In a memorable Saturday Night Live sketch from the 1990s, a father, mother, and teenage daughter sit down to what soon proves to be a dysfunctional dinner, as pleasant conversation turns into a screaming match in which the dad, played by Will Ferrell, desperately asserts his authority by yelling, “I am a division manager!... People are scared of me!... I drive a Dodge Stratus!” The sketch was a hit, in part, because it ridiculed something that people recognized in themselves, hidden beneath the surface—namely, a desperate reliance on achievement for self-worth. Who’s to deny that they, too, if pressed hard enough to justify themselves, might not also shout the names of their cars?
Though the sketch remains funny, its effect seems a bit weakened these days, now that the uncouth behavior of Ferrell’s character has become a default attribute of our era. We have all become our own marketers, using social media to the advertise versions of ourselves culled from our activities and accomplishments. On Instagram, on LinkedIn or Facebook, on a car bumper festooned with the airport call letters of a vacation destination, we all seem to be shouting—in completely acceptable ways—“I am worthy and impressive! Look at what I have done!”
A high school is also a meritocracy that places at its pinnacle the accolade-laden achiever—substituting awards and grades for cars and professional titles, encouraging the ambitious student to grasp for them at every opportunity as a way to distinguish himself from his peers and position himself for a successful, comfortable life. David Brooks explored this reality back in 2001 in his seminal Atlantic essay, “The Organization Kid.” More recently, William Deresiewicz’s 2014 book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, excoriated the Ivy League for cultivating a generation of self-congratulating hoop-jumpers. The reality is clear: now, more than ever, schools find themselves ministering to a student population raised not only to achieve, but also to rely on that achievement to validate their self-worth.
I’ve witnessed the acceleration of this phenomenon in my nine years as a high school English teacher. The ubiquity of online grade books has hasn’t helped, enabling teenagers to sit at home like hedge-fund managers and watch their grades move up and down as their teacher inputs their most recent scores. Though this arrangement has its benefits (students can no longer hide their performance from their parents, for one), there’s a pretty steep downside. When teachers pass back graded essays or tests, students often struggle with the impulse to reach for their phones, in order to see how this most recent grade has affected their overall average.
My intent is not to vilify my students. I understand their fixation; it is one we have all been conditioned to share. Taught from a young age to identify as consumers and achievers, they instinctively reach for grades, awards, and other symbols of their achievements as ways to carve out a kind of salvation for themselves. And the more precisely quantified that salvation, the better. Why should they give too much thought to a teacher’s comments on an essay, for example, when they have the certainty of a grade that calculates their overall effort to the nearest tenth of a point—and in real time? What else should they be concerned about, if they want to succeed in today’s world?
For educators in Catholic schools, whose spirituality is grounded in the practices of divesting and detaching, our culture of achievement and acquisition should give us pause, and especially when we see it in our own institutions. As St. Paul writes, Christ “did not regard equality with God something to be grasped / Rather, he emptied himself, / taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:6-7). Our goal, after all, is to draw our students closer to someone who spent his earthly life associating with the opposite of the rich and famous, with men and women whose positions, taken collectively—leper, prostitute, tax collector—form a kind of anti-resume. In our hallways and classrooms we see the figure of a man who, in death, chose to take on the ultimate symbol of suffering and worldly scorn. What does the cross have to say to our students in their race to the top?
To render this situation as clearly as possible, I turn to what might seem an unlikely lens: the life and work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
More accurately than any writer of his generation, Fitzgerald captured the soul of the American social climber. This would be true even if he had written nothing more than The Great Gatsby. The decadence of the West Egg nouveau riche, the pitiful naïveté of Gatsby’s attempts to purchase Daisy’s love, and the sobering emptiness of his funeral have all found their way into our collective consciousness. Hollywood over the decades has bolstered Fitzgerald’s star, and Baz Luhrmann’s recent film production of Gatsby, with music produced by Jay-Z, helped us recognize ourselves in the glittering self-absorption of the Roaring ‘20s. The age of the selfie is not far removed.
Fitzgerald’s own education proves instructive in our attempt to understand the achievement culture in our schools, since in his own Catholic prep school, Fitzgerald witnessed first-hand the attempt of religious educators to bless the virtues of socioeconomic ascendancy. For two years the young writer attended the Newman School in Hackensack, NJ, a short-lived Catholic institution that, according to Fitzgerald biographer Matthew Bruccoli, 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 sixty 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, including the Catholic entrepreneur and philanthropist John Jacob Raskob, chief financier of the Empire State Building (and an early supporter of Commonweal).
At a glance, Fitzgerald’s school does not seem much different from the elite Protestant ones on which it was modeled; it took the top-notch education those schools offered the New England establishment and dispensed it to aspirant Catholic families, and did so at a time when ethnic Catholics were still on the outside of the American elite, looking in. Fitzgerald scholar Pearl James notes that Newman was one of many Catholic prep schools that emerged in the late nineteenth century as a result of the demand for alternatives to Jesuit schools, which, in the eyes of the Protestant elite, were deemed too medieval to serve as springboards for the Ivy League. The thoroughly spiritual goals of a Jesuit education, James notes, “differed from that of the preps, which emphasized success in this life.” Both Bruccoli and James credit the Newman School for exposing the budding writer, who hailed from St. Paul, Minnesota, to the glamour of New York City and Princeton, where he matriculated (and eventually dropped out).
Fitzgerald’s experience at the Newman School made its way into his fiction in various forms. He dedicated his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Monsignor Sigourney Fay, his Newman mentor, thinly veiling him as the character Monsignor Darcy in the story. In his 1922 short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” Fitzgerald fictionalized the Newman School as the nefariously named St. Midas’ School, “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].” The fabulous school forms a backdrop for the plot, which concerns the lunacy of a rich man who attempts to purchase his own salvation. Protagonist John Unger attends St. Midas with Percy Washington, whose family owns an estate in a remote area of Montana that includes a mountain whose core is solid diamond. The family employs all kinds of measures to keep their property secret, and when Unger spends the summer there, he discovers that the Washingtons make it a habit of murdering their guests at the end of their stay.
To complete this wild scenario, fighter pilots at one point attack the family’s mansion, and Percy’s father Braddock begins praying for the salvation of his estate, offering his enormous diamond to God in trade—using his wealth as a way to fend off suffering, in the form of a bribe to his maker. Of Braddock’s deliberations, Fitzgerald writes that “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…” Braddock’s confidence in his ability to purchase God’s favor (and no, it doesn’t work) betrays his twisted understanding of the relationship between humans and the divine, delivering up a God “made in man’s image,” a God who “must have His price.”
A school named “St. Midas” is exactly the place where such a man would send his son; its symbolic name, referring to the mythical king with the golden touch, 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. Like Braddock’s prayer, it confuses the divine and the human, reducing the almighty to merely another player in the marketplace. It’s an apt warning for modern Catholic prep schools, especially the elite ones, whose highly competitive and accomplished students vie for admission to the best colleges.
Of course, our schools should encourage students to get good grades and strive for excellence. We should celebrate their accomplishments, insofar as they reflect their growth in body, mind, and spirit. But we must recognize that students coming of age today arrive at our doors pre-programmed with a kind of achievement neurosis. We have all been trained to stockpile symbols of achievement as a safeguard, so that in times of duress we will have something to cling to—like Will Ferrell’s character in the SNL sketch and Braddock Washington in Fitzgerald’s story—in hopes that God will see us through. The danger of this persistent fixation in Catholic schools is that it becomes sanctified as a kind of modern Pelagianism, the heresy that we do not need to rely on God, that we can buy our own way to salvation. How easy it is for Catholic students, in our day, to believe that God is the keeper of the great grade book in the sky, the grand evaluator of the resume of their lives. If their marks are good enough, their accomplishments impressive enough, the logic goes, He must grant them their eternal reward.
The dwindling number of Catholic schools operated by religious orders makes this danger even more real. In those American schools once filled with priests, nuns, and brothers, the sea of black garments served as a visual reminder to students of an education that aimed at equipping them to navigate the world with a different compass than the conventional one. Nowadays, as more and more schools are entirely staffed and governed by lay men and women, no matter how excellent or devoted, we should be wary of regressing into the Newman School—founded by Catholic entrepreneurs and staffed entirely by laypeople—whose unspoken goal, as Fitzgerald made clear through “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” was not to transform the rat race but to christen it.
Which parts of the modern world should the Catholic faith embrace, and which should it reject? When should faith act like dye in the water of culture, and when should it act like oil? These questions have been central to the church since its earliest era, and Catholic schools confront them daily, as they prepare students both for the world and for heaven. The example of the St. Midas School helps clarify our task. 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 for salvation, but only whether a diamond “as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel” would be sufficient barter. In mocking this modern Pelagianism, F. Scott Fitzgerald, saturated though he was in the glitzy spirit of his era, knew enough to call it by its real name. Here’s hoping Catholic schools can do the same.