Saturday, June 29, 2013

Fire in the Shire: Wherefore Art Thou New Hampshire?

Daniel Webster
Holderness Graveyard

North Beach, Hampton
Lake Winnipesaukee from Mount Major

In the "Lord of the Rings"  a small, modest, happy Hobbit has greatness thrust upon him, much to his chagrin, and he has to embark from his happy Hobbit home in his beloved shire to meet threats and to have adventures in the greater, threatening, astonishing world.

In some ways Mad Dog thinks the same story may be played out for the children of New Hampshire, whose schools are conceived and restricted within the confines of their small towns, rather than, say across larger counties. 

And yet, having visited some of the town high schools, Winnecunet, Exeter, Portsmouth, Mad Dog has been impressed by, if nothing else, the architecture, and the presence of some enviable technology--particularly the TV studio at Exeter.

Mad Dog wonders whether life in New Hampshire prepares the rising generations to deal with the world marketplace of talent.  One indicator of this might be looking at the numbers of New Hampshire high school graduates who leave the state for college in other states.  Recently, this indicator of adventurousness has been affected by the sheer cost of going to an out of state university: Somehow the University of Colorado at Boulder seems to attract New Hampshire students, but how many go to Berkley, The University of Chicago, Rice University, any of the Ivy League schools, Swarthmore, Haverford, Carlton College, Grinnel, Vanderbilt, Duke, Stanford, New York University?

If there are very few New Hampshire Hobbits sallying forth, cost may be the major factor, but somehow families in other parts of the country manage to send their children to these far flung schools.  Mad Dog suspects there is doubt among New Hampshire parents about the value of such exposure for their children, or perhaps simply, there is fear: How you gonna keep them on farm once they've seen gay Paree? Or Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.?

If New Hampshire really is inward looking, as Mad Dog thinks is possible, is that good for New Hampshire or for the country, or the world?

In some ways, New Hampshire conjures up in Mad Dog's lame brain the Amish, a group which has looked around at the world and said, "No."  Of course, the Amish, admirably, encourage their children to leave their farms and to live among the gentiles for a year or two and to come back only when and if they are convinced life is better among the Amish. Mad Dog is not sure a similar exposure happens in New Hampshire.

Mad Dog hastens to add, he has no reliable data. His only source of impression is a very unscientific observation that he rarely sees college decals on the back windows of New Hampshire automobiles or T shirts or sweatshirts  for any of the above mentioned schools as he drives and bikes around New Hampshire.  When you do see a decal, it's usually UNH, Keene State or Plymouth State, or its on someone summering on the New Hampshire beach before they vacate for Boston or New York. This is certainly different from a drive around the Washington, DC suburbs or from observations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Richmond.

Mad Dog recently met a woman who once owned a flower shop in Portsmouth, which had been the law office of Daniel Webster. She was proud of that. She was pleased New Hampshire once played a role in the nation's life which placed it at the center of what was happening.  There is a marble bust of Webster in the Supreme Court and a statue of him looming over a traffic circle not far from the Capitol.  New Hampshire once sent the flower of its youth out to meet the world, and to mold it.

Lincoln sent his son to Phillips Exeter Academy and visited. George Washington rode through New Hampshire.  The state was important enough then.

Walking around a graveyard in Holderness, New Hampshire, Mad Dog was stunned by the gravestones:  Row after row of young men who died between 1861 and 1865.  New Hampshire may have been far away from the monumental  struggle of those years,  between the forces of darkness and the forces of righteousness, but its men were in it. They stood up; they stepped forward;  they were counted. 

The same is true in the graveyard in Gilmanton, where Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place, is buried: There are graves of soldiers from the Civil War through Vietnam surrounding her. And her artistry touched the nation and moved it. At the time, her book was dismissed as an inconsequential pot boiler, but no one can read that lurid opening paragraph, one of the best in American literature of any generation and fail to see the deep New Hampshire well of knowledge and affection from which it sprang. And, Mad Dog notes, one of its essential plot lines explored the moral conundrum embodied in the decision to do an abortion on a teenager who had been impregnated by her own father.  Huckleberry Finn was much admired by Hemingway. Peyton Place is much admired by Mad Dog, which likely explains its obscurity.

Fly home from Europe and you watch the screen on the back of the seat in front of you and the first thing you see which is identifiable on the map is Lake Winnipesaukee, the first landmark in America is New Hampshire.

Of course, we have the primaries, and all that attention those bring, but nowadays what happens in New Hampshire is quickly forgotten as campaigns move quickly on to other states and the TV cameras leave yesterday's news in the dump.

We have great talents visiting the Music Hall in Portsmouth and the Casino in Hampton and the Ogunquit  Playhouse, just across the river. 

But are we being left behind as the world globalizes? Are the people here, who have the intelligence and the talent being stoked with the ambition to change the world?

And, Mad Dog wonders, should we care much if the answer is "No"?


  1. Mad Dog,
    Actually you'd be surprised-students from NH are leaving the Shire at significantly higher rates than the national average. Nationally 74% of students remain in their home state for college, yet only 52%, or 40% depending upon the source, of our students remain in NH for school. "2012 Status of Higher Education in NH" and a piece in the Washington Post "Brain Drain: States that lose the most college students" both have interesting information on the subject. For example, I knew that NH was last for state funding for higher education but I didn't realize NH led the nation in 2011 for student debt. Also NH students don't venture to far, 82% remain in New England but maybe students from other states don't go to far a field either. Unfortunately, NH colleges lack racial diversity, like the rest of the state, but no real surprise there...

    I really like the pictures you've posted, but yikes what's up with Daniel Webster? He even looks more formidable(scarier) than Thaddeus Stevens-yes the norm for portraits was a more solemn expression but his is a bit extreme-definitely looks like he's up for a duel with the Devil. Quite a difference from today where one is expected to look gleeful in pictures-at all times and in all settings..I love the photo of Winnipesaukee -looking at that makes one wonder why anyone would ever want to leave the Shire..

    Finally, wasn't it a treat to see the Mama Grizzlies turn to eating their own-aka Sarah Palin going after Kelly Ayotte over the immigration bill. Fun to watch-and on that note, have a great 4th of July week Mad Dog.

  2. Maud,

    Now I'm inspired to actually look at some real data.
    Of course, leaving the state is not as important as where they go: Is leaving for The University of Rhode Island the same as leaving for the University of Pennsylvania?
    What is your sense, Maud, of how NH students are prepared, compared to kids from New Trier HS or Bronx HS of Science or Boston Latin or Montgomery Blair (MD) or the Harvard School (LA) or any of the highly competitive systems of public systems?
    Kids from NH would not have to go far to go to very selective schools. In fact, the New England and Northeast states are where the greatest concentration of highly selective schools are found. Whether or not highly selective can be read as "best" is another matter.
    I will try to enjoy the 4th. I believe both Jefferson and Adams died on the 4th, oddly enough.

    Mad Dog

  3. Relevant to this discussion an article from a college newspaper (Brown)

  4. Mad Dog,
    I think NH does a pretty good job preparing it's high school students-certainly there's room for improvement but what isn't that true of? On one measure I saw NH ranked 10th nationally for combined SAT and ACT scores. On another table measuring SAT scores alone NH was 25th but that was deceiving since NH's Participation rate in the SAT taking was 75% and almost all the other states ranked higher were below 10% participation.But like everywhere, there are high performing NH districts and low performing ones and to predict which a school will likely be you just need to look at the income levels of the districts. Schools with a high percentage of kids qualifying for free or reduced lunches don't do as well as say Bedford or Hollis--surprise,surprise..

    As for the high performing high schools you mention and the ones discussed in the Brown newspaper article, they can't really be compared to the average high school in NH or anywhere else.Yes, in many cases, like Phillips Exeter, they are able to boast a racially diverse student body with students from all over the globe .But really Mad Dog don't you think that's where the diversity ends-after that my guess is the students are remarkably homogeneous-affluent, highly motivated, very skilled and academically gifted. How many kids at Phillips Exeter or Andover qualfy for reduced or free lunches? As for the top urban public high schools I know in the past some have been criticized for cherry picking their students via rigorous entrance exams-I don't know if this is the case for the ones you mention, but if it is they can't be compared to a public school assigned to educate all the kids in the district.

    I don't know what percentage of NH students who leave the state do so to attend top-tiered schools, but since the majority of those leaving stay in New England my guess is a pretty respectable number. To your question is attending Univ. of RI the same as attending Univ. of Penn.--probably not. The student body at the latter will share a lot more of the characteristics of the top prep schools.But are the top ranked colleges best--perhaps in many cases but not all. You've mentioned before cost is a big factor and is graduating desperately in debt to go to one of the highest ranked schools worth it, maybe not. Also I can imagine, and have read, that some of the top tiered schools can have a hyper competitive,grade grubbing, every man for himself atmosphere. That might be fine for some students in preparing them for what they will face after graduation but for others it would be an environment they would not thrive in. Which is better- a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small one? You could make a good argument either way based on the kid...

  5. Maud,

    Clearly, this is an area you know well, and I suspect your instincts are correct.
    Princeton, cut throat and hyper-competitive, is likely the playing fields of Eton for Goldman Sacks; not so much for medical school, at least before medical schools became home to every-man-for-himself types.
    I'm going to go back and read some more Andrew Hacker, who taught at Princeton and Cornell and Queens College and came away saying the Princeton class he studied was filled with thorough going mediocrities--people who made lots of money but contributed little to the nation--unless you count Donald Rumsfeld as being a major contributor.
    I'm now old enough to appreciate "perspective" and I think what you offer is just that.

    Mad Dog