, the vernacular has yet another epithet to apply to his visit: it may be described as ‘loaded’. Any Irishman must be plied with certain standard questions: Does he come from free or occupied Ireland? Has he seen a leprechaun? Does he eat anything but potatoes? Has he kissed the Blarney Stone–or does he talk that way in any case? This was the first draft of questions prepared for me on my arrival at my American School. 

I had been in the United States only for about twenty-four hours when I met my Headmaster at Boston railway station. I was waved into a limousine and treated to the terrifying experience of being conducted through the street of the city on the right-hand side of the road. Waving amiably at an unfertile slag-heap on my left, my Headmaster informed me I was passing by Bunker’s Hill the first place where the revolutionaries beat the Redcoats.

I was not much impressed by that ill-omened mound and fell more readily into an almost hypnotic study of the vast conglomeration of advertisements flitting by. Here was a perfect delirium of signboards. Would I have a Coke? One asked me. Would I not visit the Frankfurt Airline Funeral Home – the Funeral Home that is different? Inquired another. Would I be happy, go lucky and buy Lucky Strike cigarettes? Would I not come under the cordial welcome of the Canaanite Healers to hear about Spiritual Vibrations? Would I purchase a sample bottle of Thrillphorm Tan Oil? But I had no time to sample the multifarious pleasures offered me by these gigantic signs. I had my hands full, trying conscientiously to add the personal note in international relations. I had quite enough to do to be friendly and carry out all the requirements expected of an English-speaking Union Exchange student at the same time.

I had heard a good deal about America and in particular about New England. I had heard of soda-fountains and white Congregational churches but no one had ever thought to tell me that all houses were made of wood. One can readily understand the surprise of a young man, brought up to know the solidity of Campbell College and the permanence of the Scottish Provident Buildings when he found that his new school was entirely a wooden construction. My tact prevented my asking the Headmaster whether the school, which I knew to be a young one, was only a temporary venture.

Obviously to recount all the incidents which befell me or all the impressions made upon me, would take more space that I have at my disposal. I can say, however, that I found the standards in work lower than at Campbell, not so much because the senior boys work less that their British counterparts, not yet because they are less intelligent but because of the number of subjects they are compelled to take. To produce what they call the ‘well-rounded man’ the system lays down that no boy in the last year at school will study less than 5 subjects. This means that boys who are keen on, or have unusual gifts for a certain subject, tend to be held back by those who are being conscripted into it to make up the requisite number of courses. The enthusiasm of the able boy is bound to be minimised when is not encouraged to amplify his interest. It can be said, I think truthfully, that more boys are bored in their last year at an American boarding-school than is the case at home.

It is a pity, indeed, that the American ‘private school’–the counterpart of our own public school–is not a little less private. It may well be that the Ivory Tower atmosphere produced within its walls does more to handicap progress than anything else. They have other difficulties too, scarcely understood in Britain, for the private school has never been officially encouraged in the United States. Ever since Jefferson, American educationalists have insisted on a standardised and universal education. The schools receive no government grant of any sort, and, although they maintain a complete independence of the State, do not develop with any great initiative.

Conservatism tends to be bred in the American private schools by the very fact that they are bound to please the parents i.e.–the customers! First of all, they cannot readily set up new standards nor change their approach without the approval of their diminishing clientele. They are, with but few exceptions, so much in competition with one another that the Headmaster is reduced more or less to the position of a salesman. All other considerations seem to the foreign observer to be pushed aside in favour of placating the indignant parent and interesting the prospective one.

As my stay in America comes to a close, and I look back on its memories, amusing, surprising and fascinating, I am more than ever glad to have had the opportunity of meeting and living with people at once so kind and so frank. My only regret lies in the fact that during the term I have seen only the representatives of one and that a fairly high-income group. But the kindness with which I have been received everywhere has taught me that there are impressions of the United States to be gained, more illuminating and more heartening that the reading of Time would allow. I have learned that ThrillPhorm Tan Oil and Mr. Taft’s reaction, to not give a picture of the United States any more than ‘Bile Beans’ and potato-digging paint the colours of Ireland. A few weeks ago, I came across Dickens’ American Notes and one sentence written one hundred years ago struck me as very true. In spite of all vulgarities Dickens affirms:

“It is the possession of cultivation and refinement in a most remarkable degree, that renders the educated American one of the most endearing and generous of friends”.

T.P. McC

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