Scandalous Schools

I don’t read Vanity Fair all that often. A few years back, when my dentist was fancy, copies of the magazine were in her waiting room. I read it. She consistently tried to up sell dental improvements, though, and once I tired of saying “no thanks” to the filling upgrades and invisible braces, I changed dentists. My new one does not subscribe and I have not read it in ages.  Does anyone other than health care professionals still subscribe?

Recently I came across a collection of VF articles on scandal, intrigue and drama at elite schools and colleges assembled into a book. Attractively packaged by editor Graydon Carter, Schools for Scandal: The Inside Dramas at 16 of America’s Most Elite Campuses, plus Oxford is an entertaining read of fine reporting and educational misfortune. The stories are uniformly intriguing and not at all what anyone in education would want the public to think of representing education as a whole. The writing is consistently solid. It is good journalism – some articles are significantly more substantial than others. And an important aside to those of us who toil within academia: inspirational stories of student success do not seem to fall under the publication’s lens.

What we have instead are tales of student excess, administrative overreach, cheating, deception, arrogance, greed, sex, and exploitation. The book includes chapters on Yale’s Skull and Bones Club, an extreme sporting club at Oxford (human trebuchet, anyone?), Duke’s lacrosse team, Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia rape story, sexual violence, rape and cover-ups at the US Air Force Academy, and abuse of teens at prep schools. It is sordid and depressing, leaving me feeling just a little cheaper for having waded into it. These stories, though, are important. They highlight just how easily behavior can run off the rails and how much harm can be caused within the ivy walls without adult moral intervention.

Two chapters bear particular interest today. In “Deadly Devotion” by Sam Tanenhaus, the history, growth, and awful scandals of Hillsdale College in Michigan are laid bare. The conservative institution was rocked with a suicide, incestuous relationships, and misguided leadership. The chapter is a lengthy exegesis on the human condition and despair. It is operatic in scope. Hillsdale remains in the news today as a favorite of key conservative politicians. William D. Cohan’s “Big Hair on Campus” is a short, breezy piece on Trump University. In the public’s mind, these two institutions are as much a part of the higher education landscape as your local community college or state flagship. It is important to remember.

David Potash

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