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Prepped for Success

Are the old schools still what they were?

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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The Best of the Best

Prepped for Success

Photo Credit: Corbis

Becoming Elite 
at an American Boarding School
by Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández
Harvard, 312 pp., $29.95

Growing up in the Rocky Mountain West, I never had a classmate uprooted to an elite boarding school in the East. That would have been tantamount to a Gamelan dance, or lunar landing.

The “foreign” has psychic sway on us precisely because it departs from our prosaic experience, luring us into an alternative narrative. My curiosity about boarding schools began with the autobiographical accounts in William F. Buckley’s Nearer, My God, in which he remembered tearful homesickness, “smothering my face with the collar of my pajamas so that I would not be heard by my neighbors,” and in C. S. Lewis’sSurprised by Joy, in which he remembered “the gray faces of all the other boys, and their deathlike stillness” in the presence of “Oldie,” the cruel headmaster who flogged students for “vulgar accents” and geometry mistakes.

My curiosity deepened when I enrolled in a summer conference at Phillips Exeter Academy to undergo training in a pedagogical method named after a philanthropist (Edward Harkness)—not a philosopher (So-crates)—who sought to revolutionize the classroom through student-centered learning. I figured that this might be the closest I would ever get to the hallowed (and perhaps haunted) world of the elite boarding school. Not so.

Enter ethnographer Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, who does not let his readers forget that he is “a light-skinned Puerto Rican male” and was permitted, initially as a consultant and later as a researcher, to cozy up (emphasis on “up”) to the predominantly vanilla, patrician class at Weston, the fictitious name he gives an elite boarding school in New England. For two years he sought to camouflage himself at sporting events, pep rallies, admissions tours, dorm lobbies, semiformal dances, dining halls, and classrooms, eyeing the “hidden curriculum.” 

As ethnographers go, he writes in the confessional mode of Oprah Winfrey, divulging his status-anxiety (“I was inescapably an outsider, and a ‘lower’ outsider at that”) and the prurient—albeit academicized—mode of Howard Stern, observing the ubiquity of skin during springtime (“She is wearing a slightly transparent white tube dress that contrasts little with her fair skin, and that accentuates her curvaceous body”). Ethnographer is a misnomer, by the way: Here is a status-tician, whose “quest for love from the world,” as Alain de Botton diagnosed it in Status Anxiety, hides beneath his abstruse goal to examine “how students mobilize symbolic resources to construct and enact elite identifications, and the role such constructions and enactments play in how they negotiate other symbolic boundaries within the context of one elite boarding school.” Only a student in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard could write such gobbledygook. Translation: The author examines how a youngster becomes what Lewis calls “One of the Most Important People There Are.”

David Hume once noted that “it is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity.” The squinty-eyed monster of envy stalks Gaztambide-Fernández. At once he feels proximity to the elite, owing to his own Ivy League education, and disproportion, owing to his bourgeois family. His tone, as a consequence, wavers between reverence and rebuke. Boarding schools are elite, he declares, because of their typology (private designation), scholastics (curricular scope and sophistication), history (connection to elite social networks), demography (social class of student population), and geography (facilities and location). Of these five characteristics, the last is the most interesting: The spatial abundance of the pastoral landscape mirrors the economic abundance of the elites who carve their niche in it.

Boarding schools also qualify as “total institutions,” a term that the sociologist Erving Goffman used to describe prisons, concentration camps, and mental hospitals, where all “aspects of life are conducted in the same place and under the same single authority.” After readingThe Best of the Best, the reader may conclude that there is an uncanny resemblance between students and inmates. Working, sleeping, and playing together, both groups employ insider jargon and erect hierarchies based on sexual prowess and worldly smarts. In addition, the schoolhouse and prison house are “bubbles,” not only outliers from the proverbial “real world”—preparing their denizens to survive Wall Street or Main Street—but also shelters for delusions of grandeur.

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