05/03/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Prep School: Talking Trash

In 2010 I graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the nation's most prestigious college preparatory schools. Established in 1781, Exeter boasts a long list of distinguished alumni, an endowment more substantial than Micronesia's GDP, and in contrast with its competitor Deerfield Academy, a recent record free of sex abuse. Every year, thousands of the brightest youngsters with an incredible variety of experiences, perspectives and backgrounds apply to Exeter. Those who end up attending Exeter learn not how to share and benefit from these differences - they learn how to be the same.

Exeter differentiates itself from other prep schools with its oval Harkness table, featured in every classroom on campus. Inspired by the Socratic method of questioning, the Harkness table places the students on the same level as their teacher in order to facilitate free and open discourse. The technique, and the teachers trained to employ it, rewards speech - be it profound, inquisitive, circular, or flatly illogical - at the cost of categorically ignoring the worth of listening, the presence of introversion and the significance of concrete fact. Students chasing the elusive "A" at Exeter learn to care more for the sound of their own voices than the class material when they discover that as much as fifty percent of their grade rests on their in-class verbalizations. As a result, I spent much of my time listening to outgoing students compare the facial hair of the American presidents rather than analyzing the implications of their policy decisions.

The Harkness Method was not intended to produce this kind of lackluster exchange. Open debate, the conceptual basis for the method, allows informed people to enhance and modify their opinions, but it's an ideal unattainable for a group of ambitious teenagers whose grades rely heavily on the amount of airtime they get. Prior to Exeter, math was my favorite subject. It made sense to me. I loved how straightforward the answers were: either you solved the problem or you didn't. My first semester at Exeter, students less gifted at math than I were so determined to voice their opinions on the disutility of integration notation that I left each class less certain about calculus, about Exeter and about my own abilities. I finished my mathematics requirement at Exeter before my 16th birthday. Now a junior in college, I haven't taken a math class since.

Given the fact that my peers' words would often negate or conflate the material presented in our homework, I got predictably mediocre grades at Exeter my first semester. After listening to a fellow student verbally mangle my favorite book, mixing up themes, characters, and plotlines, as our teacher - who firmly believed that no comment was unhelpful - nodded supportively, I realized that I had to change. Another interaction affirmed this conclusion: I was surprised to receive a report card and find that the grade for my history elective was dramatically lower than I expected. I asked my teacher to explain her grading system, and she informed me that my participation grade was dreadful enough to discount the rest of the work I had done all semester. In exchange for receiving the grade I deserved, I had to promise her that I would speak at least three times in every class I attended for the rest of my Exeter career.

I did my best to fulfill that promise. Instead of consulting my readings and collecting rare kernels of truth from my classmates in order to make a thoughtful comment when the time felt right, I started speaking whenever there was a momentary lull in the discussion, even if I had nothing to say. I learned to ask vague questions that allowed me to use my voice but often did little to advance my or my peers' knowledge. Before long, I started to sound like everyone else.
Eventually, I even started to dress like everyone else. It didn't take much time for me to fit in.

I will be forever grateful to Exeter for three things: one, for introducing me to a few incredible peers and one particular mentor I hope to know forever; two, for allowing me to appreciate the family I had taken for granted; and three, for tearing down my naiveté about reality. At Exeter, I learned that what you said was more important than what you knew. I learned that the louder you are, the better you are. I learned that there's only one way to learn anything, and that's to talk in circles until someone takes notice. These difficult Exonian truths are only too easily applied to what I have come to understand as the real world, or the place that awaits me after I leave the magical halls of this college that I have come to cherish so dearly for its incredible contrast to Exeter.

Exeter changed me into someone I wasn't. I grew loud, thoughtless, and concerned only with receiving the perfect grade that would always elude me if I tried to stop and think. Since graduating, I have slowly tried to distance myself from this stranger in order to reconnect with the kind of inquisitive passion that used to drive me to read a new book every week. Thankfully, I have had help. I expected college to be Exeter on a grander scale, and I have never been more happy to be proven wrong. Here, I have relearned how to learn - and it's not by running my mouth.

College has been a heavenly vacation from the bleak reality that Exeter introduced me to and that I look forward to confronting in a year's time. It's a reality in which shyness is considered a treatable disease; in which knowledge is no match for lung capacity; and in which breaking the mold is only acceptable if you make enough money doing so. After Exeter, I thought I might have figured out how fit into this world of ours. Now that I'm almost finished with college, I realize I'd rather change it.


© Jared Saulnier

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