In the spring of my senior year at the Dalton School in New York City, a cartoon by Henry Martin titled ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ appeared in the New Yorker: a young boy with a security blanket (caption: ‘Dalton School’) develops into an older version of himself with satchel and shining morning face (‘Greenwich Country Day’), who proceeds in turn to become a lacrosse-playing prep student (‘Deerfield’), a P-sweatered undergraduate (‘Princeton’), a young fogey in a suit (‘Harvard Business School’), an old fogey in a suit (‘Paine Webber’), and a duffer in a golf cart (‘Hilton Head’). Martin, who died this past June, had been an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1940s and regularly poked gentle fun at his proverbially self-satisfied alma mater, where I have been on the faculty since 1998. One of my favorite cartoons of his depicts a car on its way into town from Route 1. The sign reads: ‘Entering / Zip Code: 08540 / Area Code: 609 / Dress Code: Tie & Jacket.’

There have always been ways of signaling that one deserves to be in what we might call our contemporary cursus honorum, the term for the sequence of political offices (‘course of honors’) in ancient Rome. Using Latin is such a signal, as is wearing a blue blazer to work, which I tended to do before the pandemic. These days, however, it seems that the best way to signal your status in the cursus is to signal your ‘virtue’.

Undeniably, and to my mind correctly, Martin’s Ages no longer have the sheen they had in 1987, when many readers of the New Yorker smiled at the display of patrician privilege, whether aspirationally or recognizing the sequence from Dalton to Hilton Head as part of the natural order of things. These days things are more confusing: most people who subscribe to the New Yorker publicly disapprove of the very idea of the privilege, while quietly hoping to be swept along by it. The existence of a tried-and-true path to success is, after all, precisely why parents strive to send their children to Dalton, Greenwich Country Day, Deerfield, and Princeton.

I regret that I never met Martin and have no idea what he would think of Princeton in 2020. His death came four days after the Board of Trustees voted, under substantial pressure, to remove the name Woodrow Wilson from Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and one of its residential colleges, and four days before a few hundred of my colleagues signed the now-infamous ‘Faculty Letter’ of July 4, with its extensive list of immoral and in some cases illegal demands in the name of the set of racist ideas called ‘anti-racism’. I’ve already made my own thoughts on the letter known. It became clear over the summer that many of the signatories did not agree with everything to which they had lent their name but wished to come across as good, virtuous allies. Today, Princeton remains very much in the news for its continued virtue-signaling.

Then there’s Dalton. It is not attractive to appear ungrateful for one’s good lot in life, so let me emphasize that I have been immensely fortunate. An early stroke of fortune was getting into the school, which I attended for 13 years, from kindergarten through 12th grade. I received a first-class education; but I am ambivalent enough about what Dalton offers that I have returned only once in the more than thirty-three years since graduation. The current brouhaha over racism and anti-racism at the school does not increase the chances that I will ever again walk through those doors.

The main problem with Dalton when I was there was the administration, which rarely concealed that its primary concern was the financial clout of plutocratic parents. I could tell stories for hours. If your family paid for a building at an Ivy League university one year, then you would be admitted to said university the next year. If you cheated on an exam but had a parent on the Board of Trustees, then your punishment was to arrive half an hour early each day for a month in order to be served breakfast in the office of what was then called the Headmaster — and of course you would still end up going to your prestigious university of choice. Any child at the school — not just an atypical middle-class Upper West Sider like myself — could tell you how things worked.

I imagine Daltonians today can as well. Tuition now is $54,180 a year, and it is unlikely that most parents pay the quid without expecting the post-graduation pro quo. But what exactly does this money buy on the ground? Between December 17 and 23, Scott Johnston, author of the satirical novel Campusland, posted six blogposts that paint a picture of a school in crisis. To be sure, there remains quite a bit of unclarity about who said or wrote what, when, and to whom. But it is a matter of record that at least 120 teachers, two of whom taught me long ago, signed a document that calls for the school to: ‘[i]nstitute a divisional requirement for courses that explicitly center Black liberation and challenges to white supremacy’ (by the way, this ‘requirement should be equivalent to or greater than the smallest requirement for any other department’); abolish ‘leveled courses …  if membership and performance of Black students are not at parity with non-Black students’ by 2023; make ‘[a]dministrators, faculty, and staff … produce individual public anti-racism statements’; ‘[e]xpand the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to include at least 12 full-time positions’; and ensure that ‘any Black student or student of color who appears in Dalton’s promotional materials should receive reduced tuition, or be retroactively compensated the equivalent amount if they graduate before their likeness is used.’ The Head of School has responded unimpressively, speaking of ‘Dalton’s magic’.

The Dalton of my day was overly invested in a version of Martin’s Ages: specifically, Dalton to Harvard to Daddy’s firm to Georgica Pond. If moving away from this is progress, count me as a progressive. In fact, though, Dalton today appears still to be invested in it — but, incoherently, allowing the same extreme privilege to crash against the latest woke concerns in a ridiculous version of NIMBY: debase the curriculum however you wish so long as my own children still receive an Ivy League diploma. If this is progress, don’t count me as a progressive. Dalton has created an untenable situation. It cannot and will not hold.

Or maybe it will. The ‘magic’ of the most-storied private schools comes from their symbiotic relationship with the most-storied universities. Is the educational and professional course of honors a good thing? I am conflicted. If the power concentrated in a few elite institutions is justifiable, it is only because those who populate them are in some measurable and widely acknowledged sense literally elite: ‘chosen from’ the crowd. Reasonable people will have different views on the desirability of one or the other form of elitism; until a few years ago, before heterodoxy became a bad word, it was possible to have lively discussions and debates about such matters. But what is clear, at least to me, is that once the pooh-bahs make a show of rejecting selectivity and the very idea of excellence, and once they allow indoctrination to win out over education, then the notion that their institutions are genuinely elite is laughable. 

I am hardly alone in predicting a rise in interest in home-schooling, in Great Books programs, and in faith-based institutions. Also very likely is that groups of parents and teachers will band together to create new academies, some of them online, that offer an honest education at a fair price. I admit that I will miss aspects of the old cursus. At the same time, I look forward to any developments that will help bring to an end the current Age of Man: illiberalism.