Why Hopkins Has Survived for 350 Years

President Richard C. Levin and Jane Levin were honored at a ceremony on Sept. 24 marking the 350th anniversary of Hopkins School in New Haven.

The Levins received Hopkins Medals in recognition of their roles as former Hopkins trustees and parents.

Hopkins School — originally known as Hopkins Grammar School — was founded 41 years before Yale, and the two institutions have shared many connections over the years.

In their address at the Hopkins ceremony, the Levins discussed the school’s long history and the importance of its ties to Yale.

Why Hopkins Has Survived for 350 Years

It is a great honor for us to have been chosen as Hopkins Medalists in this momentous year of the School’s 350th anniversary, especially when the School has so many distinguished graduates who could be celebrated. As parents who have served as trustees we are deeply aware of Hopkins’ excellence, and of all the effort it takes to sustain it.

Like so many other parents, we have come to appreciate Hopkins through the impact it has had on our children, who received an extraordinary education here. Thanks to the efforts of outstanding teachers, all four of our children developed a facility with mathematics, a passion for history, and, perhaps most important, the ability to write with clarity, precision, and grace. When Jon, our oldest son, went off to Stanford, he reported after a few weeks that he was as well prepared for college as anyone in his class. There is simply no doubt that this is true. We saw the pattern repeat itself within our family, and we see it with every incoming class at Yale. Hopkins gives students a superb foundation; its graduates have a running start at college, and in life.

As trustees, we have also come to understand that maintaining a school of this quality requires constant attention and careful nurturing. When I joined the board in 1988, Hopkins was struggling financially, and some of us had to work very hard to convince our colleagues to maintain a strong program of faculty compensation, so that the School could continue to attract the outstanding and devoted teachers that are unquestionably its greatest asset. Today, thanks to the leadership of John Malone and the inspiration he has provided to other donors, we have magnificent new facilities and a stronger financial aid program, and we can afford more competitive faculty compensation. Thanks to the stewardship of David Swensen and his successors on the finance committee, we have an endowment that is 20 times larger than it was 20 years ago, helping to secure the School’s future.

The prospects for Hopkins were not always so rosy. There have been times of great hardship over the past three and one half centuries. But Hopkins has managed to survive. Of secondary schools in the United States, only a handful – including Boston Latin, Roxbury Latin, and Hartford Public High School – are older. And of America’s colleges, only Harvard predates the founding of Hopkins.

So the question we would like to take up this afternoon is this: how did the School survive for 350 years? Hundreds of schools sprang up in colonial America, but only a few remain. What are the secrets of Hopkins’ longevity?

We are going to suggest that there are two principal reasons for this institutional durability: first, consistency of mission in the face of change, and, second, independent governance. In discussing the first of these, we will trace the history of the Hopkins curriculum and show how it has adapted, slowly, to changing times, but always in a manner consistent with the School’s primary mission. In discussing the second, we will note in particular how fortuitous it was that John Davenport designed a system of governance that was entirely unique for its time – a system free from interference of both church and state, and we will illustrate how Hopkins’ system of governance was central to its survival during its first two hundred years. We are grateful to Erin Johnson, a 2004 graduate of Hopkins and a 2008 graduate of Yale College, for undertaking the archival research that has enabled us to tell this story.

Consistency of Mission

The familiar words of Edward Hopkins’ will state that the School was intended “for the breeding up of hopefull Youths … for the publique service of the Country in future tymes.” But, as early as the School’s founding, this objective became immediately transformed to an operational one: to prepare students for college, which, at the time, meant Harvard. Of course, John Davenport hoped and Governor Hopkins intended to found a college in New Haven alongside the Grammar School. But the Governor’s will expressed aspirations that exceeded the available resources, and the colony had to wait forty-one years for a college of its own.

Hopkins struggled through many periods of its early history. Indeed, the claim that Hopkins has been in continuous operation since 1660 is true only in the sense that the Committee of Trustees has met continuously. The School’s opening was enabled in 1660 by a grant from the town of New Haven while the Trustees awaited the receipt of funds from Governor Hopkins’ estate. With only five or six boys in attendance, the city fathers grew impatient, ceased to fund Hopkins, and opened a school focused on the teaching of English and arithmetic, rather than the Latin and Greek taught at Hopkins. Hopkins closed its doors in November 1662. It reopened two years later when the Governor’s money finally arrived.

In truth, the School struggled throughout its entire first century. Enrollments were chronically low, in large part because of the narrowness of the Grammar School’s mission: to prepare students for college. The curriculum was devoted entirely to the study of Latin and Greek, because these were the prerequisites for attendance at Harvard and then Yale. Unlike today, when the majority of high school graduates pursue some form of higher education, only a very small fraction of Americans attended college before World War II. We could not locate reliable data for Hopkins’ first two centuries, but at the time of the Civil War, only one percent of Americans attended college. By the outbreak of World War I, three percent attended college, and on the eve of World War II, nine percent. For most of Hopkins’ history, therefore, remaining consistent with the mission was a struggle. The applicant pool was very small. Thus, it should not be surprising that in 1713, when the enrollment of Latin scholars hovered between eight and ten, colonial officials reduced Hopkins’ public subvention in order to found elementary schools in East and West Haven. Near the end of the eighteenth century, the School’s finances were so precarious that the headmaster, Richard Woodhull, appealed to the Trustees for permission to tutor students privately in English to increase his income, should enrollment of Latin scholars dip below twenty.

Yet throughout these early years, Hopkins remained strictly consistent with its founding mission. Despite considerable pressures, both financial and political, it kept its focus on classical studies and prepared its graduates for enrollment in Yale College.

The pressures intensified in the period from 1778 to 1820, when a new form of secondary schools, known as “academies” arose throughout New England. The Phillips Academies in Exeter and Andover are only two among scores of examples of the surviving schools founded in this period, including, closer to home, the Cheshire Academy. The academies abandoned the strict focus on Latin and Greek, and added English composition and mathematics to the curriculum. Some included history, geography, and astronomy. Of course, without sufficient study of Latin and Greek, graduates of the new academies would not be qualified for admission to Yale, but the academies were seeking to serve a wider population, for whom a comprehensive secondary education would be a valuable preparation for life, if not for Yale.

The academy movement caused a near-death experience for Hopkins in 1790. In January, Abraham Bishop announced his intention to found what he called the American Academy in New Haven, which he envisioned as a large co-educational school with a broad curriculum combining classical and modern studies. The Hopkins trustees were temporarily seduced, and they appointed Bishop as headmaster in April. A month later Bishop announced plans to merge the Grammar School into the new Academy. Fortunately, differences arose, and in September, the Trustees secured Bishop’s resignation, and his plans for an Academy disappeared as quickly as they had arisen.

Still, in this period, academies were founded all over the region, and though they appealed to a wider audience, they nonetheless posed a competitive threat to Hopkins. Despite the challenge, Hopkins clung, for another half century, to its focus on the study of the classics. And, apparently, there remained enough boys bound for Yale that the school survived.

We were unable to determine precisely when the study of English and mathematics made its way into the Hopkins curriculum, but it was sometime between 1790 and 1846, when the School’s first annual catalogue appeared. Not surprisingly, these changes corresponded to changes in Yale’s entrance requirements. To the previously required tests in Latin and Greek, Yale added entrance examinations in arithmetic in 1822, English grammar in 1828, and algebra in 1845. Still, the inclusion of these subjects in the curriculum must have been, for Hopkins, something of a grudging concession. From the early 1850s through 1870, the School’s catalogue opens with the same language:

The Hopkins Grammar School, since its foundation in 1660, has been especially designed to be preparatory to a college course; but particular attention is paid to the mathematics and other English branches of study, as far as possible without infringing on the time necessary for due preparation in the ancient languages.

Meanwhile, Yale was changing in other ways. After the Civil War, the newly established Sheffield Scientific School began to admit significant numbers of undergraduate students, initially on the order of thirty per class, growing to about fifty by the mid-1880s. These students pursued an alternative course of study, offered in parallel to the classical curriculum of Yale College. In light of its college preparatory mission, Hopkins adjusted. Beginning in the 1870s, Hopkins juniors and seniors were given the choice of either a “classical” or a “scientific” course. The latter consisted of dropping Greek in favor of more advanced mathematics, presumably to prepare graduates for enrollment in the Sheffield School. By this time, German also had found its way into the classical curriculum at Hopkins, likely in response to the introduction of modern languages at Yale in the 1850s.

The School catalogues of the early 1920s are of particular interest, for two reasons. First, they highlight Hopkins’ transition from a strictly academic school to a country day school, which, operationally, meant the introduction of an athletics program and a focus on character development outside the classroom. Second, they offer this most explicit statement of the connection between Hopkins and Yale:

From the date of the founding of Yale University (1701), Hopkins has been primarily a preparatory school for that institution.

As Yale became increasingly a national institution during the 20th century, and as the ratio of applicants to students admitted rose from three to one in the late 1950s to fourteen to one today, this particular interpretation of Hopkins’ mission could not finally survive. After World War II, the percentage of Yale students from New York and New England began to shrink dramatically, and, by the 1960s, the admission of public school students began to exceed those from private preparatory schools. Once again, Hopkins adjusted while maintaining its focus on preparing its students for college. Indeed, the focus was maintained very self-consciously when Hopkins merged with the Day Prospect Hill School in 1972, which was equally devoted to an academically rigorous, college preparatory curriculum. In the reaccreditation self-study prepared two years after the merger with Day Prospect Hill, the temporarily renamed Hopkins Grammar Day Prospect Hill School (HGDPHS) reaffirmed its mission of being a six-year college preparatory school, with requirements for graduation that were identical to the minimum entrance requirements at Yale and most of its Ivy League peers: four years of English, three years of a foreign language, three years of mathematics, two years of laboratory science, and two years of history, of which one was U.S. history. Today, the Hopkins web site states that its graduation requirements qualify students for admission to the full range of colleges and universities, and, indeed, Hopkins students attend excellent institutions throughout the nation. Still, only three high schools in the nation have consistently larger numbers of graduates enrolled at Yale College, and all three are much larger than Hopkins.

Independent Governance

Remaining consistent to a mission for 350 years requires stewardship. Such fidelity could not be expected of a succession of headmasters, as able and as dedicated as many of them were. Some heads of school served only a year or two, and others served only three or four years. In the early years, the headmaster was often the sole member of the teaching staff.

The steady hand that kept Hopkins on course, most especially during its first two centuries, was that of the Committee on Trustees. By establishing the Trustees as a self-perpetuating board, independent of both church and state, John Davenport’s contribution went well beyond founding a Grammar School; he helped ensure its survival. As the trustee of Governor Hopkins’ estate, Davenport might have turned over his responsibility, along with the money bequeathed, to the town fathers of New Haven. But he had been frustrated by the town’s indifferent support for the School in its first years, giving an initial subvention in 1660, but allowing the School to close two years later. And Davenport was also disturbed that the city fathers were not sending their children to Hopkins, preferring an English education to a classical one. Indeed, he appeared before the town leaders in 1667 with an ultimatum: if the town were willing to send its children to a school that would fit them for the service of God and Commonwealth, then the Hopkins donation would be given to the fledgling grammar school. If not, as trustee of the estate, he would take the money to another town. The town fathers responded; six of them pledged to send their sons to the school.

Davenport also steered clear of investing responsibility for governance of the school in the hands of one of the town’s churches. We could not determine from our reading why this was so, but one might speculate that he was, by 1668, disappointed by the separation of church and state that had occurred since he founded the colony thirty years earlier. Davenport had presided over both church and town, and quite possibly he mourned the disappearance of theocracy in the governance of his Puritan colony.

Instead, Davenport chose seven men he trusted, and invested them with a deed establishing the Committee of Trustees as an independent, self-perpetuating body committed to carrying out the purposes outlined in the will of Edward Hopkins.

This form of governance was virtually unique in its time. Nearly all New England grammar schools were church establishments, from the mid-17th through the early 19th century. Many such schools perished during the frequent periods of doctrinal controversy that fractured New England churches and towns, while Hopkins’ unusual independence enabled it to survive. Through the Great Awakening and other periods of religious upheaval, Hopkins went on teaching Latin and Greek, even as many other schools failed and new ones emerged.

The advantages of independence were particularly in evidence during the period following the Revolution, when the traditional grammar schools throughout New England were challenged by the rise of the new academies that added English and mathematics to the curriculum and aimed at a population beyond the narrow segment that prepared for college. The more practical approach of the academies reflected the growing influence of commerce and Enlightenment ideas, as well as the waning influence of the churches, in the leadership of the region. Yet the grammar schools throughout New England were, with the exception of Hopkins, creatures of the churches, focused primarily on educating for the ministry. In the face of competition, most of those that remained failed in the period from 1780 to 1820.

Hopkins, however, endured. Although it held stubbornly to the classical curriculum, and sought only to educate those interested in preparing for Yale, its freedom from church control allowed it to flourish in an increasingly secular environment. It is ironic that John Davenport, the theocrat of New Haven, invented the form of secular, independent governance that became the norm in the new academies, and has ever since characterized the nation’s independent schools. But Davenport’s invention proved a robust vehicle for the stewardship of Governor Hopkins’ vision.

Conclusion

In the past two decades, Hopkins has been blessed with more than a consistent mission and a superior form of governance; we have been fortunate to have outstanding leadership in our heads of school. Tim Rodd reasserted the primacy of academic excellence after a period of collective self-doubt, and on his watch Hopkins purchased the adjacent land that made possible its expansion and gave it additional room to grow. In these years, the School engaged its most successful business leader, John Malone, and secured the gift that permitted the construction of the Malone Science Center. More recently, Barb Riley involved the entire School in the development of an ambitious academic plan, and, seizing on the inspiration and matching funds provided by John Malone, she and a number of committed volunteers have broadened the School’s donor base, secured the funding for Heath and Thompson Halls and other important projects, and multiplied the endowment by more than an order of magnitude. Thanks to Tim and Barb, Hopkins’ future has never been brighter.

We have been immensely fortunate to serve Hopkins in these years of abundance, and we are truly grateful to be recognized for our very modest contribution to the School’s success. We know that the proper credit for Hopkins’ achievement belongs not with us, but with all those who labor to make the School what it is – a devoted faculty, exceptional leaders, generous donors, committed alumni and parents. As we hope we have demonstrated, the School’s strength also derives from the wisdom of its founders: Edward Hopkins, who gave the School its mission, and John Davenport, who gave it good governance. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve an institution so worthy and enduring.


In what follows, we rely heavily on Thomas B. Davis, Chronicles of Hopkins Grammar School 1660-1935, New Haven: Quinnipiack Press, 1938, as well as the annual school catalogues published beginning in 1846, found in the archives of the New Haven Historical Society. We are indebted to Erin Johnson, Hopkins class of 2004, for her excellent assistance in research.

Media Contact

Tom Conroy: tom.conroy@yale.edu, 203-432-1345