Of Exclusive Schools and Gravel (part 1)

August 21, 2007

by Vassil Genchev

I recently started a discussion, with a former colleague of mine from my undergraduate years, in Facebook – that wonderful utility of proximity, narcissism and voyeurism – things we all adore, anyway. The conversation was sparked over my marked support for Presidential Candidate Mike Gravel – a largely neglected maverick Democrat candidate, former Senator from Alaska and one of the few men who released the Pentagon Papers on Senate record shortly before the Watergate scandal was fully blown. My Canadian-Maltese friend from undergrad thus found it curious that I, someone who attended ‘one of the most exclusive high school in Sofia’ (the classification is made by a Bulgarian lady friend of his, the information ‘ACS 02 Graduate’ is supplied on my Facebook profile), would pay allegiance to Senator Gravel. My explanation was that I cannot help but have sympathy for a man who a) risked his career and perhaps even his life (remember the ‘Nixon plumbers’) to release classified material on the Vietnam war, b) sets off on campaign trail with $500 in his war chest, and c) somewhat uncommonly for a Columbia graduate, spent some time working as a cab driver in New York.

My friend, a clever young man with an eye for detail, would hardly be satisfied with such cursory observations. If sentiment is what my support is based on, then, he would ask, where is the sentiment coming from. Indeed he has voiced a commonly held assumption – private schools, especially ‘exclusive’ American private schools overseas, are expected to cultivate decent, ambitious and exceptionally prepared young men and women, who are, in turn, to join local and international political, intellectual and business elites. Kids who enter those schools at the tender age of thirteen of fourteen, to spend the next five years in bucolic campuses among stately buildings, tennis courts and well-supplied libraries and labs, are to sustain a certain frame of thinking that would not be counter-establishment, deviant, or, equally menacingly – ‘lefty’ liberal. In my brief note, here, I cannot discuss the history, ideology and development of private American overseas schools. Moreover, I am well aware that there are marked differences among institutions and that, as everyone knows these days, it is ownership, or the revered board of trustees and its composition and agenda, that makes most of the difference (slight, as you can imagine) from one school to the next. What I can do, is sketch a few observations on the relationship between the political/ideological formation of young people in my country (Bulgaria, that is) and the advance of ‘Western’ ideas, products (importantly!) and education here.

First, I must make a little caveat about the international teachers at the American College of Sofia (mostly North American and some instructors from the UK). From my observations, the typical instructor at ACS is young, interested in travelling and other cultures, from a middle class background, not particularly religious, tolerant of others’ views, beliefs and opinions. This said, should I continue further to sketch a model Democratic voter? I would not go as far as making the teachers at the American College suspect of Marxism and subversive neo-colonialist theories. However, I do recall Orhan Pamuk’s description of his North American instructors of the even more exclusive Robert College, made in his Istanbul novel, as Marxists and extremely left-wing liberals. What I found very interesting in his description is the dramatic clash of worldviews, as described by him, of three distinct groups – the left-wing teachers, the uninterested children of the wealthy conservative Istanbul elite, and the stipend-holders of poor Anatolian backwater towns for whom America was the Promised Land.

This contradiction, even if much less pronounced, was also manifest at the American College of Sofia campus. Undoubtedly, the North American teachers were much less left-wing, let alone Marxist, than their Robert College counterparts of the 1960s and 1970s. Times have changed and the era of Paris barricades and Kent State shootings has given place to an age of alternative lifestyles, esoteric literature and religions, online activism, fluid gender identities and working holidays spent soaking up local cultures worldwide. The rich kids, who might have formed about a third of the student body were also neither as rich, nor with as noble in pedigree as the scions of the Istanbul aristocracy. Finally, as if to undermine comparison opportunities, the group of stipend-holders was neither as poor, nor as enamoured with America as the poor Anatolian children described by Pamuk. I would not say, though, that the differences are more than the similarities because the basic conflict is still in place – the teachers coming from rich and developed North America are markedly more liberal, left-wing and tolerant than the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian society from which a hundred or so students are hand-picked every year to fill the ranks of the next ACS class. (Part 2 to follow shortly)

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One comment

  1. Interesting! I’ve always wondered about the kind of culture cultivated at the ACS. It’s very similar to many colleges in the USA, though, where professors are more liberal than their students.

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