My favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald quote says this: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind and still retain the ability to function.”
Before move in day of my lower year (keep in mind I was a new lower), I had never seen Exeter’s campus. Everything I knew about the school was based off the website and the admissions pamphlet. There had never been a student from my town at Exeter, and very few from my home state of Louisiana. At home, boarding schools were where the bad kids went, or rather, where bad kids were shipped off to by disgruntled parents. I found Exeter, and a few other schools, on the Internet and figured an application wouldn’t hurt anyone… but then I got in. Faced with a tough choice, my parents and I figured “why not?” so we packed all my stuff and made our way up to a strange prep school in New Hampshire. I knew a bit about the Harkness method, but not much. A bunch of kids sit around a table and talk… seemed pretty simple, right? Moral of the story is: Harkness wasn’t the reason I chose Exeter, I don’t even know why I chose to go here (luck maybe), but Harkness is one of the biggest reasons why I love Exeter.
In 1930, Edward Harkness made a sizable donation, $5.8 million to be exact, to our very own Phillips Exeter Academy. However, with this gift came some restrictions. Classes would be limited to 12 students, and all would share a common table with the teacher, the “Harkness Table.” He envisioned a new, revolutionary style of teaching where each student was both a teacher and a student to “his” peers. (Exeter was still an all boys school at the time of the Harkness gift.) Today, every classroom has a Harkness table and uses the Harkness Method, even math and science. Schools across the world have mimicked this rather strange method of teaching.
Everyone sits around the table, usually having done a reading the night before, and waits for class to begin. My favorite way for a teacher to start class is simply by saying, “Where do you all want to begin?” From there, the discussion takes off. Students will be making points, asking questions, building off of each other, agreeing, disagreeing, and sometimes sitting in silence while they take a moment to process. A good Harkness discussion is a beautiful thing. It is truly amazing to watch it flow, and turn, and change. Students come alive at the table. Harkness improves skills in history by completely immersing students in the information. In math, everyone works through the problems together, offering alternative ideas and solutions. Science brings the students together at the table and lab benches alike for a genuine hands on experience. English provides students with the opportunity to completely dive into the text and “flesh out” every possible route. It provides students with viewpoints different from their own in an effort to see the complete picture. The Harkness Method is an incredible thing that I am so lucky to be a part of.
Harkness has benefitted me in more ways than academics. I have learned to speak up and hold true to my opinion when appropriate, but I have also learned how to understand when I am wrong and acknowledge my mistakes. Harkness teaches you to hold yourself accountable. Harkness teaches you to listen. The common rule at Exeter is speak once, listen three times, and I use this even outside of the classroom. Harkness teaches eye contact. When a peer is speaking, look up so they know you are listening. Harkness teaches responsibility. If you are wrong, recognize it and move on. No one will hold it against you. Harkness teaches confidence. This, above all is my favorite attribute of the oval tables. The Harkness Method has taught me to be confident in every way, whether it in the classroom, with my friends, or when talking to adults. Harkness prepares you for life. It instills in its students character, responsibility, fortitude, and courage. I am confident that without Harkness, I would not be the person that I am today.
So, I highly recommend that you give the weird oval table a try.
Congratulations to all the newly accepted students! Welcome to Phillips Exeter Academy!
Feel free to ask me any questions about the Harkness Method or just the school in general! You can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org