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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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In the sphere of intimacy, our author observes that teachers seem curiously incurious about the pecking order at the school, as they sit at their own dining room tables, absorbed with their own children. Moreover, they are sideshows to the construction of a Westonian identity—which makes me wonder if the inmates run the asylum. When the adults are away, how do the kids play? Our “nosy ethnographer” reveals the bonding rituals, starting innocuously with dorm wrestling, midnight runs, dodgeball games, tailgate parties, Homecoming Weekend, prom fashion show, and out-of-town permissions, but progressing iniquitously to “porno night” initiation, gambling, drug deals, boozing, and sex on classroom tables.

If this causes parents consternation, ask yourself if the ethnographer compromises the integrity of his study when he stealthily buries the hint of darker debauchery in a footnote: “I have chosen not to share details of rituals I witnessed that might be interpreted as scandalous or that might mislead readers to interpret this book as an exposé of ‘rich kids acting badly.’ ”

Gaztambide-Fernández concludes with cries of inequality, turning the spotlight on race, class, and gender, providing weak examples that suggest disparities between the propaganda of the school, which upholds diversity, meritocracy, and egalitarianism, and the practice of the students, which reveals uniformity, plutocracy, and male chauvinism. Monica, a brown-skinned girl, feels like she is a “pet” when white girls tousle her hair; Michael, a Southern boy on partial scholarship, feels ambivalent about calling himself a “Westonian” in his hometown; Krista, a day student whose father works in dining services, feels estranged from her classmates who buy Versace clothes on a shopping trip to New York; and Julie, an outspoken senior, feels girls police their intellectual visibility in the classroom to preen in front of the boys. 

According to our all-too-serious author, these feelings demonstrate “oppression in the production of elite status groups.” Really? Carping about such “unequal distinctions” sounds frivolous, as if there might be a way to permanently straighten kinky hair or attire everyone in haute couture. It also sounds envious, as C. S. Lewis observed in his essay “Equality” in 1943: “When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies.”

An essential evil at Weston is not social inequality but “paternalistic nihilism,” a term from Cornel West that refers to the insincere and ineffectual do-goodism of the liberal power elite. This outlook is shamelessly expressed by the headmaster at the graduation ceremony, when she perfunctorily exhorts students to help “those in the margins of society” and, in the next breath, says, “You have worked hard, contributed to life, and opened doors of opportunity,” so go ahead and develop a sense of “sophisticated selfishness”—an apt definition of elitism.

Ultimately, The Best of the Best disappoints because it gives us only partial access to the life of the boarding school, which is not so much the fault of its author as its genre. Autobiography, as in the case of Buckley and Lewis, proves far more satisfying than ethnography: The former is lived from the inside and the latter from the outside. Gaztambide-Fernández can only observe the “perilous social geography” in the boarding school, questioning whether he would subject his daughter to its inequalities, whereas Lewis can confess that he developed worldliness at a boarding school—“the desire for glitter, swagger, distinction, the desire to be in the know,” questioning why parents would exile their child to a “concentration camp.”

Christopher Benson is a writer and teacher in Denver.

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