The Prep-School PC Plague

Instead of forging a colorblind elite, these privileged schools stress everything that divides their newly diverse student bodies.

Heather Mac Donald | City Journal | Spring 2002

The diversity industry—the profession paid to harangue Americans about racism and sexism—has burrowed deep into the nation’s elite prep schools. Where private secondary schools once inculcated American citizenship and patriotism, today they employ diversity professionals to show students their complicity in an unjust society. Schools that strove to mold a homogeneous national elite now have enshrined “difference” as their organizing principle. Aping the fractured curriculum of the university, many prep schools offer courses in “gay voices,” the “construction of gender,” and “racial identity.”

This rush to import all that is divisive from the universities is a grievous missed opportunity to create an integrated, color-indifferent society. By all accounts, many students enter high school blissfully free of divisive race-consciousness. But rather than encouraging their students’ instinctive colorblindness, the private-school leadership is determined to snuff it out. Although few environments are less in need of anti-racism chest-beating than elite prep schools, directed as they are by well-meaning baby boomers deeply committed to their minority students’ success, many schools have established diversity bureaucracies for multicultural consciousness-raising. Sadly, that often means creating race-consciousness where none exists.

Bobby Edwards, the amiable dean for Community and Multicultural Development at Phillips Academy (also known as Andover) in Massachusetts, the country’s oldest boarding school and among its most prestigious, is a case in point. “I do more work than I anticipated around the race issue,” he says ruefully. Edwards teaches a tenth-grade required course called “Life Issues,” which immerses students in the holy trinity of university multiculturalism: race, class, and gender. Many pupils tell Edwards that race is simply not a salient feature in their lives. It will be once Edwards gets through with them, though. He informs his class: “Unless we work to help you have an understanding of the history around this issue, you won’t have a clear understanding of how you really do have a race issue.”

Most troubling to a diversity professional: even some “students of color” are skeptical of racism talk. “They say: ‘I don’t think there’s an issue when I go into a store,’ ” notes Edwards, incredulously. Rather than accepting the students’ reported experience, Edwards chides them: “Are you looking at the people following you around in the store?”

Other prep-school diversity bureaucrats report the same resistance to their message of “all racism, all the time.” Hugo Mahabir, head of multicultural concerns at the Fieldston Academy in the North Bronx, admits: “Students today think, ‘Adults don’t get it: we’re post–civil rights; we’re moving on to something else.’ ” They see explicit discussions of race, gender, and class as “divisive,” confesses Mahabir. Russell Willis, dean of multicultural affairs at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Andover’s younger sibling and archrival, finds it “ironic” that some black students oppose affirmative action, since they benefit from it, he bitterly points out.

In a saner world, these little shoots of colorblindness would be encouraged to spread. A privileged independent school, especially a boarding school, is an ideal hothouse for nurturing them. With their arcadian campuses, rich endowments, and freedom to reject the pedagogical garbage peddled by government, ed schools, and teachers’ unions, private schools can create whatever sort of educational utopia they choose. So why not try something really radical: stop yakking about race and gender all the time, and see what happens when gifted young people of all races are encouraged to bond together. It’s not as if, when the graduates get to college, they’ll be starved for identity politics.

Prep-school difference-mongers set about their task by questioning the mental competence of students who say race is no big deal: such students must be ignorant or duped. The other possible explanation—that the students just don’t see much racism anymore—is not within the universe of diversity-think. According to consultant Glen Singleton, when black students claim that they have not experienced racism, that shows the “bias in the education they’re getting.” “They don’t know white privilege when they see it,” he huffs. Andover’s Bobby Edwards speculates that black color-indifference results from “indoctrination or the defense of assimilating.” Students of all races possess a “combination of optimism and naiveté” that leads them—mistakenly—to “attribute the race issue to an older generation,” he says.

Diversity monitors employ more hands-on tools as well for teaching guilt and resentment. A favorite is shopping exercises. Lisa Ameisen, a social-science teacher at the Baldwin School, once the finishing school for mainline Philadelphians, sends her students to Rite Aid to see what products are available for minorities. “If whites can buy 1,200 different kinds of foundation, how does that make you feel, if you can’t find any foundation?” she asks them. Ameisen presses her students to think of other consumer experiences that reflect societal inequity. When asked, however, she acknowledges that a store’s product line might reflect local demographics, not racism.

Ameisen is a crucial link in the transmission of university-level oppression theory to the prep schools. Her specialty is “critical whiteness studies,” a thriving academic field that seeks to expose how whites are unjustly privileged. Ameisen is a board member of the Multicultural Resource Center in Philadelphia, which for the last two years has been providing whiteness studies materials to schools in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; this February, she led a seminar in critical whiteness theory at the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools, the private schools’ main lobbying group. Expect prep-school whiteness classes to burgeon.

Shopping is a big deal for critical whiteness theory, and even faculty members get roped in. In 1997, an Andover administrator gave a faculty presentation on how dominant standards of beauty injure black women’s self-esteem; she had assembled several boxes of makeup, pantyhose, and greeting cards targeted to black and Hispanic consumers, from which white audience members had to make selections for their personal use. “It brought up a lot of discussion of what ‘nude’ means in pantyhose,” recalls presenter Veda Robinson, now a college counselor at the Buckingham, Brown, and Nichols school in Boston.

Andover’s students, meanwhile, discuss the dilemma that minority parents face when purchasing a doll for their children. At first, according to dean Bobby Edwards, the students dismissively say, “Oh, this is really old; of course there are Asian dolls!” Edwards challengingly shoots back: “Does it resonate with you at all that if you’re black you still have to wonder [whether you’ll find a doll of your ethnicity]? So how far have we really come?”

But the racial reeducation has just begun. At this point, diversity trainers like to pull out the separatist tract “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum. Tatum advocates black self-segregation on campus to defend against pervasive white racism, and announces the stages of black and white “identity development.” Hint: the more racially self-conscious and a) angry or b) guilty you are, the more fully realized your identity.

Nadine Nelson, dean of multicultural affairs at the Beaver Country Day School in Boston, uses Tatum’s book in her tenth-grade class “Teaching and Learning for Diversity and Social Justice.” The goal, Nelson says, is “for students to understand their role in oppression: ‘Are you an ally, or are you someone who’s oppressing and abusing your privilege?’ ” I ask if there’s any backlash against Tatum’s message. “Of course there is,” Nelson retorts. “Tatum is provocative, you know—if you’re a tenth-grader and never thought you had privilege. Ultimately, the kids always come around,” she adds, ominously.

Like shopping exercises, Tatum’s message is not just for students. The Exeter faculty studied Cafeteria last year as part of their ongoing multiculturalism discussions. Racial-identity-development theory is starting to inform school discipline decisions. André Withers, a middle-school director at the Canterbury School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, argues that “astute schools” will recognize when discipline problems among their black students stem from one of the stages of black identity development, and will presumably adjust their discipline accordingly.

While many private-school curricula reinforce the difference ideology—the Latin School of Chicago, for example, teaches an English course called “Does Race Matter?” and a history course called “Gender at the Crossroads,” which asserts that gender is “socially constructed”—few schools mimic university theorese better than the twin colossi of Andover and Exeter. This matters, because where the top New England boarding schools lead, the rest of the country follows

Both Andover and Exeter highlight diversity-mongering in their mission statements, with Andover’s stressing the school’s determination to create a “community sensitive to differences of gender, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation.” In this spirit, Andover’s history department has mastered the punning preciosity that marks college difference courses, offering “Masculine/Feminine/Human: Issues in Gender Relations” and “America in the 1950s: I Like Ike but I Love Lucy,” a course that studies—what else?—gender, race, and class.

Exeter has virtually dissolved the literary canon. Its required English curriculum focuses on writing skills—appropriately enough for a high school. But instead of teaching students to write by analyzing the monuments of Western literature, Exeter focuses on students’ own personal narratives—the better for analyzing one’s individual differences. Little wonder, as an English teacher volunteered to me, that most Exeter graduates have no idea whether Chaucer preceded Yeats. When an Exeter student reaches his senior year, lacking any literary compass, he may select English elective courses that fracture literary history into identity politics: “Gay Voices and Themes in Literature and Film,” “The Voices of Women Writers,” “The Zen Mind,” “African and Caribbean Writers,” as well as such crowd-pleasers as “Novels into Film.” Without coming on top of a solid grounding in literary classics, such specialized courses are mere entertainment.

Minority-only freshmen-orientation programs, as well as school assemblies favoring spokesmen for various privileged identities—gay, female, minority—reinforce the “difference” ideology. At Brearley, a Manhattan girls’ day school, every class has a student “diversity monitor” to keep attention focused on “diversity issues.” Each year, many schools pack off a delegation of minority students to the “Students of Color” conference sponsored by the National Association of Independent Schools, where they can learn the newest ways to identify racism. The NAIS’s annual “People of Color” conference gives adults the same tools.

Backing up these formal supports for race- and gender-consciousness is an informal, but inescapable, ethos. “Diversity is absolutely explicit at Exeter,” enthuses Cary Einhaus, a college counselor and dorm advisor. “We talk about it at the dining-room table, at faculty meetings. It’s part of our common language here.” (Einhaus boasted to the New York Times that Exeter’s year 2000 decision to allow homosexual couples to serve as dorm masters sent the message that gay life was “normal.”)

The “common language” of diversity can seem like a Babel to students. Robert Baldi, editor of Exeter’s student newspaper, the Exonian, struggles to convey the school’s diversity-consciousness: “It’s overwhelming, sort of. I don’t know how to describe it. We’re hit with it almost every day.” John Stern, a recent Exeter graduate, reports that as a result of the obsessive focus on diversity, “there was a tremendous amount of division. Everyone [who wasn’t white and male] had some sort of ‘identity’ separate form everyone else. Black folks had one, so did females, Latinos, younger students, gays, [and] poorer students.”

Young people quickly learn that their teachers see an awareness of difference, not commonality, as the highest civic good. “I have never felt more Indian than when I came to Phillips Academy,” wrote Tara Gadgil in the Phillipian, Andover’s student newspaper, last year. Gadgil contrasted the atmosphere at Andover with her school back home in Texas. There, she says, “I was never made to feel that I was any different [from the white students] and the kids . . . never found the need or desire to speak about race relations.” At Andover, by contrast, students “tend to classify the community into its various racial groups.” “We are very aware of racial differences,” she says proudly.

Gadgil believes she is complimenting Andover by this depressing indictment, having flawlessly absorbed the school’s value system. At its most innocuous, that value system can simply look silly. At Brearley this year, when senior girls posted photos of their current heartthrobs—Brad Pitt and Britain’s Prince William—under the signs “The Wall of Brad Pitt” and “The Wall of the United Kingdom,” black seniors saw a racial subtext. They claimed a separate wall, called “The Cocoa Lounge,” for black sex symbols. When someone put a picture of a white man on The Cocoa Lounge—apparently in the spirit of “Tear down this wall”—screaming and crying matches erupted over charges of racial disrespect and separatism. The solution? Distinct ghettos for idols from different identity groups: The Jew Crew, Asian Haven, The UK, and The Cocoa Lounge. A “White Wall” has been threatened but not yet established.

The adult version of the diversity value system is merely pathetic. In 1999, an admissions officer at Oberlin College, Paul Marthers, published an account of his experience advising students in Andover’s summer minority math institute. His article is the anatomy of a nervous breakdown, the perfect expression of heightened diversity-consciousness: “There was fear of inadvertently saying something offensive. Of course I did—using the expression ‘low man on the totem pole.’ . . . There was the fear of acting too white. There was the fear that I would mistake normal adolescent opposition to authority for race-based resentment. There was the fear that colorblindness was inappropriate. There was the fear that I might seem to be favoring Latino and Native American students because they looked whiter. There was the fear of guilt-induced over-compensatory niceness to the students of color. . . . Should I address racism? Should I avoid it? What could I do to not appear defensive or insensitive? . . . I discovered that I had to confront the Caucasian tendency to stress the melting pot and assimilation into the dominant culture. For students of color, maintaining their own ethnic identities is as essential as breathing.”

Marthers’s neuroses are exactly where such diversity tutorials as “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” lead. And his students played their part to the hilt as well, treating him—a man as full of liberal good intentions as you can cram into one midwestern college administrator—with icy contempt and sensing racial subterfuges everywhere.

The epidemic of prep-school racism must be pretty serious to justify such crippling cures, right? Wrong. Even school diversity professionals can’t come up with persuasive reasons why a formal diversity program is necessary. Christine Savini, diversity director at Milton Academy outside of Boston, claims that race issues arise as the inevitable by-product of students living together; the official diversity program only formalizes what is already occurring. An example of a spontaneously occurring racial incident? “If a white student says, ‘Let’s go to the swimming pool!’ the black student may not want to go because of her hair,” Savini explains. “The white student may not know how long black hair preparation takes, and the black student doesn’t want to explain again and again.”

Not only is this example trivial; there are many ways to interpret this exchange without deeming it racial. After all, not so long ago, shamefully, a white girl might never have sought the companionship of a black girl at the swimming pool. Our racial-insensitivity alarm has become jittery indeed if an invitation to the pool now sets it off. Furthermore, black students as well as white students might commit the faux pas of asking unwilling black students to swim, and surely the unwilling student could convey the demands of her hairdo quickly, without resentment, and without encountering insurmountable inco