When I was a young boy I would often leave my home in the middle of the night just to wander the streets of Kensington, MD, and think my nocturnal thoughts. Older, once I had a car – a Ford Falcon affectionately named “piece of junk” – I would expand my wanderings beyond Kensington.
That is how I came to find the welcoming forest and Bishop’s Garden of the National Cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C.
I would park about a half-mile away, then wend my way through the woods to the mammoth Cathedral. There, often I entered the small chapel that is open all night for visitors seeking spiritual solitude.
Mostly, though, I would sneak through a hole I discovered in a fence and enter the Bishop’s Garden. Walking up a couple steps toward the Bishop’s residence, I would then find myself on the lush grass that surrounds the house. There, I would simply lay down and contemplate under the stars.
I had an epiphany of sorts while on the grass of the Bishop’s residence. It was April 4, 1968. You remember the date? It was the day Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on a Memphis motel balcony.
And as I stood on the grounds near the National Cathedral, I could see the sky in the distance being lit up by fire. It was a fire fed by hatred and the frustrations of the black community in Washington as it broke into riot, burning whatever hope they once had that this country could become the land of equal opportunity Dr. King had envisioned.
And as I stood there, I could not help but keep shifting my eyes from the Cathedral to that light in the sky, a bastard light that no one really wanted to claim. What amazing accomplishments we are capable of when we creatively work together, I thought as I looked at the massive stones of the Cathedral. And, looking at the lighted sky, what destruction we are capable of when we do not.
I’ve not had occasion to think much about the National Cathedral and my escapades there until Tuesday night, when I read a story about a D.C. prep school imposing a rigid program of political correctness on its students and staff.
The story is about St. Albans School, a private preparatory school which sits adjacent to the National Cathedral. All its words about inclusiveness notwithstanding, it is a school that caters to the very rich and the very, very powerful. Pick a powerbroker in Washington, D.C., who has a son, including foreign dignitaries, and there is a very good chance that that child will be enrolled at St. Albans.
Full disclosure, I have a personal resentment toward the school. I was co-captain of my public high school soccer team. We played, and were beaten badly, by St. Albans.
Of course, we were a nascent team trying to learn the game playing a bunch of embassy kids who’d been playing all their lives, which was true of other D.C. area teams we played as well. The only good to come of that season is that I learned how to swear in several different languages.
Albert Gore, Jr., son of the Tennessee Senator of the same name, graduated from St. Albans. So did television journalist and commenter Brit Hume. Former Virginia Senator John Warner, too, was a St. Albans grad, along with former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford. Other St. Albans students include former Senators John Kerry and Evan Bayh. George W. Bush’s two younger brothers, Neil and Marvin, are also graduates.
The college that has accepted the most St. Albans graduates is the University of Chicago, followed in order by Yale, Dartmouth, Tulane, Columbia, Georgetown and Harvard. As I said, it is a school for the rich and the powerful – and their progeny. From St. Albans graduates are sent to the leading elitist institutions in the country, thus helping to maintain the cycle of power and control of the ruling class in this country.
According to the article, St. Albans students can now be expelled for a “single expression, act, or gesture” that is seen to be offensive.
Expelled, as in skedaddle, get out of here, and all for one, ONE, “expression, act, or gesture” that offends the politically correct sensibilities of one of the noblesse oblige.
A student can have his world turned upside down for a single instance of action or speech that – wait for it – “someone deems offensive.” Is that open-ended enough for you in its vagueness? One person’s joke is another’s “I’m shocked, shocked you could say such a thing.” Which carries more weight with the powers-that-be at the school, a joke that gets a group laugh or “someone” who deems it offensive?
A joke I have always liked, which falls in the category of “Polack joke,” is the Polack who thinks his girlfriend is trying to kill him because he saw in her medicine cabinet a bottle of “Polish Remover.” Now, is that an ethnic joke, or is it, as I maintain, a joke about the ambiguity of language? See heteronyms. Regardless, I’d probably be tossed out on my ass if I told that joke at St. Albans.
What the world needs is more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. What this kind of vague rule does is create a stifling world of conformity, of students afraid to try out new ideas and stretching of boundaries. Obvious calls to violence and denigrations of people are one thing, but such dire consequences for an “expression, act, or gesture”?
You know who should be most upset at this politically correct gone nuts craziness?
Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley, who are the creators of The Simpsons. They met and began working together when they were students at St. Albans. Among the offenses noted in the school’s new policy is the offense of “misplaced humor.” You think the writers of The Simpson’s could survive in today’s environment at the school if they could be tossed for “misplaced humor”?
What is worse, the school admonishes “anyone, whether student, faculty, staff, or family member, who witnesses, or has knowledge of an incident of hate speech, [to] report the incident to the appropriate individual.” In short, the school wants to turn the students, faculty and staff into East German STASI-like informers. And the policy states informers will remain anonymous. In short, everyone monitors everyone else to assure each and all conform.
Conform, conform, conform. And for what? Just to be another well-connected conformist, forged through a cookie-cutter educational approach to later take a position at an Ivy and thus perpetuate a ruling class that forces the rubes and deplorables to do their bidding? Such, it would seem, is the message.
In an earlier column I remarked on the culture of “denouncing” in Stalinist Russia, including those who would inform on others to gain some personal satisfaction or goal. You think this system at St. Albans doesn’t just shriek in invitation to students and others to settle their own personal grievances through informing?
Tut, tut, school administrators will no doubt object, insisting they would guard against such abuses in the system. No doubt, the true believers in Stalinist Russia said the same thing.
Thought experiment: a white, cisgender male and a minority, transgender female each commit an “expression, act or gesture” that someone finds offensive and is reported.
As an institution, St. Albans bent the knee in supplication to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) after the death of George Floyd, a black man killed in an altercation with police in Minneapolis in 2020. The school proudly proclaims faculty and staff read Ibram X. Kendi’s and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ books and attend workshops on their texts.
Indeed, if you look at the school’s Web site you will find a long list of resources on DEI including works on Ability, Child Development, Class & Socio-Economic Status, Culture & Heritage, Gender, Identity, Immigrant & Refugee Experiences, Inclusion, LGBTQ+, Microaggressions & Bias, Politics, Religion, and – the longest list of resources of all – Race.
Among the list of authors on Race are Robin DiAngelo of White Fragility fame along with the execrable Howard Zinn and his “history” of the American people.
You know who’s not there? There is no Thomas Sowell to get an empirically-based view of race in America. Neither can you find any of the work of Glen Loury. The two are black economists, with doctorates from the University of Chicago and MIT, respectively. But as black conservatives there is apparently no room for them at St. Albans. Same for John McWhorter, Ph.D. graduate of Stanford in Linguistics, another black non-pandering voice on race. Not welcome at St. Albans.
I suddenly pull up short as I recall those words I thought all those years ago: What amazing accomplishments we are capable of when we creatively work together, and what destruction we are capable of when we do not. The key word is “creatively,” which is in natural antipathy to conformity.
Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, near the end of his book Symbolism, writes: “Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”
Creative revision that shuns traditional notions and symbols of a culture opens itself to anarchy. Conformity risks condemning a culture to that “slow atrophy” of which Whitehead speaks. Instead of chasing after “useless shadows” as St. Albans school currently seems to be doing, it would be better off, and certainly more vibrant, were it to embrace the creative rambunctiousness of the writers of The Simpsons.
Sure, the humor may miss the mark at times and cross a line, as will other attempts to creatively question current ways in order to explore unchartered regions of culture and politics. But to stifle that creativity in order to maintain a politically correct order is to denigrate the basic human yearning within each of us to explore and discover.
I have fond recollections of the National Cathedral from my youth. And though I knew nothing of the history or reputation of St. Albans at the time, I included the school as part of my fond memories of the place. That has changed after reading this article about the threat to expel politically incorrect students for the merest contrarian “expression, act, or gesture.” I prefer to recall the earlier experiences of the place from my youth, even if they did kick our butts in soccer.
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.