By Cassidy Shi, Summer Times Staff Writer

The history of Phillips Exeter Academy is bound up with America’s — the Declaration of Independence was only five years old when PEA was founded in 1781. 

The Academy is an independent boarding school that houses students from grades 9 to 12. The school is located in the city of Exeter, NH, and is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States. It was founded by John Phillips and his wife Elizabeth Phillips as an all-boys school during American Revolution, and with a history of 238 years, it has managed to keep the title as one of the best secondary schools in the world.

The Phillipses donated an astonishing $134,000 ($3.1 million today) to start the school. John Phillips also founded its neighboring school, Phillip Academy (Andover) which is is 3 years older than Phillips Exeter Academy, the two school enjoying a friendly rivalry. Phillips was originally a banker/merchant, where he made most of his wealth before becoming a public entrepreneur. PEA  was also financially aided by John’s nephew, Samuel Phillips, Jr. — who is also credited as a founder of Phillips Academy.

John Phillips was born on December 27, 1719, in Andover, Massachusetts, then British America. Phillips entered Harvard College at the extraordinarily young age of eleven and graduated in 1735 at 15. He later returned for his master’s degree and earned it in 1738. He moved to different schools. During 1767 to 1775, he served as a counsel for the then governor of New Hampshire; he also represented the general court and judge of the city of Exeter. 

Phillips was renowned for donating his wealth to the general public via the education system. He was the first major donor of Dartmouth College, becoming a trustee of the College from 1773-1793. John Phillips passed away on April 21, 1795, the school was then led by the preceptor, Benjamin Abbot.

One of the largest events that happened to Phillips Exeter Academy was the Harkness Gift. Edward Stephen Harkness was an American philanthropist (someone who loves, and make donations to, humanity). 

He was born on January 22, 1874, in Cleveland, Ohio. Harkness was born in a wealthy family, son of Stephen V. Harkness, a major investor in the oil industry. He attended Yale College and Columbia Law School and was married to Mary Stillman, the daughter of a wealthy attorney.

Harkness made multiple charitable gifts during his lifetime, estimated at $2.4 billion today. He was a major investor in the early education system in the United States, introducing the Harkness teaching method. On April 9, 1930, he wrote a letter to the then principal of Exeter, Lewis Perry. The letter said:

“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

The method is aimed at creating conversation-like classrooms. The students are the ones who play the main role of talking, while the teacher plays the role of starting and maintaining the conversation. The method decreases the dependency of students on teachers during lessons and increases interactions instead of teachers simply giving a lecture while the student listens. Edward Harkness donated $5.8 million to support this method, and since then, the Harkness method has been widely used across American boarding schools and colleges.

Phillips Exeter Academy became coeducational (mixed gender) in 1970, with only 39 girl students. The ratio, however, is much more even today. The school has hosted many famous alumni: Mark Zuckerberg—founder of Facebook; Daniel Webster—Politician/ U.S. Senator; Franklin Pierce –14th President of the United States; John Irving — author; and many more.

The campus of PEA hosts some wonderful academic facilities. The academic building (The fourth of its kind) is a learning space that houses the History, Math, Religion and Language departments. The building was built in 1914 and was designed by an influential American architect, Ralph Adams Cram.

Another important facility at PEA is the Class of 1945 Library. The building is relatively new compared to its surrounding facilities, therefore, standing out on campus. The library contains a shelf capacity of 250,000 volumes, it is considered the largest secondary school library in the world. It is even rated by The New York Times as “serene, distinguished structure of considerable beauty.” It is truly one magnificent building on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy.