Friday, May 8, 2015

St. Midas' Prep: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Catholic Schools, and the Culture of Achievement

Commencement season is upon us, and as students from Catholic high schools file across auditorium stages and out into the world, can we say that they view the world in a different way than if they had not attended a Catholic school? And if we can, in what way is their viewpoint unique? In going about the business of preparing our students to enter a world where success is measured by dollars earned and accolades garnered, how do we prepare them differently than our public or private counterparts?

These are questions that those who teach and work in Catholic schools (hopefully) wrestle with daily. They are questions that prompted me to start this blog last year, that fuel my writing and thinking and discussions with my colleagues. And I’ve discovered that there are no easy answers, as there rarely are to the most essential questions.

In our attempt to answer them, we are often better guided by works of art than we are by any statistic or study. In reading F. Scott Fitzgerald with my Sophomore classes, I came across such an artistic guide in his fantastical short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” Like another fantasy story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Diamond” was originally published in Fitzgerald’s collection Tales of the Jazz Age, which appeared in 1922, a few short years before The Great Gatsby.

The story’s protagonist, John Unger, attends St. Midas’ School outside of Boston, “the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory school in the world,” where “money-kings” drop off their students in “Rolls-Pierce motorcar[s].” Though the school is not the focal point of the story, it establishes a backdrop for the plot, which takes place at an extravagant mansion built by the grandfather of Unger’s classmate Percy Washington. The family, a direct descendent of the first president, owns an estate in a remote area of Montana unmapped by the U.S. government. On the property sits a mountain that just below the surface consists of solid diamond, and the grounds of the family estate are worked by descendents of slaves brought there at the close of the Civil War by Percy’s grandfather. The family employs all kinds of measures to keep their property hidden, from a powerful magnetic field to anti-aircraft guns to a hole on the golf course where they keep captured pilots. Also, at the end of each summer, they murder any guests who have been staying there, which in this case is Unger.

It’s a pretty wild story. One of the pilots manages to get out of the hole and bring back a fleet of his fighter-pilot friends to attack the mansion, killing many of the family’s slaves in the process. Percy’s father Braddock begins praying for the salvation of his estate, and the restoration of his slaves, and offers his enormous diamond to God in trade. In Braddock’s prayer, Fitzgerald allows us a glimpse of the mind of the kind of man who would send his son to a school named “St. Midas”:
He doubted only whether he had made his bribe big enough. God had His price, of course. God was made in man's image, so it had been said: He must have His price. And the price would be rare—no cathedral whose building consumed many years, no pyramid constructed by ten thousand workmen, would be like this cathedral, this pyramid.
Braddock is ultimately confident in his ability to purchase God’s favor (and no, it doesn’t work—the estate is destroyed and the guest Unger escapes with Percy’s two sisters) because of his twisted understanding of the relationship between humans and the divine: “God was made in man’s image.” The most important thing to him is having enough stuff—diamonds, money, slaves—with which to fend off whatever suffering may come his way. Notice that Braddock does not deny God’s existence or turn his back on him; instead he proclaims faithfulness to a God of his own making, and is completely convinced that God “must have His price.”

To get back to my original topic, it’s this attitude—rendering the divine subservient to the human—that we see in the symbolic name of St. Midas’ school. Midas, the king with the golden touch, of course is no saint, nor could ever be. Affixed with that title, his name implies an institution with a veneer of holiness, a school that would send its students into the world to acquire wealth and fame with crucifixes pinned to their lapels.

Though St. Midas’ is a fictional place, it has a real-life corollary. Fitzgerald, a lapsed Catholic himself, based St. Midas’ on his own experience at the Newman School in Hackensack, NJ, a short-lived Catholic preparatory school that, according to Fitzgerald biographer Matthew Bruccoli, in the early 1900s attempted “to develop a reputation as the Catholic equivalent of the prestigious New England prep schools.” A 1915 survey quoted in Bruccoli’s book described Newman’s enrollment—just 60 students—as “drawn from the Roman Catholic families of wealth in all parts of the United States.” Unusually for the time, the school was not associated with a religious order; its faculty and board of trustees were comprised entirely of lay individuals. At a glance, which is all we have, of course, Fitzgerald’s school does not seem much different from the elite Protestant ones on which it was modeled; instead of offering a top-notch education to WASPs from New England, it offered a top-notch education to aspirant or prestigious Catholic families at a time in American history when ethnic Catholic families were still on the outside of the American elite, looking in. Fitzgerald attended the Newman School from 1911 to 1913, and Bruccoli credits it for exposing the budding writer, who hailed from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the glamour of New York City and Princeton, where he matriculated.

In his fiction Fitzgerald writes so well about the worlds in which he was embedded—think of Gatsby and the Long Island Eggs—that I only wish he had set a novel or short story on the campus of St. Midas’. The only other mention of it in his writing, as far as I know, is an oblique reference in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Nevertheless, St. Midas’ Prep can still serve as a warning for Catholic prep schools, especially the elite ones, whose students take the most rigorous classes and compete for admission to the best colleges, and are the most susceptible to the Pelagianism exemplified in Braddock Washington’s prayer—that we can earn our way to salvation.

Achievement can itself become a god, and there is perhaps no more serious offense in the Judeo-Christian tradition than thinking yourself worthy based on what you have achieved, what you have done or earned or acquired to distinguish yourself in the eyes of those around you. It’s a version of the sin of pride, really: Lucifer fell from heaven because he did not recognize that his worth came from God, that, as his own name suggests, he was bearer of the gift of light and not in any way deserving of it through his own merit. Adam and Eve likewise sinned because they wanted to become like gods through acquiring knowledge.

Instead, as Paul writes, we who work in Catholic schools pledge allegiance to someone who “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped / Rather, he emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:6-7). How to convey this to our students, whom we want to praise at every turn for the scores they have earned, the championships they have won, the colleges to which they are accepted?

In the eyes of a God who demands that we recognize our utter dependence on Him, individual achievements are shifting sands on which to build our identities. It’s difficult, for sure, to balance this reality with our natural desire to encourage and celebrate our students’ successes. It’s certainly getting harder and harder to do so in schools with dwindling numbers of consecrated religious; at the very least the sea of black garments served as a visual reminder to students that their schools were founded on a different set of values, and demanded that they navigate time and space with a different compass than the one the world used. Steeped as we are now in the business of preparing our students to enter the meritocracy, perhaps it is impossible to provide them an education genuinely rooted in humility, short of turning our schools into monasteries.

Just because a battle happens to be uphill, however, does not mean that it is not worth fighting, so the question remains: how can we avoid letting our schools slip into so many versions of Fitzgerald’s St. Midas’?

Our success in this matter depends on our ability to offer students glimpse of true counter-culture, of a vision of the world that does not ultimately bestow worth based upon achievement and that does not place at its pinnacle the accolade-laden individual.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of good plays, poetry, and fiction that, in their art, attempt to invert or subvert this modern ethic. Lots of such literature is old, for the works most removed from our age in terms of vision, not surprisingly, are often the ones most removed in terms of years. The poetry of Homer, and later, the drama of Sophocles, for example, present cultures whose measures of honor and community are entirely foreign to ours. Dante offers us a sense of freedom much richer than our current one of being unencumbered by restrictions; his moral order is not based on the concept of infringing without consent upon the rights of individuals but is rooted in an objective, almost physical reality, virtually inconceivable to us today, but which still provides the foundation for Catholic ethics.

When we consider literature from Shakespeare onward, written as the modern age began to take shape, the most valuable literature for my purposes here is often the most overtly iconoclastic. More often than not, these books and plays will present to us the problems of the rapidly changing world, and frequently urge us to seek meaning and beauty in different experiences than that which commerce and trade can offer. Some of the most prophetic literature of the last four hundred years was written on the seams of history, as a generation of writers observed the world shifting beneath their feet and saw what was being lost. Think for example, of the poems of Wordsworth or Coleridge as they sought to find an antidote for the dehumanizing effects of industrializing Britain at the turn of the 19th century, or of Thoreau’s musings as the railroad cut tracks through his Concord backyard a half-century later. The 19th century Russians, too, occupied such a seam, albeit a different one—Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” which James Joyce once called the greatest short story ever written, is a brilliant and chilling fable about the dangers inherent to private ownership, written at the time that an entire generation of Russians, descended from freed serfs, were in positions to acquire land for the first time in their families’ history.

Without exposing its students to such writers, without deliberate attempts to offer its students a perspective distinct from the one that says that they are what they accrue, a Catholic high school becomes St. Midas’ Prep. The default setting of our students, because it is the default setting of our age, is to acquire—it does not matter, really, whether those acquisitions are grades, awards, money, or titles. In other words, our students’ attitude, unless we attempt to change it, will be that of Braddock Washington, who did not question whether God could be bartered with, only if a diamond “as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel” would be big enough to save him. In mocking this 20th-century Pelagianism, Fitzgerald, saturated as he was in it, at least knew enough to call a spade a spade. Here’s hoping Catholic schools can do the same.

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