An Enduring Vision: The Roeper Philosophy Through the Years

Original Publication Date: July 20, 2021

The Roeper Philosophy describes the intellectual and moral beliefs at the foundation of the school. A complex set of ideas about human nature, interdependence, morality, and justice, the Roeper Philosophy is based on George and Annemarie’s understanding of human psychology. Some roll their eyes and say it’s more a description of how the world should work rather than how it does work, but George and Annemarie would say, if you don’t know how something should work, then how will you ever make it work right?

George and Annemarie were not naïve people. They had witnessed the rise of the Nazis, been forced out of their homes, and while they were spared direct experience of the worst of the Holocaust, they had family members and friends who did. They were not naïve about what human beings are capable of. They were very clear, however, about what human beings need to thrive and believed that the ills of world arise when society thwarts people from obtaining what they need: safety; affection; respect; community; theknowledge, skills, and opportunities to pursue rewarding work; and control over their destiny.

As educators, they wanted to create an environment in which students were provided with these necessities in the hope that they would go out into the world and, through their own example and efforts, nudge the world to a slightly better place.

George and Annemarie spent hours, days, weeks over their lifetimes writing out their “philosophy for life.” This was done to create a shared understanding within the Roeper community, so that everyone could operate from the same place. In particular, they wrote a new version each time they gave up some degree of control over their school, so that their ideas remained as operating principles.

The first occasion was in 1956, when George and Annemarie transferred ownership of the school to a non-profit educational trust. This would make it possible to accept tax-deductible donations to the Gifted Child Project they were launching. In the 1956 trust agreement, George and Annemarie specified that the school had to admit students “regardless of race, sex or creed,” and that the school was to set aside a significant portion of its income for scholarships.

In the early ‘60s, they began working on the 1965 Statement of Policies, which was adopted by the Board of Advisors in 1965. The core principle of this statement was that the purpose of the school is to educate children to become “true members of modern world society.” To do this, the school needed to have a student body that reflected the diversity of the world, with a robust scholarship program to ensure that everyone who could benefit from the program, regardless of their economic status, could attend. They also specified a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum that supported each child’s psychological growth with an emphasis oncritical thinking and creativity.

In 1966, the school, which had extended only through ninth grade, launched a high school, leading to the first graduating class in 1969. In August, George released the 1969 Brief Statement reviewing the philosophy in light of having older students. He reiterates the basic premises – diversity, attention to psychological as well as academic needs, and an atmosphere of trust and kindness. George makes greater reference, though, to his belief that students should aspire to achieve not only to meet their own goals, but to advance human progress. One aspect of this element is a more explicit expectation of excellence: “Since the school is for gifted students, excellence of performance is one of the objectives.”

George believed that the excellence gifted people are capable of is critical to solving world problems, and that the school’s program should free students to manifest that excellence. He outlined aspects of the high school educational program that would promote that outcome: students progressing at their own speed, some alternative to assessment by grades, more independent study, an interdisciplinary approach to subjects, and active participation by students in decision-making.

The 1969 statement also includes a discussion about the physical environment of a school. At the time, George was hoping to build a new campus for the high school and he had strong opinions about the kind of physical environment that supports both the community and the individual.

Around the same time, Annemarie presented a talk to the PTA in May 1969 on the Philosophy that includes much of the language we’re familiar with in the 1981 Philosophy. One interesting difference is that the first bullet point is “a complete commitment to reason rather than power.” Later versions use the word “justice” rather than “reason.” A summary of her talk, the 1969 PTFA Presentation, was published in the May/June 1969 issue of the school’s newsletter at the time, “Parent Communication.”

There is an edited version of Annemarie’s presentation that started circulating soon after. It is titled the 1969 Philosophy Restatement, to distinguish it from the PTFA talk. In this one, the eventual choice, “justice,” appears rather than “reason” in the first bullet point.

There is a interesting personal reflection on the Philosophy by George written sometime in the 1970s, the 1970s Personal Philosophy Statement by George Roeper. The document is undated but he speaks of founding the school more than thirty years earlier. It appears to be the preface to a report, but the eventual use for this statement hasn’t been found. Here you can see both the original typescript and a retyped version.

George retired from the school in 1979 and Annemarie retired in 1980. As they left the school, they wanted to write down in one place the most current and complete description of their educational philosophy. As Annemarie described their process, they were on vacation and Annemarie would write in the morning, she and George reviewed it in the afternoon, and then she made any changes. They completed their statement in April 1981 and the school’s Board of Trustees adopted it in January 1982 as part of a longer set of bylaw changes. The relevant section reads: “BE IT RESOLVED THAT: The educational philosophy of the Roeper School remains as developed and formulated by George and Annemarie Roeper and expressed by them in their statement of April 1981.”

The 1981 Philosophy remains the foundational expression of the school’s philosophy, but new versions have been written over the years, usually as part of the school’s accreditation process. As an independent school, Roeper belongs to the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS), which does periodic assessments of each member school. The first step of the process is a self-study year. At Roeper, a committee revisits the philosophy to highlight key principles. These new philosophy statements are valuable restatements but do not supersede the 1981 Philosophy. The post-1981 versions included here are the 1999 Philosophy Statement, and the current version, the 2010 Philosophy Statement.

During the 1999 ISACS cycle, Annemarie contributed a statement summarizing the goals and vision she and George shared in starting the school, seen at 1998 Philosophy Reflections by Annemarie Roeper.

A slightly different approach can be found in the 1990 Roeper Constitution.  After the Roepers retired in 1980, the school spent a decade exploring how to be Roeper without the Roepers – a not uncommon predicament for institutions when charismatic founders retire. At the end of the decade, the Board wrote a Constitution that specifically studied the 1981 Philosophy with an eye to what kind of governing and operating practices were required to fulfill its principles.

Finally, as another part of the school’s effort to manage the transition after George and Annemarie’s retirement, the school asked them to write a history of the school and the development of the Philosophy, which were published in the school’s alumni magazine.  These are some of the most complete surviving descriptions written by the Roepers.  They wrote a history of the school in two parts, as well as a history of the Philosophy that discusses how they conceived it and how they implemented it.

— Marcia Ruff