January 14, 2013

Hey, Kids--How About Studying Oppressed Sex Workers?

Mcdonald essay.jpg

By Heather Mac Donald

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 voices.'"

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

contemporary 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 dreams. 

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 equity. 

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 guys."

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 next.  

Comments (4)

John Wilson:

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.

Harrison Flynn:

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.


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.


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.

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