On Donald Barr, “The Captain Queeg of Dalton School”

"As one of the old trustees said, 'When we hired him we didn't know we were getting a dictator,' "


Come Back, Captain Queeg: Thursday’s Massacre at Dalton

Some years are agreeable, some disagreeable. I long ago adjusted to that fact, but last winter as I sat on gas lines, the only cheering things I could fix on were the endless humiliation of Richard Nixon and the fact that my younger children were finally learning something — going to Dalton, a school I really liked. At least, I thought — sneaking cigarettes I supposedly had quit smoking — school is one thing I don’t have to worry about. Dalton under Donald Barr was a decent model of what a good school, public or private, should be: a place where children could learn what they needed to know on their way to becoming well-educated, self-sufficient people. This is what I think a school should be — certainly no less, and I suspect it should not be much more.

Over the years, I had thought about schools far too much. The first article I wrote appeared in this paper about seven years ago. It was an attack on the Elizabeth Irwin School at which one of my daughters was a new student, and it praised City and Country, another Village school where my other children still were. Writing that article was possibly the third biggest mistake I ever made. To begin with, I was dead wrong — not about Elizabeth Irwin which was narrow and aggressively Old-Left propagandist at the time. I have no knowledge of its present character but I always found it interesting that both Kathy Boudin (of the 11th Street explosion) and Angela Davis are alumnae. I was wrong about City and Country which, in its slack permissive fashion, had gone on for 50 years turning the children of bohemians and intellectuals into students with most of the learning behavior problems of inner-city children. The fact that it took the near-paralysis of the brains of my older children before I removed the two who were still there indicates exactly how wrong I was.

The other part of my mistake was that, as a result of the article, it became impossible for my daughter to continue at Elizabeth Irwin and, since it was the middle of the term, they refused to release her transcript to another school unless tuition was paid for the entire year. I therefore paid two private school fees that year, making that piece easily the most costly I ever wrote.

My worst mistake, however, was that I had been wrong about what education is. I was still under the spell of Summerhill and the notion that a child knows what it should learn when I complained (again in this paper) that Donald Barr, then a fairly new headmaster, was “the Captain Queeg of the Dalton School.”

I have difficulty now remembering what it was I found so appalling — I suspect it was Barr’s attitude that the young must be protected from adults capitulating to the escalating demands of those young — an attitude I had come to endorse heartily by the time I came to Mr. Barr, hat in hand, to ask him to put together what permissive education had split asunder. In other words, I wanted my children in a real school.

This was four years ago when even some of the most traditional schools seemed to be softening, buckling at the seams under the onslaught of counter-cultural fevers. Yet at Dalton the kids were learning math, science, grammar, literature, and history in a sensible consecutive curriculum appropriate to age and ability.

Meanwhile, my fifth-grader at still another school was studying, as his core subject for the fall term, China. That is, China since the most recent cultural revolution (this before Mr. Nixon’s visit to China — so that the only texts available for study were Quotations From Chairman Mao and an article from Life magazine). The core subject for that teacher’s class the term before had been “Drugs.” The Spring semester promised “Sex,” but happily the teacher left.

My elder daughter, unable to get into any four-year college (even Syracuse turned her down), was at a junior college in New Hampshire where she finally learned to punctuate and turn in acceptable work on time (something second-graders at Dalton seem to know.)

Further, my younger daughter was at New Lincoln failing a few courses (among them “peak experience”) when New Lincoln decided to shut down for at least two weeks and perhaps for the rest of the term in a gesture of protest against the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. When I commented at a parents’ meeting that I thought it misguided and hardly meaningful to turn teenagers loose to roam the streets — especially since my daughter was failing peak experience and algebra and would therefore not have a chance to pull up her grades — I was, as I recall, booed for my reactionary position. The school, in effect, did close down for some weeks, the peak experience teacher never returning at all.

Thus we came to Dalton. A number of people we knew were surprised that we were sending our boys there. For some time Dalton had been the apotheosis of the New York private school of its genre — neither the Waspy old traditional school, nor the permissive alternative school, but something in between. Many of the parents are rich or famous — sometimes both — and often too doting. As Mr. Barr once said in one of his recurring lectures to parents, “This is the kind of school in which a child evinces an interest in photography at breakfast and by dinner he has a Nikon.”

Nonetheless, in addition to sizable numbers of students on scholarship, there are many children of less affluent writers, academics, and other professionals at Dalton because despite its defects of over-size and over-privilege, Dalton has become the school where the intellectual action is. And of course this has been because of Donald Barr, the cranky, eccentric headmaster who held back the tide of the ’60s at Dalton, striding the corridors of his school in a rumpled suit, wearing in his lapel an American flag pin which was likely an affront to almost everybody.

The word around town was that Barr was an authoritarian bastard, that the kids hated him. Yet looking at stories about him in the school newspaper, at cartoons, one saw that the relationship the students had with Barr was the sort one generation use to have with another — a kind of natural enmity mixed with grudging admiration. At least with Mr. Barr, they knew who the grown-up was. My guess is that former students will be telling stories about him long after the trendy principals who were “on the side of the child” are forgotten.

Shortly after we became parents at Dalton, the first attempt by some trustees to oust Barr erupted in an explosion that reverberated through the pages of the New York Times, Time, and New York magazine. The parents were alerted to the putsch by a letter sent out by, among others, Norman Podhoretz, David Susskind, and Sidney Lumet — all parents who were opposed to the move but, like the rest of the parents, had no power to prevent it.

Dalton is governed by a self-perpetuating board of trustees. There is only nominal direct representation of the parent body, so nominal that the trustees are accountable for their actions to no one but themselves. In one sense this is good because it frees the board from the modish pressures that parents tend to bring to bear on an elected board. But it can also leave parents in the position of waking up one morning to find their school turned upside down on the whim of the oligarchy.

This, in fact, is what happened to those who had sent their children to the pre-Barr Dalton, a much smaller progressive school — not wildly academic, but strong on the arts. Or, as one alumna member of the board put it, “It used to be such a nice school. The children played with animals…” It was a warm, almost sweet school until one day the parents turned and found what seemed to be a martinet in charge, the school size doubled, computers installed, and no one caring whether their children had friends in their classes or not.

The kind of individualized attention the new Dalton was pushing was based far less on the child’s psycho-social development than on his intellectual readiness for a given subject. The old Dalton parents had, in effect, had their school changed utterly by a board of trustees who, it turned out, never knew exactly what it was getting with Barr. As one of the old trustees (also a parent) said, “When we hired him we didn’t know we were getting a dictator.”

A number of the old teachers and parents left, and others took their places. But still, not everyone was happy.

As I said before, by the spring of 1971 some trustees had had enough of Barr. There was angry talk that he had been hasty in expelling sixth graders who were running a nasty shakedown ring, that he had expelled others because of drug distributing, and that some of the kids so treated were children of parents too powerful to accept this kind of behavior from a schoolmaster.

The parents, however, overwhelmingly supported Barr, who strode dramatically into a crucial PTA meeting to make his case, thus kicking off the fight to retain him. “And now,” Barr said, taking leave of the assembled parents, “I have to go to a meeting of the trustees who are gathered in the basement — where they belong.”

Fortunately, at that time, the board had a number of members who did not want to violate the intensely expressed will of a parental majority and, in the face of a prodigious pro-Barr mail, phone, and telegram campaign which used enough high-quality time and energy to have easily elected a congressman, the trustees allowed their board to be reconstituted and a new board came into being.

We then relaxed, secure in the knowledge that our irascible headmaster was doing his job, that fifth-graders would still have their choices of 10 languages including Greek, Chinese, and Russian, that students would still read aloud the dress regulations (no sneakers, no jeans) in a German accent, and that the younger students would still tell each other that if you were very bad, you would get sent to Mr. Barr’s office where he would talk to you and give you a lollipop.

Then, two months ago, one of my sons came home from school with the word that Mr. Barr was leaving. It was the first I had heard of it. An article in the Times the next morning reported that Mr. Barr had resigned in a dispute with the trustees which “seemed to center on the question of where the board’s authority should yield to the headmaster’s judgment.”

The Times continued by noting that “Richard Ravitch, a construction company executive who is president of the board of trustees,” had said that “ ‘My sense of trusteeship and my understanding of the requirements of the state law and the bylaws of the school all say to me that it is the obligation of the trustees of an institution to make all the policies.’ ”

What new headmaster of any worth could possibly be attracted to Dalton after that statement?

I had known Mr. Ravitch previously as a Dalton parent and as the head of that construction company which has brought into being, among other developments. Waterside — that great hulk sitting on six acres of the East River — which now, out of pure malice, I hope remains unrented forever. Further back, I recall, during the 1968 Democratic primaries, Ravitch, one evening at the McCarthy Cabaret, poorly supported the unfortunate Hubert Humphrey in a debate with partisans of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.

I bring this up now because I remember thinking Ravitch was a jackass then, but I hardly expected he would be in charge of the only good school I had ever found for my children. Or as someone said on hearing the news, “I thought I was sending my children to Donald Barr’s school, not to Richard Ravitch’s.” Dalton has lost the man who made it extraordinary because Mr. Ravitch, welding his “sense of trusteeship” like a club, precipitated Donald Barr’s resignation.

Of course there had been issues in dispute between some trustees and Mr. Barr. There always were. Barr is a natural adversary. These trustees felt that because contributions to the school had fallen off (money to Israel and the Nixon economy) and costs had risen, cuts in courses and personnel were necessary. In response to the push for economies, Barr had carefully worked out to the approval of most of the trustees a plan for eliminating certain courses that did no real damage to the school’s academic standards. In fact, several trustees have said that meetings between Barr and the board had, in the months preceding his resignation, been so relatively calm that they had seen no auguries of trouble. Even when an evaluation of the school had been ordered by the board, Barr went along — not cheerily, but he went along. After all, there had been other evaluations before.

As I understand it, what brought about the fatal confrontation was that, on the Thursday of the week before the resignation was announced, Richard Ravitch had prepared a letter to the Dalton faculty which urged the teachers to talk freely to the outside evaluation committee when it appeared at the school. Barr, however, was convinced that the letter could well have been interpreted by the faculty (who already knew that some teachers would not be returning because of the cuts) as an invitation for them to participate in a general back-stabbing in an attempt to influence the evaluation committee as to who should stay and who should be cut adrift.

Barr refused to distribute the Ravitch letter unless it was rephrased. Ravitch ignored the concern of the man he considered his hireling and ordered Barr’s assistant to place the letter in the teachers’ boxes instantly. In the battle of wills that followed, Barr resigned. He may well have been too quick to resign — but it is clear that Ravitch made no move to reject the resignation and, in fact, was manifestly pleased at this turn of events.

When a parent called after hearing of the resignation to ask why no effort had been made to get Barr to reconsider, Ravitch answered, “Believe me, it’s the best thing that could have happened to the school.”

Later, Ravitch tried to tell another irate parent that Barr had quit because he didn’t want an evaluation of the school. “But did you try to persuade him of the need for an evaluation?” the parent asked.

“Of course not,” said Ravitch, “would you tell you cleaning woman why you wanted her to do something?”

A few weeks ago, a faculty member at the University of Chicago was told of the Dalton situation. He was astonished. “Barr made that into one of the best schools in the country,” he said, “and now they’re getting rid of him?”

Damn it, if only Hubert Humphrey had been elected, he might have appointed Richard Ravitch ambassador to South Vietnam and Donald Barr would still be headmaster of Dalton.


This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 9, 2019