November 15, 2002

What Would Phoebe Do?

Recently, The Criterion put on its back cover a list of the prep-school graduating class to which each of its contributors belongs, along with the words, "Some of my best friends went to public school." To what end? The Criterion's prep-school listing demonstrates the desire to regress back to high school that some students, who happen to be conservatives, feel, and not the conservative principle of maintaining the status quo. Any overemphasis by a college student on his high school achievements can be taken as an acknowledgement of his present condition. What does The Criterion want readers to make of this list?

Of course, it is the very height of witty humor. The list is at once an inside joke for those members of the intellectual elite who went to their schools and a self-referential commentary on the common (in both senses) association made between conservatism and membership in the upper class.

The humor here fails on both counts. First, not all the prep-schools listed are all that elite. Not to name (or drop) any names, but one of the schools mentioned is one which students often attend until receiving acceptance to a "superior" school in a later grade. While private school education may generally consist of smaller classes, more course offerings, etc., than that which is doled out at public schools, the fact that a school is paid for with something other than tax money is not testament to its intellectual life. Second, as The Criterion's writers surely know, prep schools are frequently the last places a person will find conservatives. Noblesse oblige and class guilt, not conservatism, are the traditions that have been passed down to today's prep-schoolers. All students are encouraged to feel guilt for their family's years of privilege and exploitation of, well, those other people, whomever they may be. In this way prep schools ignore the fact that, at their institutions today, not everyone's family comes from any sort of aristocracy. At the same time this encourages all students to side with those other people—whomever they may be, but certainly they are not us, and thus must be more or less liberal, by some definitions. It takes some time at a prep school to learn that preppy and conservative are not anonymous, or so hope The Criterion writers. If the writers' intended goal is poking fun at the association made by those not in the know between conservatism and privilege, well, I fail to see the humor.

Or perhaps that is not their goal at all; maybe the writers see themselves as members of a fantasy olden-days prep school world, with bits of Eton, scruffy, male-on-male harmless play, with secret societies à la Dead Poets Society mixed in. Since I don't know any of them personally, I cannot attest to whether or not all, or even one, of them could be called blond or scruffy, but their pigmentation and degree of scruffiness is beside the point. The class they wish to represent in the Criterion is one that simply does not exist. While people frequently see themselves as members of an elite, intellectual or otherwise, elitism has nothing to do with conservatism. The sort of conservatism found in the Criterion—anti-birth-control stances, preservation of the beach-babe ideal for female beauty (as seen on one of last year's covers, ironically displayed, no doubt)—is cultural, not political conservatism as it is generally known.

Conservatism understood in this way is highly discouraged at many prep schools and their higher-education counterparts. Unless, with their unamusing but oh-so-clever list, the writers of the Criterion are demonstrating that they wish to resurrect conservatism as the preservation of a noble class. In this case the list represents their separation from the prep-school masses, and the list is meaningless, useless, and a waste of paper (I just felt like yielding accusations of being a tree-hugger who values nature more than free speech, just for the hell of it). It is far more likely, however, that the writers signed off as Class of (insert date and prep school here) ito shield themselves from that which they have not achieved while students at the U of C.