The proximate cause of this wretched behavior is one of the oldest fomenters of gang violence: incursion on territory. Private-school kids used to have an expectation of fairly stress-free placement at top colleges. That’s what prep schools were preparing you for—from Milton to Harvard, end of story. But now, as the top colleges seek increasing diversity of race and socioeconomic background in their student bodies, they hold fewer and fewer spaces for modestly rich white kids with strong but not dazzling records. And their parents aren’t taking it.
Read: Parents gone wild: high drama inside D.C.’s most elite private school
They are like people who arrive for a week at a five-star hotel only to find out there aren’t enough lounge chairs by the pool and the main dining room is fully booked. At $750 a night? That’s not going to stand. There’s a stern call to the manager, followed by a complimentary upgrade to club level, a bottle of champagne on ice, and a suddenly available two-top at Terrazzo. Maybe there was a time when a certain kind of restrained behavior was expected from the American upper class; you certainly encounter it in novels. But today’s rich people are a different breed, and they are especially unsuited to the fact that an elite-college education is one of the few expensive things that is for sale, but that not everyone is allowed to buy.
But the problem isn’t simply one of supply and demand. It’s also the result of parents who seem to have a great deal in common—the Volvo XC40, Costa Rican vacations, Hillbilly Elegy—but whose only truly shared value is the desire for their children to attend elite colleges. This wasn’t always the case. Most of the famous private schools began with a specific religious affiliation, and while they gradually began to extend admission to people of other faiths, they maintained certain expectations for how those students would conform to the institutional creed.
Former Senator Al Franken tells the story of transferring from a Minneapolis public school to one of the city’s storied private institutions, the Blake School. One day, his math teacher asked him to stay after class. Franken assumed the man wanted to praise him for his good work, but that was not the case.
“I notice in chapel you don’t sing the hymns,” the teacher said. Franken explained that he didn’t sing them because he was Jewish.
After a pause, the man asked him a question. “You want to get into a good college, don’t you?” he said. Yes, Franken said. “And to get into college you need good math grades?” Yes, Franken said.
“I’d sing the hymns,” the teacher said.
Bobbi Dempsey: They bribed college coaches. I collected cans for cash.
Ridding themselves of religious and racial biases has been the great task these institutions have faced for the past four decades. While most of the top schools have retained a nominal connection to their original faiths, these creeds need not trouble any families who do not share them. Today, it is mostly the second-rate institutions (the Catholic schools, of course; Jewish day schools) that still expect religious observance.