Category Archive 'St. Paul’s School'

01 Aug 2016

Recommended Reading

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StPauls
St. Paul’s

What with the rebellion of the low-information voter and the ascent of Donald Trump, the white working class is in the news a lot these days and everyone is reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (previously mentioned here), a personal eulogy from an upwardly-mobile ex-Marine to his rust-bucket hometown and left-behind family and friends.

The perfect counterpoint book to read, I think, is Shamus Rahman Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.

J.D. Vance describes how History and Culture have failed our society’s losers.

Shamus Rahman Khan describes, with a mixture of astonishment and congratulatory applause, just how one of the absolutely snobbiest and most expensive secondary boarding schools in America (the place that educated John Kerry and Doonesbury’s Gary Trudeau) educates future winners in a combination of graceful personal ease, the ability to fake your way through anything you don’t actually know, and a nihilistic belief in the complete equality of all things (excluding only your own special elite status).

St. Paul’s often touts its academic program as the best in the nation. In its advertising literature, the school boasts that it has “the highest level of scholarship” and that its “students stand at the top of their peer group in terms of academic preparation.” And according to eager administrators and lackadaisical adolescents alike, the centerpiece of St. Paul’s academic program is undoubtedly the humanities. The humanities program introduces students to the history, literature, and thoughts of different moments in world history. The humanities division describes in some project is an interdisciplinary, multi-vocal investigation of “great questions.” …

This program, significantly, does not teach students to know “things.” The emphasis is not on memorizing historical events, for example. Instead it is on cultivating “habits of mind,” which encourage a particular way of relating both to the world and to each other. …

The enormity of this program is both thrilling and terrifying. The thought of knowing all of that, being swept up and carried through the tide of history, is tantalizing. It is also the product of St. Paul’s hubris. How can any one person possibly teach everything..? As I prepared to teach my own class at the school, I soon found out that I was asking the wrong question. Of course the expectations were ridiculous. No high schooler could ever learn all that the course offers. The more important question, I eventually realized, is much harder to answer: what this mean to present material in this way to teenagers?

Perhaps the point is not really to know anything. The advantage the St. Paul’s installs instills in its students is not a hierarchy of knowledge. As we have seen, knowledge is no longer the exclusive domain of the elite. And these days, information flows so freely that to use it to exclude others is increasingly challenging. By contrast, the important decisions required for those who lead are not based on knowing more but instead are founded in habits of mind. St. Paul’s teaches that everything can be accomplished through these habits, even while still in high school. What strikes me as presumptuous, even shocking, about this vision of the world is taken for granted by pretty much every teenager at St. Paul’s.

Though I marveled at how impossible it seemed to teach students all these things, the school itself seems largely unconcerned about this. Indeed, St. Paul’s approach seems closer to Plato’s outline of education in Republic. Building upon his famous cave metaphor, Plato tells us, “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely putting knowledge of the souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes …” ..In short, education is not teaching students things they don’t know. Rather it is teaching them to think their way through the world. …

“I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.”

“What do you mean how to think?” I asked.

“I mean I learned how to think bigger. Like everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”

The emphasis of the St. Paul’s curriculum is not on “what you know” but on “how you know it.” Teaching ways of knowing rather than teaching the facts themselves, St. Paul’s is able to endow its students with marks of the elite –ways of thinking or relating to the world– that ultimately help make up privilege. As the exclusionary practices of old the become unsustainable, something new has emerged from within the elite. …

[S]tudents learn to consume from an enormous variety of sources. They learn to work and “interact” with art, literature, history, from the popular to the scholarly, and have a huge range of materials their disposal. For example, one of the major assignments in Humanities III is to compare “Beowulf” to Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Students are asked to think about the ways in which Beowulf is a monster [Beowulf is the hero. Grendel is the monster. –JDZ] that man must confront, just as “Jaws”‘s monster prowls the waters of humanity (and perhaps even our own internal waters [And the BS keeps on flowing. –JDZ]). The goal is not to endow the students with a kind of highbrow elite knowledge. Rather, they are taught to move with ease to the broad range of culture, to move with felicity from the elite to the popular. They learn to be cultural egalitarians. The lesson to students is that you can talk about “Jaws” in the same way you can talk about “Beowulf.” Both become cultural resources to draw upon. And most important, the world is available to you –from high literature to horror films. They’re not things that are “off-limits” –limits are not structured by the relations of the world around you; they are in you. Students are not to stand above the mundane, perhaps lowbrow horror flick. Instead they are taught the importance of engaging with all aspects of culture, of treating the high and low with respect and serious engagement. As our future elite, the students are taught not to create fences and moats but instead to relentlessly engage with the varied world around them.

The consequences of St. Paul’s philosophy can be seen all over campus, evident even in how students carry themselves. Students have the sense that they could do it. The world is a space to be navigated and renegotiated, not a set of arrangements or a list of rules that are imposed upon you. The students are taught that they are special, and they begin to realize this specialness. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy –thinking everything is possible just might make it so.

15 Jul 2016

The Alleged Meritocracy

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YaleDemonstrators
This is the Meritocracy?

Helen Andrews casts a jaundiced look at The New Ruling Class in Hedgehog Review.

Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. …

Not since the Society of the Cincinnati has a ruling elite so vehemently disclaimed any resemblance to an aristocracy. The structure of the economy abets the elite in its delusion, since even the very rich are now more likely to earn their money from employment than from capital, and thus find it easier to think of themselves basically as working stiffs. As cultural consumers they are careful to look down their noses at nothing except country music. All manner of low-class fare—rap, telenovelas, Waffle House—is embraced by what Shamus Rahman Khan calls the “omnivorous pluralism” of our elite. “It is as if the new elite are saying, ‘Look! We are not some exclusive club. If anything, we are the most democratized of all groups.’”

Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School is a fascinating document, because he seems to have been genuinely surprised by what he found when he returned to his old boarding school to teach for a year. Khan, the grandson of Irish and Pakistani peasants, worked his way to a Columbia University professorship in sociology via St. Paul’s and Haverford College. So he thought he knew meritocrats—but today’s breed gave him a bit of a fright. For one thing, they proved to be excellent haters. Consider how they talk about a legacy student whose background can be inferred from the pseudonym Khan gives him, “Chase Abbott”:

    After seeing me chatting with Chase, a boy I was close with, Peter, expressed what many others would time and again: “that guy would never be here if it weren’t for his family.… I don’t get why the school still does that. He doesn’t bring anything to this place.” Peter seemed annoyed with me for even talking with Chase. Knowing that I was at St. Paul’s to make sense of the school, Peter made sure to point out to me that Chase didn’t really belong there.… Faculty, too, openly lamented the presence of students like Chase.

“Openly lamented”! Poor Chase. This hatred is out of all proportion to the power still held by the Chases of the school, which is almost nil. Khan discovers that the few legacy WASPs live together in a sequestered dorm, just like the “minority dorm” of his own schooldays, and even the alumni “point to students like Chase as examples of what is wrong about St. Paul’s.” No, the hatred of students like Chase feels more like the resentment born of having noticed an unwelcome resemblance. It is somehow unsurprising to learn that Peter’s parents met at Harvard.

Of course, Peter is not at St. Paul’s because his parents went to Harvard; as he makes clear to Khan, he is there because of his hard work and academic achievement. Here we have the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing: the notion that the people who make up our elite are especially smart. They are not—and I do not mean that in the feel-good democratic sense that we are all smart in our own ways, the homely-wise farmer no less than the scholar. I mean that the majority of meritocrats are, on their own chosen scale of intelligence, pretty dumb. Grade inflation first hit the Ivies in the late 1960s for a reason. Yale professor David Gelernter has noticed it in his students: “My students today are…so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are.… [I]t’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the twentieth century—just sees a fog. A blank.” Camille Paglia once assigned the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” to an English seminar, only to discover to her horror that “of a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name ‘Moses’.… They did not know who he was.”

Hat tip to The Barrister.

03 Nov 2015

Jacobean Revenge Tragedy at St. Paul’s

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OwenLabrie

St. Paul graduate Owen Labrie had his admission and full scholarship to Harvard cancelled and went to trial and was convicted of a felony for arranging a liaison with a three-years-younger schoolmate via computer. Labrie will now be a felon and a registered sex offender for life. He was also sentenced to a year of imprisonment, as the result of declining to plead guilty and accept a lesser penalty.

I think it is pretty easy to form the right opinion of the justice of all of this, just by reading the New York Times‘ account of the victim’s perspective.

Appearing on a video screen, the victim of a sexual assault by an older student at one of the nation’s most exclusive boarding schools asked a judge here on Thursday to make sure her assailant was held accountable for a crime that, she said, had left her numb.

“What he did to me made me feel like I didn’t belong on this planet and that I would be better off dead,” the girl said.

She added: “Without just and right punishment, I really don’t know how I’ll put one foot in front of the other. I don’t want to feel imprisoned for the rest of my life. I want to be safe again. And I want justice.”

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Caitlin Flanagan, in the New York Daily News, explains that the real reason Labrie’s life is being ruined is sociological.

Young men get away with treating girls badly all the time, but when it’s the poor boy on scholarship who has offended two daughters of a rich and important family and those scorned daughters are determined to get revenge, well, we are getting into the territory of the plot line of a play by Webster.

Labrie was… a star athlete — captain of the varsity soccer team — at one of the best prep schools in the country, and he was every other good thing you could be there: a prefect, an excellent student, the recipient of one of the school’s top awards and of an admission letter to Harvard. As such, in the narrative that gathered quickly around him, he was a monster, the one-man embodiment of white male privilege.

But there was one fact about him that couldn’t be reconciled with the others: He was also a poor kid on full scholarship, the only child of a single mother who says she went years without child support.

He had changed the trajectory of his life and hers when he got into St. Paul’s, but he forgot the first rule of being a scholarship boy at a prep school, which is that you don’t cause any trouble to the rich kids. When he singled out the younger sister of a girl with whom he’d already had a sexual relationship — when he created a situation that would either drive a wedge between the two girls or unite them in fury against him — he took his life in his hands.

“What a golden change of heart,” he texted the girl when she agreed, at last, to meet up with him. “You took my sister’s virginity,” screamed the older girl the next day, giving him a shiner he wore to graduation. It would have been an excellent time to keep his mouth shut, but he couldn’t help himself and he bragged about “slaying” the younger one. …

The jury didn’t like Labrie. They could not convict him of assault — not with the accuser saying that during the encounter she had “tried to seem cool,” had tried “not to offend him” — but the relentless scrolling of his plans and plots, typed out in Facebook messages and texts, did him in.

He’d been a cad, another old-fashioned word, but he hadn’t recognized that he wasn’t like the other boys, didn’t have a rich father who could fly out and stop him from talking for hours to the cops without counsel.

In the time-honored manner of the only sons of single mothers, he had been trying to protect her as much as — maybe even more than — himself.

He’d seen men be callous toward women all his life — saw his father’s child support go in arrears, watched as senior boys tricked younger girls for sex. It is, indeed, a custom there, the “senior salute.”

At the end of the day, all Labrie was left with were the remnants of those traditions: the herringbone jacket, the tortoise shell glasses — and a prison term. …

[H]e was out of his league, toying with the affections of rich girls, leaving a record of his cruelty a mile long. He got caught doing something women have always feared and loathed: tricking them, flattering them, taking sex from them and making a joke of them. And now he’s been crushed for it.

Hat tip to Frank Dobbs.

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The judge should have allowed Labrie the option of enlisting in the US military and avoiding trial.


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