My Response to “Renouncing Privilege”

I’ve posted elsewhere on my prep school, and it was a pleasure to hear that someone else thought enough to do the same: Tico Vogt, two years my senior, has done so in his post Renouncing Privilege.  There’s a lot of ground to cover here; I’ll try to be as succinct as possible.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that two people will look at the same experience and come to different conclusions.  There is a definite POV difference here, a product of the different paths each of us took to the St. Andrew’s School.  But there are also some differences in the school itself.  St. Andrew’s, in the years 1967-73 (covering our combined times there) was in the midst of its own transformation.  Some of that he describes in his piece and was influenced by the decisions of his class.  A major one took place in the fall after he graduated, when women were admitted to the school for the first time.  The school was also in transition to becoming predominantly a day school, which I took advantage of my last year there.

In any case, let’s begin with the response:

The class of ’71 stands low on a curve that anthropologist Robert Putnam used to determine “social capital” and civic engagement. I have long noticed that names of my high school (and college) class members occupy little ink in the alumni news and on the lists of donors. We represent the trend of decreasing hands-on participation in, and affiliation with, religion, civic, fraternal, and parent-teacher organizations.

I heard faculty members comment in the wake of their graduation that the Class of 1971 was an outstanding class, and that it went downhill from there!  The issue of civic engagement is one we still wrestle with: is the recession of those institutions which encourage civic engagement a good or bad thing for the country?

My parents likely felt that public school wouldn’t provide me with the horizons they expected for me, or the character building discipline. I would soon come to understand a spectrum of motives for kids to be sent away there; icy cold parent/child disaffection, class aspiration, behavioral correction, divorce, and in one shocking case, the sudden death of both parents in a plane crash.

The school property was physically remote, set in the palmetto scrub lands away from roads and neighborhoods and famously chosen by NFL teams as a spy-proof practice location prior to the Super Bowl. It was its own universe.

Warrington men had been sent away to school since the start of the twentieth century, so it was the tradition.  Sometimes the results were unpredictable: my grandfather Chet went AWOL from Army and Navy Prep, forcing other arrangements.  My brother did the military school thing.  I didn’t skip the Northeastern schools because of grades (as was the case with Vogt) but because my mother, seared by my poor health before we moved to Florida, insisted on keeping me in South Florida.

SA Spring 1973 Dorm III

St. Andrew’s School, Spring 1973. A view across the central lake to Dorm III, the “Senior Dorm” with the privileges ascribed thereto.

My next meeting with fellow students was with a group of four African-American freshmen standing on the sidewalk in front of the dorm. I can look back now and see what an important moment it was. Jim Crow laws had ended only three years before with passage of the Civil Rights Act. A prominent member of the Board of Trustees (a two-time mayor of the city and staunch segregationist) had strongly opposed the decision to allow black students to enter in 1967. He withdrew his son and enrolled him in the rival school.

I never thought of St. Andrew’s as a particularly “Southern” school, just as I never thought of South Florida as Southern either.  (The Northerners there were certainly capable of gutter racism that rivals and exceeds anything seen in the South.)  In the early years the school–and certainly when Vogt entered as a freshman–had a distinctly Southern stamp on it; many of the boarding students came from the Old Confederacy.  One of Vogt’s classmates described himself as “SA’s only reconstructed southerner.”  That was yet another transition the school was undergoing.

As for myself, I liked the black students that came to SA.  The really deeper transformational moment for me and race came during my years in the Church of God.  To join an institution like that, however, requires giving up more privilege than most prep school products are prepared to do.

A fundamental life change set in with the ringing of the chapel bell on the quarter hour, beginning at dawn, the electronic peeling that echoed over the pond, penetrated buildings, and spread across athletic fields. Church bells, factory whistles, alarm clocks, and the school hallway bells of junior high were familiar to me, but they existed in independent realms of my life, never an inescapable constant.

Tico chafed at the regimentation of life at SA.  Having grown up in a very disciplined home environment, I didn’t have the problems with it that people like Vogt had.  (If I had my doubts, I could always think of my brother at Admiral Farragut Academy!)

A certain amount of rough and tumble, callous behavior is “normal” with boys and young men, I’ll grant. Bringing things to a personal level, the following are not examples of the abuse I witnessed (those stories are for others to tell) just mindless and casual pranks, but they left strong impressions on my psyche.

Evans-Dutch-Meinecke

Evans “Dutch” Meinecke, from the 1973 Tartan, St. Andrew’s yearbook.

I can say that I experienced hazing as he did.  In general, however, SA was a relief after the bullying I put up with at Palm Beach Day School (and thankfully the PBDS people we got at SA were some of the better ones.)  The social system loosened with each year and that loosening accelerated after I became a day student.  I did manage to become SA’s first documented victim of sexual harassment at the hands (literally) of Evans “Dutch” Meinecke.  Sometime I plan to outline that experience in more detail.

Saturday was a school day through lunch. A high Episcopal mass was held on Sunday evening after the dinner meal. As a Roman Catholic, Sunday morning, which could have been the one time to sleep in, was denied me and I went in a van to mass in the city (the double dose of Christianity still wasn’t enough to convince me).

Vogt attempts to put SA in the same boat as other Christian schools.  Having been raised an Episcopalian, I felt it was a nice religion but not a very demanding one.  SA’s own relationship with the Diocese of South Florida wasn’t the tightest, that by design.  Between the two SA didn’t have much of a “Christian school” feel to it, as opposed to those being established in other parts of the country by denominations with more “starch in their shirts.”  (Some of the faculty, inculcated by the spirit of the age, only strengthened that secular feel, such as the one that told my parents that “the geniuses commit suicide.”)  Both of the school chaplains we had were fairly liberal, the latter of which helped give me the shove to “swim the Tiber” my senior year, which was a form of rebellion.

Speaking of rebellion, I suppose it’s time to deal with the centerpiece of Vogt’s narrative: the strike that his class instigated at the dismissal of a popular faculty member.  I’ll leave it to him to describe the details; my guess is that this, more than anything else, enhanced his class’ reputation, at least in the short term.

Not all privilege is worth having. The health and well being of the community trumps the right to individual power. We felt a responsibility to change an abusive system and this was our small contribution.

Although that sounds like something you’d hear these days, it’s a sentiment that actually goes back to the day; it actually appears on one of God Unlimited’s albums.  The problem with it is that it opens society to the replacement of one authoritarian structure by another, something that George Orwell pointed out in Animal Farm.

What else but cultivating restraint can change the fatal course of homo sapiens? To decide that temporary power, convenience, and gain must give way to long term considerations is a conscious act of renunciation. It’s not something they teach you in school.

Renouncing privilege is easier said than done.  One of Vogt’s classmates, whom he mentions approvingly, is now a successful real estate agent in Palm Beach.  Now I like this guy too, but growing up in Palm Beach tells me that this line of work isn’t “renouncing privilege.”

My own attempt to get away from privilege ran into trouble when the word got out that I was going to Texas A&M and not the Ivy League.  That produced blowback from faculty and classmate alike, and soured my relationship with the school until well into the last decade.  The school’s motivation in their disappointment was simple: they wanted to enhance the school’s reputation by the college admissions of the graduates, never mind that my choice was in part to keep the family business as an option.  (Another part was to give me a independent living after the first degree, but as it happened that only lasted fifteen months.)

Also, by the end of my years at SA, I wanted to get past the 60’s/elite paradigm of the place.   In that I was wildly successful at Texas A&M; I finally found the life I was looking for:

And with that I’ll close with the words of John McKenzie, whose book The Power and the Wisdom was recommended to me by my first parish priest:

A revolution is always an excessive response.  A revolution does not occur until a situation has become intolerable, and it destroys the entire situation, even the elements which ought to be preserved.  Revolution does not exhibit man at the height of his rationality, but rather elicits all his ugly passions.  The revolution does not replace what it destroys with a stable structure; this is left to postrevolutionary activity, which presumably can be carried on with more calmness and deliberation.

Yet the gospel is in some ways revolutionary, and no other word seems to do it justice.  Efforts to conventionalize the gospel and to curb its dynamism take away much of its effect.  In the preceding exposition we have by choice dwelt upon just those elements of the gospel which are in direct contradiction to accepted beliefs and ideas. The world, we said, both of men at large and the individual person, is irreparably altered by the Christian event.  This suggests revolution.  The old man of sin dies, and his world dies; this also suggests revolution.  Even the element of violence is not lacking from the Christian event, although the violence comes from the death struggles of the dying world and not from the Christian event.  The Christian event occurs when the situation has become intolerable, with the difference that the situation has never been tolerable…

Man’s resistance to the inbreak of God creates a situation compared to which most revolutions are playful.  Man resists it because he cannot grasp the direction of the Christian revolution.  It moves to give man something, not to take anything away; and man is so incredulous in the presence of such a paradoxical event that he resists it with all his strength.  Man is not yet ready for love.  He never has been.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “My Response to “Renouncing Privilege”

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my essay. I have just a couple of points in response. What I intended as the centerpiece of the post was the senior class’ renunciation of the power to use the hour system over our underclassmen. Secondly, I have been aware of Doug Rill’s success as a realtor. Many of the students were, and probably still are wealthy, still privileged. I would not try to make the point that the young men became followers of Ghandi, just that they recognized an abusive power that they had the means to abolish and voted accordingly.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.