A pop quiz: Where
might a student most likely research the following topic: “The Perversion of the American Dream: Deconstructing
Media Portrayals of Sex Workers through Analysis and Real Narratives”? At Smith, perhaps? Possibly Brown? Actually, Phillips Andover, one of the
country’s oldest and most august prep schools, recently sponsored a student project
in this classic topos of feminist theory. An
Andover twelfth-grader spent last summer examining more than 20 films and
television series based on the sex worker industry and analyzing interviews
with sex workers in three major U.S. cities, reports a school press
release. The student concluded–in impressive
mimicry of feminist jargon–that the “persistent misrepresentation [of sex
workers] in popular media has resulted in the loss of [their] ‘true
Anyone who still associates elite
prep schools with Latin declensions and mandatory chapel has not been keeping
track. The academic-victimology complex, having
achieved a near total victory over the college curriculum and bureaucracy, has
been busily cloning
itself within costly secondary schools.
It’s not enough that college freshmen be taught to think of themselves
first and foremost as members of oppressing or oppressed racial and gender
groups. Fourteen-year-olds are also
prime targets for conversion, because it’s never too early to discover your place
in the system of American injustice.
Phillips Andover, set on a stunningly beautiful campus in
Massachusetts, has been a leader in importing academic High Theory into the once-tradition-bound
world of the Ivy League feeder school. Its
Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) office sponsors a stream of
activities designed to promote race, gender, and class consciousness in
students, including the sponsorship of summer research projects in “diversity
and multiculturalism.” The list of past CAMD research projects reads like the
schedule of a Modern Language Association conference: “White Privilege: A History and Its Role in
Contemporary Education;” “The Multiethnic Dilemma: Identity
formation for the Latina, Afro-Latina, and African American;” “The Real Within the Virtual: The
Evolution of Social Media and its Effects on LGBTQ Youth.” One CAMD “scholar” interviewed lesbians in
Philadelphia for a paper on LUGs–that
would be “lesbians until graduation” or,
for the truly clueless, students who declare themselves lesbians during college
then go straight after graduation.
The sex workers paper, however, is a particularly
vivid illustration of the academic left’s totalizing ambitions. According to Andover’s description of the
project, “scholar” Nikita Singareddy discovered that
media depictions categorize sex workers within a dichotomy of glamour and
destitution. Stereotypes and prejudice color these portrayals, and constructs
of sexuality, gender and vulnerability are superficially examined on television
for the sake of entertainment.
It is theoretically possible that
Miss Singareddy came to Andover with an independent interest in studying
prostitutes and that nobody at the school steered her to the topic. It is also possible that she precociously found
her own way to back issues of Signs
and Critical Inquiry, and thus
absorbed the hackneyed rhetoric of “gender constructs” and the silencing of
female “voices” on her own.
But the “silenced sex worker” theme
is so overdetermined as a ready-made product of postmodern academic theory,
with its prurient interest in all things sexual (except involving married
heterosexual couples) and its elevation of the marginal and squalid to
normative status, that it is hard to believe that Miss Singareddy’s paper did
not grow out of themes and priorities established by the adults on campus,
including its recently retired headmistress, in whose honor Miss Singareddy’s
“scholarship” is named. The choice of TV
and movies as the target of “scholarly” inquiry also reeks of the contemporary
humanities profession, though of course students hardly need any encouragement
to jump on that bandwagon.
Singareddy presented her “research” to
the Phillips Andover “community” on January 11, followed by a round table
discussion moderated by CAMD’s Community
Awareness for Everyone office. What does Andover hope that its students
will glean from Miss Singareddy’s project: that prostitutes are “strong women
together?” That they enjoy sex? That they have chosen their profession freely
or, to the contrary, that it has been forced upon them by a sexist, racist
society? Apart from these feminist
bromides, the only conceivable takeaway from such a project is how to create a
high school transcript that makes you a shoo-in for the college of your
If there was any grown-up at the
school who said: such a topic is not worthy of us and is unfit for a teenager (who
should be reading Keats instead), his protest had no effect. Here are some alternative subjects that an
Andover student might have researched over the summer: the role of the chorus
in Greek tragedies, the architectural styles of the Chartres cathedral; the contrasting
comic visions of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare; the evolution of constitutional
democracy out of absolute monarchy; the debates between the American Federalists
and Anti-federalists; or the various mechanisms available for constraining government,
including the separation of powers. For
a more “real world” project, how about the nature of money, the preconditions
for markets and how they operate, or the difference between debt and
Time is already too short for
cramming into students’ vacuous noggins all the precious knowledge that they
ought to possess. But few are the
remaining teachers and professors who feel any urgency about such a task, since,
as we all know, Western civilization, at least, is sadly limited by the race
and gender of its main architects. In
further slavish imitation of the college identity racket, Andover dismantled
its core curriculum in English this year.
No longer would instructors be required to teach a group of foundational
texts that included the “The Odyssey,” “Oedipus Rex,” “The Canterbury Tales,”
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Hamlet.” The English department chairman explained the
change to the student
newspaper: “The goal in removing the required core texts is, first, we
don’t want the Course of Study or any formal institutional document to
communicate to our students that we think only Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer
and Chaucer are the most valuable or the most worthwhile. But if I make the
decision to teach it in the context of all the other things I’m teaching, then
it is less likely to communicate to the students that it’s all about dead white
Only an academic diversity-monger would think that the most salient feature
of Oedipus Rex and Huckleberry Finn is the skin color and gonads of their
authors and thus that they both belong in the same category of “fungible
dead-white-guy literature.” Left on his
own, a student is likely to encounter such works as sui generis, possessed of a
unique sensibility that cannot be reduced to the trivial totems of identity
politics. Thus the compelling need for
the academic-victimology complex to get to students early and to teach them to
look first to the race and gender of an author before deciding whether he might
have anything to offer them.
Prep schools have
been furiously replicating the university-level diversity bureaucracy as well,
based on the same preposterous conceit used at colleges that without the
ministrations of diversity administrators, faculty and students would be
tearing each other apart with their crude and ignorant biases. The Diversity Committee
of Phillips Exeter, Andover’s even older
sibling in New Hampshire, “promote[s]
social justice and equity for all members of the community”–emphasis on the “all,”
you redneck bigots!–while its Dean of Multicultural
Affairs “continually educate[s] the community about our differences (and
similarities).” (Even if “similarities” were
not a hilariously transparent afterthought aimed at avoiding the charge of divisiveness,
why does Phillips Exeter need a diversity dean at all to learn about its “similarities”?)
In fact, the
opposite reality to the one posited by the diversity industry pertains: Students
arrive at these bucolic retreats unconcerned about “our differences” and just
wanting to make friends, while the faculty are paragons of tolerance and
compassion. If ever there were an
opportunity to forge a “post-racial America,” these fabulously wealthy, pacific
institutions possess it. Why not provide
students a respite from the dreary nostrums of identity politics and immerse
them exclusively in art, history, and science?
It is an absolute certainty that they will be enveloped in academic
victimology once they arrive in college; it is far less certain that they will
encounter the serious study of the past and of great works, which schools like
Andover and Exeter still at their best admirably provide. It’s child’s play to enflame an
adolescent with a sense of moral outrage, even though he lacks the life
experience to distinguish real from merely apparent injustice. It’s far harder to lay the foundation for a
deep knowledge of civilization or an appreciation of beauty. If the elite prep schools wanted to set
themselves a worthy challenge, they could offer training in the sensibility of
the Rococo or the music of Mozart’s operas.
It is a measure of how seriously the
academic left takes its mission, however, that it has so thoroughly colonized secondary
education. The elementary schools are
4 thoughts on “Hey, Kids–How About Studying Oppressed Sex Workers?”
I wish Mac Donald had taken a closer look at what the CAMD scholar program actually brings to the Andover campus. She has failed to recognize the opportunities that the program provides both the scholars themselves and the entire campus- opportunities to study subjects outside of the traditional high school curriculum and learn from the real world rather than just from a textbook.
Sidenote: Exeter is not actually an “older” sibling, but was founded three years after Andover.
I for one prefer teaching Medea as a model for heterosexual relationships (liked the Oedipus gag).
Most high-school and college work is garbage but it’s purpose is not new academic learning. It’s there mostly to keep children occupied while their brains mature – hopefully they’ll gain some skills and wisdom along the way.
There’s an interesting bit of work by James Heckman (you know, that guy who won the Nobel Prize) about the importance of non-cognitive skills.
In a nutshell, kids do better as adults when they can manage their emotions, focus, and apply themselves.
For what it’s worth, Singareddy’s essay demonstrates a lot about her ability to apply herself.
Wilson: It IS vacuous garbage, and while your clever (but hollow) “Oedipus” gag may land you a stand-up gig in the Poconos this summer, it falls flat as a refutation among adults. Grow up.
Yes, it’s too bad Andover has stopped teaching kids about traditional heterosexual relationships by forcing them all to read “Oedipus Rex.”
Perhaps Heather MacDonald, in her paean to reading, should feel obliged to actually read a student’s paper, rather than a press release, before condemning it as vacuous garbage.