U.S. News & World Report this week devotes 29 irony-free pages--just a little less than half the magazine--to a cover story about why you really should ship the little blighters off to boarding school. Press critics will probably have a field day with the fact that U.S. News editor Stephen Smith's alma mater, Deerfield Academy, is featured both on the cover and in the opening spread. (Inside.com, whose new proprietor, Steven Brill, is another Deerfield alum, suggests that Smith's job is in some peril, though this is perennially the case with U.S. News editors. In the future, everyone will be a U.S. News editor for 15 minutes.)
In an editor's note, Smith expresses an endearing sheepishness about the Deerfield play:
My close ties with Deerfield, one of the schools profiled, complicated my own role in this enterprise. I am a graduate, as is my eldest son, and my other son is a student there now. My wife is a trustee. I wrote the opening story so that my own views would be out in the open, and I left the school profiles and picture selections to others. As is customary, I read the cover package after it was edited, checking for fairness, accuracy, and clarity, and also reviewed the layouts. To my considerable unease, pictures of Deerfield were slated for the cover and opening spread, though both are so generic that at first glance I didn't recognize the setting. My defense is strictly journalistic: They were the best pictures we had.
But it would be a real shame if Howie Kurtz and his ilk failed to look beyond this penny-ante conflict of interest. Now, Chatterbox doesn't have anything against boarding schools per se. Chatterbox sends his own children, somewhat shamefacedly, to private school (or, to deploy the euphemism used throughout the U.S. News cover package, "independent day school"). As a graduate of Beverly Hills High School, he is in no position to strike a posture of self-righteous populist indignation. Moreover, Chatterbox is willing to believe that the bad old days are well behind us when Jews and other arrivistes of dusky hue were strongly discouraged from enrolling at St. Grottlesex. (Though the photographs in U.S. News do show a strikingly large proportion of button noses.) And speaking of penny-ante conflicts of interest, Chatterbox should here disclose that during U.S. News' previous editorial regime he was a writer and editor, and that he negotiated his resignation after expressing publicly some impolite opinions about the owner.
Nonetheless, it is difficult not to ask, regarding a special report that makes no pretense of offering even mild social criticism of these hatcheries for America's elite: How many of the magazine's readers are in a position to Use this News? This is U.S. News, not the Robb Report. The median income of the typical U.S. News reader can't be much higher than a year's tuition at Groton ($30,340), Exeter ($27,000), or even the relatively inexpensive Lawrenceville ($25,720), where Dink Stover once prepped for Yale. And while the Croesuslike endowments of some of these schools allow them to admit on a "needs-blind" basis, Smith is forced to concede that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for the petite bourgeoisie to enter these hallowed gates. (Reading between the lines, one also develops the suspicion that the flossier boarding schools achieve ethnic diversity mainly by admitting the children of plutocrats from around the globe.) Even assuming one is rich (or poor) enough to consider sending one's child to boarding school, the U.S. News special report won't enlighten you about the strengths and weaknesses of each. Which schools are coasting on their reputations? Which have the most demanding curricula? Which are known to be dumping grounds for dumb rich kids? There's an appalling lack of the sort of rigorous consumer reporting that is usually U.S. News' strong suit. Instead, the school write-ups serve up a procession of pointless tableaux. (At Hotchkiss, "One clean-cut young man steps over hockey sticks strewn across an Oriental rug, grabs his backpack off a mahogany piano bench, says hello to the housemaster and his wife, and sits down with some pals to discuss chemistry.") In an editor's note, Smith explains the methodology:
After our issue on high schools, we met with numerous heads of boarding schools and offered renewed assurances that we had no intention of ranking them. We agreed that there was no way of rating one school above another when prospective students were as young as 14 or 15; at that age, the best school is the one that best fits the child.
But if there's no way to compare one school serving students as young as 14 or 15 to another, how was U.S. News two years ago able to select, out of roughly 1,000 high schools in six metropolitan areas, 96 as "models of excellence"? Apparently, it's easy to judge the quality of schools that will educate your child free of charge but impossible to judge the quality of schools that will educate your child for $30,000 a year. And yet, Chatterbox must admit, he was stirred by U.S. News' most memorable testimonial (for Andover):
[He] was a 15-year-old sophomore when he arrived from Texas. He knew at once that his academic background was not as strong as most of his classmates'. For a time, [he] feared he would flunk out, and he was never more than a middling student. He played varsity basketball and baseball but was never a star. Still, he was a big man on campus thanks to his irrepressible personality, cocksure manner, and love of the limelight. [He] was a member of his class rock-and-roll band, not for singing or playing an instrument, but merely for clapping. He was also High Commissioner of Stickball, managing to organize a league of campus teams open to even the most uncoordinated boys. "Andover," he says, "was a life-changing experience."
It was at boarding school, apparently, that George W. Bush learned to disdain the kids who hit the books too hard (or applied themselves too vigorously to any other pursuit). Were he at all self-conscious about his own fecklessness, Bush might not inhabit the White House today.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.