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Q&A: A Discussion with John G. Palfrey

A few hours after John Palfrey addressed the school community, he agreed to a phone interview with The Phillipian staff.

Why did you decide to go to boarding school?

I think it really was about the quality of the education that I thought I could get by going to boarding school and it was the right decision for me. I visited Exeter when I was 12 or 13 and was overwhelmed by the look and feel of the environment, so rich with opportunity and great, interesting people. I just thought that the mode of living on a campus and learning with such a great community around me would be a good idea and it turned out it was.

There were many important experiences in the classroom, of course. I learned an enormous amount from many, many teachers. There were some of the best friends I have had in my life there, and I learned an enormous amount in the dorm and on the playing field. I had the benefit of what felt like a liberal arts education there. It was very broad and in some areas deep as well. I participated in the Concert Choir and played cello in the orchestra and just had a great experience across many different aspects of school. I just loved it.

How do you think your Exeter experience will shape the way you think about education at Andover?

I think the answer is that it will and it won’t. It will in a sense that I wouldn’t be taking this job, I don’t think, if I didn’t have a total belief and love of that kind of education and the effects and that it is extremely important in the world. The premise of youth from every quarter coming together to a residential place to live is crucially important so that’s the way in which the parallel holds up.

The way in which it won’t is that I will have to be very careful not to assume that what was true at Exeter in the 1980s is true at Andover in the 21st century. I think it’s very important that since I am carrying a lot of what a learned at Exeter, in terms of the good and the bad of that experience, I don’t reason from a faulty analogy.

What is the difference between a boarding school education and a college education that you think makes boarding school such an important opportunity?

I have absolutely loved every minute of working at Harvard and being a student at Harvard, and I have more or less been there since 1990 since I graduated from Exeter. With very few exceptions, more or less the last 20 years of my life have been at Harvard. I think the experience of being able to come to quite a different environment is important. It is very different, of course, because the age of the students is younger but also because the nature of the education is different. I think that is something that I have to learn.

It is very much in my mind that I will be a rookie in secondary education when I get to Andover in 2012. That means I will need to be especially careful to learn from those who are experts and that means the faculty and the staff and the Trustees, but also the students who have been there, all of you, who have a better read of what secondary education is like at Andover than I do. I think there is going to be a lot of listening and learning on my part to start off.

What pieces of Andover do you really like? What drew you here?

One is the incredible, incredible intelligence of the faculty, students and staff, and the commitment to excellence in education. I think the ability to work at this level with so many really bright and deeply committed people in an education setting is attractive.

The values that Andover has are a critical part of the story. One thing that is remarkably similar between Andover and Exeter is the kind of core mission statements. Among the handful of things that the schools share is the idea of being a private school with a public purpose, the idea of knowledge and goodness, and the idea of youth from every quarter. Those principles are ones that I carry with me every day. I think it is extremely exciting to be able to come to a place where the educational attainment is at the highest level but there’s still a sense that it’s done with a commitment to doing good in the world.

What is your research about?

A huge part of my interest is how young people relate to technology. I wrote a book with a friend called “Born Digital,” it’s probably my most relevant research project in a sense to this. I’m really interested in how people learn in a digital era, and how it is similar and how it is different. I am interested in which ways learning should be mediated by technology and which ways it should not be mediated technology, which is an important part. I am very interested in how the mind works and how people sort good information from bad information. There are a huge number of issues that I think relate very directly to the project of learning at the secondary school level. Again, I want to be cautious of how relevant the research will be to the Andover community until I’ve been there.

If you could design one class that every Andover student would be required to take, what kind of class would that be?

At the Harvard Law School we have been rethinking our curriculum. Harvard Law School helped to set the curriculum for every law school a little over 100 years ago when Christopher Columbus Langdell invented the case method, and virtually every law school adopted that model. In the last three years we revamped the first year learning model in a substantial way. I learned a lot from being a part of that.

I think it’s important for even the most successful schools to ask hard questions about what works and what doesn’t and to have continuous improvement. It would be a mistake for me to guess as to curricular changes that would be needed at this point, but I am certain that along with the faculty I’ll ask those hard questions.

One [example from Harvard Law School] is a class that every law student must take about problem solving. We do an interdisciplinary workshop in problem solving and I think that that mode of learning is a good one. I am certain that some classes use it at Andover, but it might be something we could explore further.

The second is the introduction in the first year of the required International Law Course. Obviously, you have globally related efforts at Andover, so I have a particular interest in that kind of learning.

What do you think about the relationship between Andover and Exeter?

I think it is a very friendly rivalry. I think it is only natural that these two schools should be intertwined in the way that they are given the way that they started, with a young man and then his uncle starting these two schools. I look forward to cheering loudly for Andover, which will take some getting used to, but I think I will always have a place in my heart for both schools.

I played at Exeter-Andover. I’ll have to get used to saying that in the right order? I was on the football team, but I wasn’t very good. I loved it. It is an amazing rivalry and a lot of fun to be a part of. It’s one of the things I look forward to.