An Ever-Increasing Standard of Luxury

Contemporary critics have made good sport of lampooning the WASP elites (an aristocracy of wealth and privilege) who ran this country for most of the 20th century.  In “Why Our Elites Stink” (7/12/12) NY Times columnist David Brooks submits the idea that they may have possessed some positive qualities lacking in today’s elite (a meritocracy of brains and ambition).

He observes, … today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

From what I understand, the Groton of a century ago was austere on a good day and brutal on a bad one.  If you go back just a half-century to the Andover of George W. Bush or the St. Paul’s of John Kerry, you’re still looking at a decidedly Spartan experience: cubicles, bland food, strict and anything-but-casual dress codes.  I had a taste of this orientation at the very traditional junior boarding school I attended. I remember donning gray suits every Sunday morning, assembling for inspection (shoes polished to a reflective shine!), and then marching en masse in single file to church in town.  I can still feel the mandatory cold showers after sports practices!  (They told us it warded off colds.)

The bald premise of these schools was simple: You’re going to run this society… We may not have time to discuss the merits of that fact, but we’re going to kick your you-know-whats to get you ready for it. 

Brooks presents some pros and cons of this arrangement: The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

Leaving the broader social implications to Mr. Brooks and others in his profession, I can speak to the change in schools.  If the schools of yesteryear were Spartan, today’s boarding schools could only be described as luxurious.  Like a dog chasing its tail, today’s independent schools and colleges seem locked in pursuit of an ever-increasing standard of luxury. Sometimes it feels like the Arms Race.  Rather than confront the comfort level of our students and their parents, we seem powerless to fight the pressure to please the customer.  (Quick story: While on an upstate New York college tour with my daughters, I heard one candidate on our campus tour whisper to another, “Yo, Colgate has a much better climbing wall.”)

Brooks interprets: Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.

Most folks today agree that an aristocracy based on how rich you are is neither fair nor best for our society.  For some time, I have doubted that one based on how smart you are is all that much better.  It does seem to compel us to value luxury and convenience over discipline and obligation on our campuses.

Back in grad school we would endlessly debate a timeless question: Are our schools a reflection of our society OR Is society a reflection of our schools?  I suspect that the answer ebbs and flows, like the tide.  It may be time to start swimming against the current.

Onward,  Malcolm Gauld