Last week we posted Heather Mac Donald’s criticism of an off-beat student project at Phillips Andover Academy on”The Perversion of the American Dream: Deconstructing Media Portrayals of Sex Workers through Analysis and Real Narratives.” The student, Nikita Singareddy, writing on Facebook, protested the article and Heather Mac Donald responds here.
Nikita Singareddy: Normally, I wouldn’t respond to something so baseless and personally attacking, but I only ask that in the future Heather or any other writer actually reads my paper or attends my presentation before condemning it as some type of moronic vitriol. My family is personally connected to the topic at hand – so for “Minding the Campus” to claim my CAMD work (Community & Multicultural Development) was to attend my dream school is belittling and frankly disgusting. The sheer disgust for Andover and other such secondary institutions in this article, too, is almost sad. Andover commits itself to diversity and multiculturalism in all realms; it has opened doors for thousands of scholarship students like myself (with a need-blind policy) and adopts a pedagogy where students are encouraged to explore that which interests them and affects society at large. Not only do you not know anything about my research and clearly nothing about Andover, you don’t know anything about me.
Heather Mac Donald: Ms. Singareddy reads my article as a personal attack. My dispute is with Andover, not with her, but it is completely understandable that she would feel implicated by my criticism of her “Deconstructing Media Portrayals of Sex Workers” project, and I am sorry for that. I by no means meant to suggest that she chose the topic in order to boost her college admissions chances or that she approached the subject with anything other than sincere interest, and I should have made that clear. Nevertheless it is the case that such a theme, so perfectly in sync with current university culture, will jump off the page of an applicant’s file in any college admissions office.
To a teenager, studying how pop culture silences prostitutes’ “voices” may seem like an important pursuit. I myself might have been attracted to such an inquiry, given my own susceptibilities in college to the allure of allegedly cutting-edge theory. An educator, however, should know better–at least one who appreciates how vast is the universe of vital knowledge and how little the time to expose students to it. Perhaps if a student had so nailed the basic facts of American history that his head could not hold any more, was well on his way to mastering at least one foreign language, had a solid mental map of the broad movement of civilization and of world geography, had read key monuments of Western literature, and could explain how cells replicate themselves, how animals adapt to their environment, and what Newton’s laws of motion are, then one might talk about whether there was value in a “hookers in TV and movies” project. Otherwise, however, it is so far down the list of appropriate objects of high-school study as to not even register. As for the over-rated “critical-thinking skills” that are often invoked to justify such “unmask the -ism” media analysis projects, they can be much more productively learned by writing a term paper on the causes and effects of the Thirty Years War.
The real purpose of such a topic, of course, is to jumpstart a student’s entry into the Gender Studies worldview awaiting him in college. And it is here where Andover and other elite prep schools are missing a vital opportunity. I do not regret that my Andover literature classes did not expose me to the deconstructive theory that would consume me at Yale. I would, alas, be wallowing in Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, the precursors of today’s narcissism studies, soon enough. I do deeply regret that as an Abbot student joining the newly coeducational Phillips Academy in 1973, I was grandfathered out of Andover’s legendary American history course. Thanks to my own ignorance, it proved my last real opportunity to learn American history at the feet of a master teacher. Yale did not have the curricular courage to impose a serious history requirement on its students, and I was too clueless to take advantage of Yale’s history faculty on my own.
Likewise today, high-school students of Ms. Singareddy’s generation will be exposed to Luce Irigaray and Peggy McIntosh soon enough. Immersion in the claim that females and certain minorities are the subject of unending oppression is the only constant in today’s college curriculum. It is even more uncertain than in the 1970s, however, that after high school, students will ever again encounter the nonpolitical study of history and classical literature. While Andover’s students undoubtedly spend much of their time in foundational courses, putting today’s shallow resentment theory on a par with the loving pursuit of core knowledge does them a disservice. Prep schools should seize their chance to preserve humanistic learning, rather than ape the superficial social justice posturing of the academy.