Haverford, still preparing boys for life?

Mr. Timothy Lengel ’07, Andrew Johnson ’22, Mr. Christopher Fox, Dr. John Ngal, Mrs. Kara Cleffi, A.J. Sanford ’21, and Mr. Louie Brown ’15 – photos and digital art by Jeffrey Yang ’22

The “Preparing Boys for Life” motto flies on our light poles, appears on our ID cards, and is inseparable from Haverford’s reputation, but, despite how often we see the phrase, seldom do we reflect on its significance. These four words define the basis of our education, our community, and our values. Yet whether or not the school fulfills its mission in each of these sectors is a question of its own. 

     For one, even the implications of what “Preparing Boys for Life” means differ between different members of the community. Head of School Dr. John Nagl referred to the school’s recently rewritten mission statement, emphasizing three words.   

     “The school community—community—means that all of us prepare boys for life by developing character, intellect, and compassion. I love those three [nouns]: character, intellect, and compassion.” Dr. Nagl said. “I think a boy school that thinks compassionate graduates are the outcome is a distinguishing characteristic for us.”

     Biology teacher Mrs. Kara Cleffi believes that, beyond morphing students into gentlemen, the mission means to equip students with skills that are useful in the future.

     “I think that the school is trying to focus on skills that you can carry throughout both your education and beyond. That idea is that you know we want to focus on things like writing skills and research skills, and problem-solving and things like that that are not necessarily all content-specific,” Mrs. Cleffi said.  

The school’s “preparing boys for life” banners, ubiquitous on campus – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     Fifth Former Andrew Johnson interprets the phrase as preparing boys to be leaders.

     “I think it’s to prepare kids for being influential people in the future. A lot of us have the power when we grow up to influence the world, whether it be good or bad, so I hope Haverford is teaching its kids to influence the world in a good way,” Johnson said. 

     But the school’s focus was not always thus. Art Department Chair Mr. Christopher Fox, the most senior faculty member in terms of years of teaching at the school, recalls when Haverford was primarily a college-preparatory school.

     “[The current motto] marked a change when we said that, rather than just preparing you for college,” Mr. Fox said. For preparing you for a career—that was an intentional decision in my time here too—we would focus on the bigger picture.”

The flagpoles outside Wilson Hall – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     Even with the new motto, history teacher Mr. Timothy Lengel ’07 describes a much more competitive environment when he was a student. For him, the biggest change has been the mission’s infusion into the community.

     “It was a much harder place; I had a lot more peers who struggled. The place was much more ‘sink or swim’ back in the day.” Mr. Lengel said. “The competitive spirit I think sometimes pushed students to excel and achieve great things, but also, a lot of times, [it] made us distrustful of each other.” 

     The community has also changed in terms of bringing light to the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

     English and history teacher Mr. Louie Brown ’15 said, “What it means to be prepared for life, not only in ways that we can find academic success or career success but, what I’ve seen a lot being back this year, has really improved a lot and refocused on issues of diversity, for example—on acceptance and inclusiveness.” 

     Mr. Brown emphasized the rate of change within the past few years.

     “In a very cool way that has extended pretty quickly and pretty significantly is the kind of work that people are doing. Just five years ago, we didn’t have an ASA or a BSU. We didn’t have so many things and the student activism that we see,” Mr. Brown said. “I think the mission is the same, but what the mission means has changed and become a bit more progressive.”

     From the perspective of Sixth Former A.J. Sanford, who has attended Haverford since first grade, this shift and its impact on the faculty has helped him feel confident to speak about racism in the classroom.

The new and old wings of Wilson Hall – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     “I have never been scared to share when we’re talking about race, and many times I’ve been the only black kid in the class. I feel safe to speak out because my teachers are understanding and supportive,” Sanford said. 

     The mission as a whole is a manifestation of the school’s virtues, each one engraved into the stone holding the Walk of Virtues together. The three that former Head of School Dr. Joseph Cox most valued still remain as the community’s core: respect, honesty, and courage. And others, such as teamwork, as Sanford discussed, compassion, as Mr. Lengel discussed, or intimacy, as Mr. Brown suggested should be added, also play a role.  

     “I think that respect is fundamental to creating a community that works,” Dr. Nagl said. “I think honesty is being honest to yourself, being honest about yourself, and is also essential to a community working. But sometimes it’s hard to be honest if your friend is being disrespectful, to say,‘knock it off.’ And so I think courage is essential in order to be respectful and to be honest. I think all that wraps up together into character and becoming a man of character, which I hope will be the ambition of every one of our boys.” 

     Some might still view Haverford’s mission and values as in the past—that the school is no more valuable than a college-preparatory school. To this, Mr. Fox explained how his goal through teaching art is to give students skills they need beyond just receiving a college admissions letter.

     “The art world is an exciting place to pursue, but not everybody is going to become an artist, it’s too hard. So if I’m thinking about what I’m doing, if I’m only teaching people about art, then I’m kind of wasting the time. Yes, there’s an appreciation [for art] that is helpful, but are there skills that I can teach through art that would help you no matter what you want to do?” Mr. Fox said.

     Dr. Nagl argues that preparing boys for college is intertwined with the school’s motto.

     “College is the next phase of preparation for a life of meaning, for life as an informed and contributing citizen. And so my own belief is that there’s a lot of crossed lines here,” Dr. Nagl said.

     Sanford believes that, while Haverford prepares its students well academically and cognitively, there are still some more material skills that are not fully introduced to students.

     “I was never able to take finance, so [stock trading] was something I had to learn on my own,” Sanford said. 

“We’d do you a disservice if we don’t have you think long and hard about sex, gender, relationships, these sorts of things, before you leave these halls.”

Mr. Timothy Lengel ’07

     In addition, Mr. Lengel expressed concern about students’ lack of exposure to courses teaching how to engage with others beyond the Haverford community, especially at an all-boys school. 

     “Every young man at this school should have to take some version of the Human Relationships course. I think there’s great value in single-sex education,” Mr. Lengel said, “but I also think we’d do you a disservice if we don’t have you think long and hard about sex, gender, relationships, these sorts of things, before you leave these halls.” 

     According to Haverford’s alumni reports, roughly one in three graduates between 2006 and 2015 have pursued a career in finance and banking. Mr. Brown believes that the decline in students following humanities path is also a trend for the school to be aware of. 

     “Interestingly, in previous times in Haverford’s history, we had a majority in humanities: history used to be the most popular choice for Haverford students in college,” Mr. Brown said. “There are a lot of things in English that has changed within the last 20-30 years on that front, but I think it’s probably more related to greater trends, people devaluing humanities or overvaluing college as a path to financial and career success as opposed to college as a time of personal growth.” 

     The equilibrium between preparing boys for college or a career and preparing boys for life still is, and will always be, a work in progress. As an independent school, Haverford is generally able to address these issues in whatever regard that the administration wants, but, as Mr. Fox explained, there are always improvements. 

     “Are we getting lighter on our feet by doing that [addressing known issues]? There’s always a struggle, and I think we’re an independent school for a reason: we should be able to do what we need to do at any given time. Sometimes we feel like we can’t make changes, but I have seen big changes, so I know it’s possible.” Mr. Fox said. “So, are we doing a good job? I think we’re doing a good job. Are we doing the best we could? Not yet, but we are leaning into it.”

     Certainly, the balance between preparing boys for academia and for life and general has varied. 

     Mrs. Cleffi said, “I was teaching two chapters [of biology] a week, and all we were doing was just going through information, so there wasn’t a research paper, and there weren’t any lab skills happening because I just had to get through all that information.” 

     In the context of inclusivity, the community has also shifted. This fight against discrimination is propelled by its damage to the community. 

     Dr. Nagl said, “It’s a source of great sadness to me when I hear about guys not treating each other well, guys not treating each other as brothers. So when I hear about homophobia, or about discrimination for any cause—racial, religious, whatever—that strikes at the very heart of who we are as a community, and that is something that we need to continue to work on, and we need to promise each other that we’re going to be a place where every boy and faculty member is welcome. So we still have work to do there.”

The school seal in the Wilson Hall Atrium – Jeffrey Yang ’22

     The concern with inclusivity is further compounded by the sarcasm that students sometimes express. This sarcasm, Mr. Brown explained, inhibits the intimacy of the brotherhood that is so defining of the Haverford community and an all-boys education. 

     “I mean, kids care for each other a lot here, but I think that something that is unique to socializing boys and young men is that there’s a lot of bonding through joking and ribbing and being sarcastic. And that can be an obstacle for building really deep, genuine, and intimate relationships,” Mr. Brown said.  

“Have we been slower at times to react than I wanted? Yeah. But we are a learning community, teachers are learning, administration’s learning, students are learning, and a learning organism grows and changes and matures.”

Art Department Chair Mr. Christopher Fox

     Awareness is only the first step in the effort to make Haverford and the community it breeds inside its walls the best possible. But, every step, is a step towards somewhere. 

     “I would not have stayed here for 39 years if Haverford wasn’t growing and changing and if its eyes weren’t set on really doing right by our students,” Mr. Fox said. “Have we been slower at times to react than I wanted? Yeah. But we are a learning community, teachers are learning, administration’s learning, students are learning, and a learning organism grows and changes and matures.”

Author: Jeffrey Yang '22

Managing editor Jeffrey Yang has written for The Index since 2018. He previously served as news editor. His feature "Fords immigrants under the spotlight: Mr. Kan's citizenship odyssey" earned a Gold Key from the 2020 Philadelphia-area Scholastic Writing Awards.