A Skewed Sense of Prep School

In early September the New York Times printed an article in its Op-Ed section, entitled “Parental Supervision Required”, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Sittenfeld, author of Prep, a coming-of-age novel set at the Ault School, a fictional prep school which bears a striking resemblance to Groton School, her alma-mater. The novel, despite being plagued by one of the most annoying main characters in literary history, quickly became a bestseller within weeks of its publication. The main gist of the article is that, while Sittenfeld was the sole instigator of her own boarding school matriculation, she would not send her own child away to school. The problem with the editorial is not so much that Sittenfeld opposes the idea of sending her hypothetical child, no matter his or her characteristics, to boarding school, so much as that she defends this assertion with the same sweeping generalizations and use of stereotypical archetypes which made Prep both petty and transparent. She states that, no matter how great the best prep school instructors may be, “they’re undermined by lesser teachers who, rather than guiding students out of teenage pettiness, seem themselves to get sucked down into it,” and declares that “there is on every boarding school campus some variation on the doofus teacher who, if he’s not actually buying beer to ingratiate himself with the popular senior guys, sure seems to wish he could.” Her most significant and perhaps most revealing gripe is that boarding schools are “terrariums of privilege” which formulate students who possess a “skewed sense of money”, and who tend to forget that “it is not normal to go skiing in Switzerland just because it’s March, or to receive an S.U.V. in celebration of one’s 16th birthday.” While it may be true that many boarding school students come from fairly wealthy backgrounds, many do not, and when one considers that a significant portion of boarding school students, in lieu of places like Andover and Groton, would have attended in our hometowns day schools at which students actually park those brand-new S.U.V.’s next to their teachers’ 1986 Honda Civics, her point seems a bit mute. Considering that I now live in a one-room double with a Chinese native who has been a citizen of five different nations and have formulated friendships that cross socio-economic, geographic, and racial divides in a manner which would have been inconceivable had I remained in La Jolla, I believe that boarding school, rather than encasing me in a “terrarium of privilege”, has broadened my worldview, and that of many of my fellow students, exponentially. Sittenfeld criticizes the outstanding facilities at many boarding schools as “obscene”, and states that the average student begins to “to think her access to such bounty must exist because she deserves it.” Such an assertion is characteristic of the sweeping generalizations that she makes throughout her article (and which make Prep’s Lee Fiora so irritating). She attempts to convince the reader that even if local schools are abysmal, that a boarding school education, which she herself acknowledges as characterized by “opportunities for independence, academic stimulation, small classes, peer companionship and…campus beauty”, is essentially worthless. She implies that the average boarding school student is undeserving and lacking in the maturity and scope of mind necessary to be truly appreciative of such advantages. It is perplexing, then, that Sittenfeld chose to sit as the 2002-2003 writer-in-residence at all-male St. Albans School in Washington D.C., an institution which retains a significant boarding population as well as a reputation for a continuing adherence to tradition. While some of Sittenfield’s criticisms are built upon realities, the boarding school experience is nonetheless characterized by independence and opportunity, a fact that Sittenfield’s article all but ignores.