Prep schools suck.
Don't believe me? Let me offer you these testimonials.
The Catcher In the Rye. Prep schools are full of crooks, phonies and sexy bastards.
"Dead Poets Society": Prep schools are prisons run by desiccated old Victorian schoolmasters. The students are repressed and uptight and their parents are even worse--they'll push you till you can't take it anymore and you'll end up sneaking into your father's desk in the middle of the night to find his gun so you can blow your brains out.
"School Ties": Not only are prep schools full of crooks, phonies, and sexy bastards, but they're also full of anti-Semites.
"Scent of a Woman": Did I mention that prep schools are full of sleaze-balls that hide behind their fathers, too? And that they enjoy lording it over the scholarship students?
Prep schools get an extraordinarily bad rap in popular culture, but it doesn't end there. Consider how former President George Bush was consistently maligned because of his preppy background (Andover '42). Recall the flap over President Clinton's decision to send First Daughter Chelsea to private school.
These are examples of mainstream America's unrelenting hostility toward the prep school. Americans assume that these schools are a social cancer, eating away at the egalitarian principles upon which this country was founded.
Some go so far as to say that the prep school must go. These people contend that the prep school drains the best and brightest from the public school system, thereby weakening it.
But how can this be when the total percentage of American students enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools is around 11 percent? The percentage of American students in private secondary schools is somewhere around 2 or 3 percent. Don't blame the private school for the problems of the public school.
The most common sort of attitude, though, is the kind demonstrated back in November 1989, when George Bush made a special visit to his and my alma mater. Andover (Phillips Academy), to commemorate George Washington's visit to the school two hundred years earlier in November 1789.
Before the visit, one more-than-slightly-misinformed Boston Globe writer called Andover one of the oldest (est. 1778), preppiest bastions of WASP hood in the country, a place where future Republicans are hatched.
The popular image of the prep school is based on outdated stereotypes that many of today's preppies find insulting. Many prep schools, especially the New England boarding schools, are actively trying to shed their archaic images. Today's prep school students aren't all male, aren't all rich and they certainly aren't all white.
The administration at Andover has made a conscious effort over the past ten years to diversity the makeup of both its student body and its faculty. With regard to economic background, the prep school is no longer the exclusive enclave of the fabulously wealthy. Sure, the old money types are still there, but the vast majority of students are middle to upper-middle-class.
Andover and other schools perceived to be the preppiest of the preppy have been providing millions in financial aid for years. Today, 43 percent of Andover students are on some sort of aid. At the time of Bush's visit, 10 of the students there received full scholarships.
Back in Bush's day, these aid recipients would have had to work for the school--usually waiting on their wealthier schoolmates in the dining hall, as David Greene did in "School Ties." The school was doing the poorer students a favor and made sure they knew it.
This is no longer the case. Snobbery is not nearly as prevalent as it used to be. Granted, WASPs are still a prominent presence at most prep schools. But students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds are growing in numbers, so much so that the WASPs seeking sale haven from racial tension can no longer assume that the prep school will keep their sensibilities safe and warm.
Fifteen percent of the faculty are Black. His panic or Asian. Over 13 percent of the students are Black or Hispanic, more than 10 percent are Asian and another 10 percent come from foreign countries. The school doesn't even bother to keep track of the high percentage of lewish students and, of course, not all remaining students are WASPs.
So much for Brahmin in breeding.
Prep school wasn't a utopia back then and it isn't now: the issues of race and class still persist, but now in a way that more closely reflects the rest of the world. Preppies of all political persuasions have a greater sensitivity to problems of race and class.
Another example of this awareness is the number of thriving community service programs that are run by many of the old New England prep school. These programs involve students in the greater community in ways that many public schools can't because of limited resources.
True, many things haven't changed at the prep school The pressure to succeed and the competition are still intense. Despite changes in the composition of the student body, faculty and administration, the Puritan ethic persists Students face a bevy of rules and regulations, covering everything from off-campus travel to having guests of the opposite sex in rooms to even the slightest hint of dishonesty.
But on the whole, it is undeniable that the Prep School is undergoing a transformation. The stereotypes still apply to many prep schools, but the trend is unmistakable. Andover's disciplinary policies have become the most lax of the New England prep schools, and the dinosaurs in the faculty are becoming an endangered species.
Students and teachers do manage to discover that they can be friends--I remember long chats with the school chaplain and daily visits with one of the deans. One of the elder faculty members at Andover has commented that the school has lost a great deal of its former stuffiness, and that he believes the school has developed a sort of delightful "sassiness" that contrasts sharply with the red brick, granite steps, and somber wood paneling.
And even if the same forces that created the old-boy network are still welding together the future bourgeoisie, the Establishment to come will be much more progressive in outlook. Most students at Andover and other prep schools describe their politics as liberal compared to that of their parents.
One other good thing that has not changed with almost everything else is the intensely close friendships that develop at the prep school. Just imagine living with your classmates 24 hours a day, sharing meals with them, griping about homework with them standing side-by-side on the sports field with them, appearing onstage with them, discussing the newspaper with them (when you have time to read it rather than skim it) and finally graduating with them. After three or four years of that how could anyone not be friends for life?
The bottom line is that the prep school provides teaching second to none, a plethora of offerings in their curricula, enviable facilities, full time and effective counseling and an experience that many alumni believe to be the best years of their lives. Yes, the stereotypical prep school and preppie still exist, but to blindly believe in anachronistic archetypes is to ignore the more complex reality.
I'm proud to be a preppie, as well as a Democrat and a son of Chinese immigrants.