The Devil's Advocate on Corona Del Mar High School's 'Prom Draft'

By Conor Friedersdorf

Boys at Corona Del Mar High School in Newport Beach, California, made headlines last week after using an NFL-style draft to determine who they'd ask to prom. "40 senior boys assembled recently at a 'private venue' clad in ceremonial sport coats to participate in the ritual," the L.A. Times reported. "Numbers were plucked from a number-ball roller and issued to the boys, who took turns selecting girls. Each boy was put on the clock and given two minutes to make a selection."

On a recent visit to Orange County, I overheard the devil's advocate arguing about the story. Here's what I remember from eavesdropping on his conversation:   

Can you believe this? What's the world coming to?

I know. So much misguided outrage directed at these poor kids. The media should be ashamed of itself for vilifying young people who aren't even out of high school. 

Are you serious? It's about time these kids learned that the so-called values they're learning in their one-percenter enclave are seriously messed up. What a bunch of retrograde sexists. To objectify women like this!

Oh, come on. These are popular high school boys. A lot of them are probably football or basketball players. Their own personal dream is to end up as a participant in an NFL or NBA style draft. They don't see the draft process as demeaning to the draftees. For that matter, neither did LeBron James or Michael Sam. Besides, they still have to ask the girls to go to the dance, and they can say no. Yet the news stories all say that they mostly respect the draft. Why, do you think?

They're facing social pressure and a patriarchal power imbalance. That's why they go along. Maybe they're also too young to know any better. That's why it's good that the school is going to have ethics training.

This draft came about because of the boys' ethical sophistication! They saw that every year, guys were wanting to ask the same girl to the dance, and this was causing a lot of discord. So they came up with a process that would be fair to everyone.

Ethical sophistication? Bah! More like stunning entitlement in a hyper-competitive subculture that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

A draft is the opposite of hyper-competitive. The very design ensures that there will be no competition. The winner and every runner up is chosen at random. And everyone has an equal shot. This may be the most egalitarian event ever held in Newport Beach.

You can't seriously deny that these kids are entitled.

Perhaps, given where they live, but not because of this draft. Even the winner gets nothing more than he would've had anyway: the ability to ask a girl to a high school dance. Doesn't every high schooler feel entitled to that? And the losers of the draft, the guys who choose last, apparently respect the results. That's not entitlement. They're playing by the rules that they set down behind the veil of ignorance.

So you're seriously okay with this? High school boys in sports coats gathering to orchestrate prom dates without the input or consent of the girls?

It would have offended popular sensibilities less if they'd worn t-shirts.

And if it were up to me I'd reform the prom draft. But the core insight is sound. Just add gender parity. The girls should get to do the drafting at homecoming and the guys at prom. Every year it can alternate. Entrenching this new system is progress. 

The solution is not to encourage the girls to behave just as badly as the boys. It's like the principal of the school said: "It is not OK for any student to be objectified or judged in any way." 

She's all talk. This same principal is perfectly okay with ranking every student in the school based on GPA, cutting kids without enough athletic talent from varsity sports teams, and signing highly variable college recommendations. Then she has the nerve to tell us it's not okay for anyone to be "judged in any way"?  Corona Del Mar high school judges every student in many ways. Who is she kidding? 

She means with respect to prom! She's talking about the realm of dating, which is totally different. She just wants to go back to traditional rituals. The ones that worked for generations of more innocent kids. 

Those traditional rituals are replete with judgments. The usual approach to prom stokes anxiety, sows discord and heated competition among friends and acquaintances, and leaves lots of kids heartbroken when a would be date refuses them, or when no one asks them to come. Critics of the prom draft romanticize away the harsh realities of the system they want to preserve. But what's good about it? Is it not often cruel? Do its participants not value girls largely based on their looks? Has it not spurred boys to one up one another as they proposition would-be dates? Does it not ruthlessly advantage those at the top of the social hierarchy?

The draft mitigates some of these problems, and while it makes others harder to ignore, it does not make them any worse. So long as most girls adhere to its selections, they benefit in several ways too. They can more easily say yes to a date with no expectation of physical or emotional attraction. They're just respecting the draft! How nice to despatch with the pretense of romance at that tender age. Less awkwardness! Plus girls aren't forced into the uncomfortable position of choosing between guys. Everything is less personal in a formalized process. Gender parity should of course be added, but once that happens what's not to like?

Precisely that impersonal quality! These boys and girls won't have the opportunity to live the best version of prom: two people agreeing to go after being equal participants in a deeply personal exchange– then valuing one another as individuals and delighting in one another's company. 

So few high school kids ever have that. Must the many suffer to preserve it for the few? And even if the draft was automated and neither individual had any say in their date, couldn't they still show mutual respect and enjoy one another's company? Wouldn't doing so be more noble precisely due to the lack of chemical attraction?

You've managed to make the draft even more monstrous. Robbing everyone of their choice! And even though you pretend that the draft would keep the many from suffering for the few, observe that at Corona Del Mar it was quite exclusive, with just 40 kids participating in a class of hundreds. What about the boys excluded from draft day who effectively had no opportunity to ask girls who respected its results?

As if the popular boys aren't always effectively excluding less popular boys from having any chance with certain girls. Come on. At least with the prom draft, however, you could make a simple tweak and suddenly it would include every student. That's what ought to happen too: a prom draft with universal conscription.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don't see it. I can't refute every critique that you've made. I grant some of your points. But there are subtle bits of cultural wisdom built into traditional prom rituals, even if we don't fully understand them. No, they're not perfect. No, not everyone gets the chance to ask the date of their choice, or to be asked at all. But that doesn't justify letting a privileged clique of popular boys impose a radical change that affects everyone in the community.  

Change is a moral imperative, because the traditional rituals you prefer are suffused with patriarchy, sexism, social darwinism, and hetero-normativity. I'm first to admit that these reformist teenage boys didn't create the perfect prom draft. But they put in place architecture that can be perfected with some technocratic tinkering. Beyond alternating the gender of the folks doing the drafting, the draft could be open to all, and secret so that no one knew who was chosen first or last. Neutral administrators could run the thing to ensure fairness. 

That's coercive, and it strips prom of all its usefulness. Prom is about teenagers learning how to date. It's about surprising your crush with flowers or screwing up the courage to ask someone out who's out of your league. It's also about learning how to deal with the pain of rejection. 

Coercive? You're the one who wants to punish kids for handling prom in a way of their choosing. First you're against the prom draft because you think it's retrograde, entitled, and subjects the girls to social pressure. Now you think we need to retain traditional prom so kids can learn to navigate the cold, cruel world of dating? If you'd grown up under a gender-neutral prom draft system you'd be nostalgic for that, and insistent that the next generation should learn its lessons. 

We're going to agree to disagree. Just notice that the principal agrees with me. She nipped this new tradition in the bud. The prom draft may or may not be honored this year. But kids next year won't have to put up with this nonsense. It'll be back to boys settling on a girl that they like, coming up with a creative invitation, renting limos in small friend groups, taking their dates out to a nice dinner, and enjoying a night they'll always remember. And for many there will be nerves, anxiety, heartache, and drama, but that's what it is to live as a human. Once you mechanize away all the messiness you lose the beauty in life.

What if that needn't be true and you're consigning these kids to needless misery for lack of trying to improve their lot in a systematic, logical fashion? That's monstrous. 

I'll take the devil I know.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/05/the-devils-advocate-on-corona-del-mar-high-schools-prom-draft/370911/