This article was originally published on my Wordpress blog on April 9th, 2014, as an assigment for my Spring Term Media Studies class with the byline: "Alex Anderlik is a senior in the Class of 2014 at Phillips Academy but hails from Missoula, Montana. When he's not wasting time on the Internet, he's trying to figure out how to waste more time on the Internet. You can reach him at google.com/+AlexAnderlik."
Phillips Academy is frequently considered one of the most liberal and progressive schools in the circle of prestigious prep schools of New England – including Phillips Exeter, Deerfield, and St. Paul’s. Yet even without certain regulations like dress code and limited Internet access, the values of the administration are taught to students through the structure of the curriculum itself. I closely examined the Course of Study class catalog to establish and unpack the patterns of conspicuous leisure between its covers.
The Academic Curriculum section on page two summarizes the broad purpose of an Andover education:
“The curriculum of Phillips Academy comprises a required core of studies that the faculty believe are fundamental to lifelong learning along with elective courses designed to fit the interests of the individual student. Instruction is given in all subjects usually required for entrance to higher learning institutions.”
This paragraph concisely defines the academic goals the faculty and administration believe an ideal Andover student should have as “lifelong learning” and “entrance to higher learning institutions.” The assumption here is that a successful Phillips Academy student will continue in the field of academia for at least a few more years, if not longer, and that everything a person needs to be a good learner are described in the 84-page pamphlet.
The very same section makes it explicitly clear that this structure of values has been established by the administration’s careful and thoughtful selection but that disapproval or objection on the part of the students or their families will be universally rejected. For better or for worse, the only way for a student or parent to take control of a particular student’s Andover education beyond a pre-determined scope of choice is to somehow persuade the entire faculty to change the structure of the school for everyone.
To see what kinds of things the faculty find essential to every lifelong learner, I examined the diploma requirements of a 4-year student printed on page 5. Because virtually all classes earn exactly one credit per term, the most significant metric used to determine whether a student has the skills to be a lifelong learner is simply how much time they spend in a class:
Each class is assigned a department based on their subject matter (as opposed to, for example, mode of teaching) and a three-digit number value. According to the Course Numbers section on page nine, the first digit of each number “corresponds to the ‘level’ of the course,” which presumably refers to the difficulty or sequence in which a department is to be learned.
The “conspicuous leisure” I mentioned earlier is defined by Thorstein Veblen, an American economist who lived in the 19th and 20th century, in Chapter 3 of his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Having previously described the distinction between the “working class” (people who live by producing or interacting with inanimate goods) and the “leisure class” (people who can afford to manipulate others, consume goods, and devote their time to doing things not necessary for survival) in the first two chapters, Veblen describes “conspicuous leisure” as the intentional display of status or wealth by the leisure class. As our society develops, he argues, the leisure class creates increasingly sophisticated methods of winning favor from others by showing off objectively arbitrary tasks and objects (like sports and expensive clothes).
From Veblen’s perspective, the Andover experience is certainly one of the leisure class: our examination of fiction and poetry, our understanding of world history, our capacity to speak fluently in multiple languages, and our ability to write concise statements supported by logically presented and properly referenced concepts found in a library’s books, are not fundamentally skills used to create products and sustain ourselves directly. As members of the leisure class, Andover students engage in conspicuous leisure through one universal code: numbers.
Ferdinand de Saussure, who lived in the same time period as Veblen and was an important thinker in the study of the meanings of signs and sign systems called “semiotics,” might have described numbers as a very simple code of meaning, which are universally understood by the people who use it (three is more valuable than two, which is more valuable than one, and so on).
In this case, numbers are signifiers of a course’s difficulty and value. Classes with a higher number are understood as requiring a greater amount of skill or knowledge to complete; departments with a higher credit requirement for graduation are understood as deserving more skill or knowledge in the completion of an ideal education.
These numbers affect the way students perceive their educations here. Classes with a higher number value (and departments with a higher requirement value) are signified as having greater intrinsic value for everyone. Based on this structure, an unsuspecting reader of the Course of Study would consider MATH-380, Accelerated Precalculus, to be more valuable for college admissions (and therefore a life of learning) than THDA-380, “Technical Production” of theatre. Students taking MATH-650, Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra, are generally considered to be objectively “better” – not just as a mathematician, but as a scholar – than students placed (according to faculty review of placement tests) in MATH-100, Elementary Algebra.
Applying the theories of signification and conspicuous leisure, the numerical valuation of classes makes the enrollment in a class designated with a high number to be a signifier of great cultural capital. If I so desired, I could literally add up all the numbers of the classes I’ve taken – in this structure, my wealth is determined by the accumulation of literal numbers – and this is all without even the mention of grades!
The catalog’s assignment of universal values across the entire curriculum creates an arbitrary structure of comparison facilitating the belief that:
In short, the Course of Study teaches students to actively participate in conspicuous consumption through measuring the value of a subject, their peers’ (and their own) cultural capital, and their ability to learn as a sum of numbers signifying only the beliefs of the faculty themselves.