When a prep school's 'furious energy' consumes

Don't ask T.S. Eliot why April is the cruelest month. Ask the thousands of students checking their mail for admissions letters.

Nowadays, even the most brilliant writer of the 20th century would be worried. Imagine the notes on Eliot's application folder at Harvard or Yale: "Male WASP; speaks some Chinese and Greek; weak athlete; published a few poems. Recommendation: Wait List."

Families determined to send a child to the Ivies can't start early enough. The anecdotes of parental strategy arrive pre-satirized:

* A woman calls a prestigious kindergarten for advice on timing her pregnancy to coincide with the school's application deadline.

* Parents hire a consultant to teach their 3-year-old to make eye contact during admissions interviews.

* College consultants begin coaching stressed-out middle-schoolers.

Josiah Bunting has seen enough. He was headmaster of the Lawrenceville School, an independent boarding school in New Jersey, from 1987 to 1995. He's now superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute. This month, he published "All Loves Excelling," a novel that does for prep schools what "Uncle Tom's Cabin" did for slavery.

His morality tale tells the tortured story of Amanda Bahringer, a smart, athletic student who enters the fictional St. Matthews boarding school for a post-graduate year. It's a place "implacably hostile to leisure ... a place of furious energy and bustle." This is her final attempt to shape an academic, athletic, and extracurricular resume that Dartmouth College will find irresistible.

Any number of prestigious prep schools will recognize themselves in St. Matthews: The campus in upstate New York is vast and woody. The ancient stone buildings inspire awe. The culture sparks with idiosyncratic traditions. The erudite faculty demand much of their brilliant students. Early in the fall, when parents drop off their children and $26,000, the parking lot contains "the pride of the automobile manufactory of three continents."

Amanda's mother, Tess, is Lady MacBeth costumed by Martha Stewart. She's so determined to get her daughter into Dartmouth that she literally loves her to death. And in St. Matthews, she's found the perfect accomplice.

Bunting delineates the schizophrenic prep-school culture with brutal honesty. The headmaster, old Dr. Passmore, is a rousing advocate for the noble pursuit of intellectual excellence and liberal virtue. But how much does he really know or care to know about the machinery of his own school, about the way its noble values have been rendered quaint and irrelevant in the process of securing ever more prestigious placement for their graduates?

While he preaches sweetly about the poetry of Gerard Manly Hopkins, the college-placement officer brags about the school's clout with Ivy League admissions departments. St. Matthews knows how to market its students - how to cram in the most AP courses, the most impressive volunteer work, the most desirable musical instruments. "It's what we're in business to do," he winks to the nervous parents.

As the school year begins, "the St. Matthews's juggernaut rolled invincibly forward, its Victories and Achievements mounting daily, its endowment skyrocketing." Amanda finds herself in an atmosphere of "powerless compliance with unceasing expectation." Her love of piano boils away under the pressure to master a piece that will impress Dartmouth. Her fondness for poetry fades next to the need to memorize words for the SAT.

She weighs herself compulsively on a scale calibrated to one-hundredth of a pound. Sleeping less and less, she remains convinced she can manage her anxiety with a dazzling array of medications that have turned many well-heeled students into amateur pharmacists.

Every time I wanted to toss this disturbing book aside, the ghost of some outrageous parent or desperate student at the prep school where I taught would rise up and remind me that it's impossible to exaggerate the corrupting influence of the college-admission process.

The nation's wealthiest families aren't, perhaps, the most sympathetic candidates for concern, but well-meaning parents, faculty, and administrators involved in "this maw of ceaseless assessment and pressure" would do well to consider Bunting's warning. At the other end of the scale, there's a different nation at risk.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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