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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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Becoming One of the Most Important People There Are involves five E’s: exclusion in the admissions process, where wunderkind-wannabes are selected from affluent households that breed a culture of competition, if not neurosis; engagement in the academic, athletic, and artistic opportunities at the school; excellence in the aforementioned undertakings; entitlement to privileges based on a self-congratulatory work ethic; and envisioning future privileges, including admission to elite colleges and universities, and access to high-status careers and leadership roles.

Since the 1970s, American boarding schools have sought to diversify their student populations. Nevertheless, they still retain the appearance of WASPy kids in Ralph Lauren ads. Gaztambide-Fernández hankers for more diversification while recognizing the predicament that faces a black girl from Watts or a farm boy from Grand Forks who feels like a recipient of institutional paternalism. Their skin color and zip code are tallied up as a credit to the school—but at the cost of their experiencing the soft bigotries of white guilt and economic guilt.

A “discourse of distinction” emerges among the students at an elite boarding school, which serves a twofold purpose: To separate them from the hoi polloi, and to rank them among the aristoi (“the best”). Consider these statistics: 

In 2008, 16,043 students—roughly 0.10 percent of the more than 16 million secondary school students in the United States—enrolled in schools that could be categorized as elite boarding schools. While the U.S. public spent an average of $8,701 per pupil in 2005, elite boarding schools spent more than $46,000 per pupil.

Outsiders are denigrated as socially stuffed and mentally starved, whereas insiders are dignified by a hierarchy of smartness and workaholism. PGs (post-graduates unofficially recruited to sports teams) fall to the bottom of the totem pole. “Latin Distinction” graduates (the study of Latin for three years and a modern Romance language for two years) rise to the top. 

Our author never scrutinizes fidelity to the Gospel of Work, which begins in the classroom and ends in the boardroom. If the average worker spends a month longer on the job each year than in 1970, imagine how much stress and how little leisure characterizes the elite worker, who tarries in the office long after the janitors empty the wastebaskets because an appetite for consumerism drives him more than a pursuit of excellence. The ugly truth that few Americans will confront is that “the Work Ethic’s boss is Mammon,” as the historian Eugene McCarraher puts it.

Beyond the sphere of work, there is the sphere of social interaction, where unofficially “reserved seating” in the chapel and dining hall segregates students according to the logic of whether they are cool or weird. At Weston, brainiacs and virtuosos are cool, with jocks and “posses” (the slick, fine, and beautiful) as the runners-up. By contrast, participants in SAHAS (the Society of African and Hispanic American Students), A-Club (the Actors Club), and GSA (the Gay-Straight Alliance) are seldom on the margins of cool, and usually downright weird.

Just as the Jets and the Sharks mark their turf in West Side Story, the cool gang and the weird gang mark their turf on campus: the former gravitating toward the “valley” side, featuring the football stadium, athletic complex, and baseball diamonds, and the latter gravitating toward the “hills” side, featuring the academic classrooms, theater, music building, and art studios. Gaztambide-Fernández notes that the valley side is linked to “dominant and static gender ideals, athletic prowess, traditional definitions of beauty, and definitions of ‘popularity’ commonly associated with non-elite school contexts,” whereas the hills side is linked to “more fluid and thus marginal sexual and gender identifications, intellectualism, artistic interests like theater, and fringe activities like punk and ‘alternative’ cultural repertoires.” The “perfect Westonian,” he says, transgresses these turf lines, embodying the ideal of the “well-rounded” individual who, first and foremost, performs decently in her grades, then plays the oboe, exerts herself in field hockey, and socializes with the ease of a Stepford wife.

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