The Roots of Downcast Part 1: College

Cait circa junior year, the time I wrote this paper. Yes, that is a champagne flute. It's filled with iced tea. And yes, that's a J. Crew catalog. I was making fun of it. College was weird, okay? Leave me alone.
Cait circa junior year, the time I wrote this paper. No, that’s not my room (it’s my neighbor across the hall). Yes, that is a champagne flute. It’s filled with iced tea. And yes, that’s a J. Crew catalog. I was making fun of it. College was weird, okay? Leave me alone.

“Downcast” was not my first attempt at trying to capture the splendid complexity of high school social hierarchies. Apparently, I have been thinking about this for a very, very long time.

Way back in college, I took an anthropology course called, “Myth, Ritual, and Symbol.” This class may or may not have inspired me to want to become an anthropologist…how I ended up in marketing is a whole other story…

The other day, I came across a paper I wrote for this class, and it was clear that I was already trying to analyze and distill the crazy crucible that is high school.

So, here, in its entirety, is my college anthropology paper on high school social structures. (Being a good academic, I would have added the footnotes, but the ancient word processing program I wrote the paper with decided to garble them beyond recognition. Suffice to say that I did footnote the heck out of this thing and can provide notes/bibliography as asked.)

Also, FYI, I got an “A” on this assignment, with Professor Kaplan remarking, “Caitlinn – This is an excellent paper. You provide a detailed ethnography and use both Tume and Gluckman in creative and convincing ways. One point for further thought: what would Bruce Lincoln ask us to consider about the ritual if we put it into real historical context (e.g. compared to 1950’s, 1960’s/70’s versions)? Good work!”

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Honors Convocation: An Attempt at Communitas through a Ritual of Rebellion

I. Introduction

High school is one of the most important socially formative experiences in the lives of the majority of Americans. Teenagers go to high school to play the role of students, and the primary goal of most high schools is to provide these young men and women with an academic education.

However, the social education received through the social structures of the student body go far beyond the media stereotypes of camaraderie and popularity contests. The organization of student social groups and relationships is an extremely complex entity, informed by many factors such as the personality of individual actors, the particular myths and traditions of the school, and the variations in the social map that occur in different schools and class years.

A better understanding of the tacit social arrangements of high school students might further our understanding about the effects of this influential time. An approach to opening up this field would be to look at certain rituals in high schools and how they reflect the social organization and conflicts within the student body.

One such ritual is the “Honors Convocation” held biannually at Brebeuf Preparatory High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Honors Convocation was a ritual meant to bring together the student body by honoring those who had excelled academically and to inspire everyone to work hard and do well in the coming semester.

However, Honors Convocation failed to bring together the students in a kind of communitas and was in fact divisive because of its similarities to a ritual rebellion.

In order to see how this ritual failed so consistently, it is necessary to place it in the context of the pre-existing social structure of the student body and to examine the actual mechanics of the ceremony. Then, by using the theoretical frameworks of Victor Turner and Max Gluckman, Honors Convocation can be analyzed and evaluated as to its effectiveness.

 

II. Student Social Organization and the In’s and Out’s of Honors Convocation

It would be tremendously difficult to imagine a ritual or a ceremony without some sort of cultural context. In fact, in the case of Honors Convocation, there is such a myriad of variables concerning the social structure and the administrative goals that it would be almost impossible to map out all the rapports and connections.

Thus, it is easier to use the senior class as a model and to extrapolate general trends from there. By describing the composition of the senior class’ social hierarchy, the context of the ritual of Honors Convocation itself comes into focus more clearly.

Brebeuf Preparatory High School is a Jesuit college preparatory school located in the more affluent northside suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. The school’s stated goal is to educate students, prepare them for college, and send the entire graduating class to college.

There is a heavy emphasis placed by administrators and teachers on academic excellence and the accumulations of honors and achievements that will increase one’s chances of getting into college. There are about 150 students/class year. The number of students in a given class would be about 15-20. The student body is predominantly upper-middle class whites, however, there is a noticeable presence of Asian-Americans and African-Americans.

An entrance exam is required for admission and once admitted, that exam is used to determine which level of classes one takes. Every year, there are several levels of difficulty in core classes such as English, math, and science.

As the years go on, a group of selected students are strongly encouraged to take Honors and Advanced Placement classes. Thus, the result is the formation of an academic elite over the years who compete for the same scholarships, club offices, and college admissions.

The trials and tribulations and pressures put on this group give them a common ground for commiseration and a limited camaraderie. However, the competitiveness of their academic situation inhibits relationships born of the scholastic context.

A greater influence is exerted on the formation of social groups by the nebulous concept of “popularity”, which might be quickly defined as charisma coupled with the ability to draw other to oneself, and the establishment of leadership as evidenced by one’s powers to determine social and fashion trends.

The social hierarchy was formed by strategic combinations of four basic criteria: popularity, athleticism, academic ability, and involvement in extra-curricular activities.

At the zenith of the senior class was the group of young men and women who “covered all the bases” by being in the top echelons academically, active in athletics, on the cutting edge of fashion, in the know about the parties and social machinations, and involved in many extra-curricular activities such as clubs and volunteer work.

Next came a less gender-mixed group – this meaning that they were both on this social level, but they tended to segregate more by sex. They were active athletically, socially and somewhat extra-curricularly.

Underneath that came the group of students who were also in the academic elite, and involved in extra-curricular activities, but who were not invited to participate in private parties and who were on the whole less involved in athletics.

At the bottom of this hierarchy were those who were neither top nor bottom academically, occasionally in sports or clubs, and who were nearly non-existent socially.

For all practical purposes, this bottom group and the group of academics just above it were taken as one level most of the time. Of course there were crossovers and variations since these groups were not hard and fast, as is implied by delineation of social categories, and there were social intrigues within all the groups, with leaders and followers, etc.

However, overall, this seemed to be the model of the hierarchy used by the senior class and others. Even though academics was an element of being on top of the hierarchy, it was the icing on the cake because of all the other prerequisites.

However, there is one moment during the school year when the social hierarchy is redefined by factors outside its control, namely the administration. That event was Honors Convocation.

Honors Convocation was announced in the school calendar and in all the letters home from the administration. Parents and friends of the family were encouraged to attend this ceremony in honor of the accomplishments of their children.

The students were informed that this was to be treated with as much importance as the all school convocation on St. Jean de Brebeuf day, meaning dressing up was required. Any boy not wearing slacks, a collared shirt, a tie, and dress shoes was subject to detention, as was any girl in casual attire, skirts that were “inappropriately short”, etc.

The morning of convocation, in homeroom, honors and high honors ribbons were distributed. Honors meant that one had a GPA of 3.0-3.4, and high honors was defined as 3.5 to 3.9.   A 4.0 was considered as “class honors” and those ribbons were to awarded during the ceremony.

The distribution of ribbons in the homerooms eliminated what would be a time-consuming process during honors convocation, and also distinguished even more the awarding of class honors ribbons since the recipients would get to walk up to the stage, shake hands with the principal, and be presented to the school.

After the class that followed homeroom, the entire student body was directed to the gymnasium. Students had to sit in the sections that corresponded to their class years. Those receiving class honors were told to sit further down on the bleachers so that they wouldn’t hold up the procession to the stage.

Parents and other guests sat on fold-up chairs set out for them on the floor of the gymnasium. The principal and other administrators sat up on the stage. The teachers stood along the back wall by the doors, and some sat up in the bleachers with the trouble-makers. Finally, everyone was assembled and it was time for the ritual to begin.

The principal got up and gave a short welcome speech to the students and to the parents who had come. In the fall Honors Convocation, which celebrated the achievements of the previous spring semester, the freshmen were excluded from any of the activities, since they had not been at Brebeuf long enough to amass any honors connected with their time there.

The winners of various memorial and other scholarships were announced. In the winter Honors Convocation, the next thing to follow would be the induction of the qualifying members of the junior class into the National Honors Society. They went up on stage, received their certificates and shook hands with the president of the school.

The final part of the ceremony was the announcement of all of those who had received any kind of honors. The listing of those receiving honors began with the freshmen class, unless it was fall Honors Convocation, in which case the president of the sophomore class would get up and begin the announcement of sophomore names.

Those with honors were announced first, then high honors, and finally class honors. The student with class honors were called up to the stage to receive their ribbons. They walked from the bleachers to the staircase up to the foot of the stage where a teacher put the in alphabetical order and prompted them at the right moment to walk up on stage.

Then when everyone was lined up on stage and awarded, the audience applauded and the students left the stage. The senior class was left to go last, and at winter Honors Convocation, it was mentioned that this would be their last Honors Convocation – a remark which always brought tears to a few senior eyes and handsome rounds of applause from everyone.

The principal concluded the convocation by thanking everyone who came and exhorting the students to continue to work hard and strive to be the best they could be. Parents and guests were allowed to leave first, then most of the teachers (except those who were to keep the students in line). Seniors were dismissed next, then juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Students returned to their classes and tried to continue the rest of the day as if nothing had happened.

In the afternoon aftermath, students tended to be particularly listless in their classes, as if to show that what had happened during convocation hadn’t really mattered. A few congratulations had circulated among friends who had gotten class honors or a scholarship, but most of that was previously known because of the quick circulation of information through the classes.

The social structure had been challenged and needed to return to its normal hierarchy in order for the students to function properly in the relationships the understood and were comfortable (although perhaps not happy) with. The next day, there was no talk of what had happened during convocation at all.

Honors Convocation was disruptive because of the way it reflected the tensions in the prevailing social hierarchy of the student body. It was forgotten quickly, in order to circumvent the blossoming of any more ill feeling than what already existed.

This was the opposite effect hoped for by the administrators who had planned this event as a communitas-building moment. In order to better understand this failure, it is necessary to use two theoretical perspectives that address the meaning of what the ritual attempted to do, and how it was actually unconsciously perceived by the student body.

 

III. Victor Turner’s Take on Honors Convocation

Despite the fact that Honors Convocation was a secular ceremony and that many of Victor Turner’s ideas are geared toward more religious rituals, there are several concepts of his that can be transposed to an analysis of this ritual.

In his article “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas”, Turner introduces three terms: liminality, structural inferiority, and communitas. Interwoven into his discussion of these terms are Turner’s discussion of ritual degredation and ritual elevation and a definition of social structure.

Using this point of reference, it is possible to examine critically Honors Convocation in terms of an exercise in building communitas, the aspects of this ritual that correspond to liminality, and the structural inferiority built into the context of the social structure of the student body.

Before plunging into a full analysis of Honors Convocation in Turnerian terms, it is necessary to outline some of his definitions and ideas, from communitas to social structure, and to show how they apply to the study of high school social dynamics in general.

According to Turner, secular communitas is a spontaneous feeling of fellowship that is engendered outside of the set social structures. While Turner argues that institutions cannot successfully communitas, he believes that communitas is not completely separate from social structures and that it is often institutionalized in the form of religion. In the high school setting, an example of communitas outside the self-imposed social group distinctions among students might be the commiseration and relief shared by students as they get out of particularly grueling test.

The students might belong to different “cliques”, but the feeling of relief is outside of that structure. Turner’s definition of a social structure is the “patterned arrangements” of different roles and degrees of social mobility that function and are sanctioned in a society. This structure can be seen in the established social hierarchy described earlier, especially in the two groups at the bottom of the social totem pole.

Being in a group that is classified as somehow lower than another group illustrates the concept of structural inferiority in which there is a permanent class on the bottom of social stratification. In general, movement between social groups was very subtle. A more formalized and ritualistic movement between groups would take place at sports banquets, and club parties and elections, where there would be a more qualifiable liminality.

According to Turner, liminality is the midpoint of a transition between two positions in a society, and may include ritual degredation, ritual elevation, or homogenization of the group. All of these concepts of communitas, structural inferiority, social structure and liminality play into the construction and failure of Honors Convocation.

The established, everyday, dominant social structure of the student body was suspended for 1 1/2 hours during Honors Convocation, and a temporary, artificial structure was imposed which meant to show the possibility of other structures and encourage fluidity between groups.

This new arrangement placed the emphasis and importance on those who had excelled socially across all social lines. Unfortunately, the other pattern of social relations was too firmly entrenched, and the students were not in that setting long enough for it to make a real difference over time.

Part of the reason for the lack of lasting effect was the way the structural inferiority of the senior class, and in general the student body, was constructed. Those who tended to excel academically, aside from those at the top of the hierarchy, were the students who were strong academically and in extra-curricular activities. Thus, the placing of this low group on top was a change that was too drastic to be tenable, let alone comfortable.

There were serious attempts made by the administration who presided over the ritual to achieve a moment of true liminality among the students. They sought to do this through the homogenization of the look of the student body through clothing (formal dress). While clothing has less of a distinguishing impact today, there were still markers of social rank such as cheerleading outfits, letter jackets, sorority sweatshirts, etc. However, those who took the lead socially still were able to “lead” in the realm of formal fashion.

By making everyone sit according to their class year, the administrators seemed to convey their desire that the students think of themselves as “juniors” or “freshmen”. There again, the organization of how students sat according to their social groups showed that there was no elimination of divisive elements. Perhaps the only true liminality that occurred was the ritual elevation of the academically honored and the ritual degredation of the socially prominent but academically weak.

The attempt to find some sort of communitas generated by Honors Convocation may be the hardest and most complex application of Turner’s analysis to the ceremony. The spirit of goodwill and fellowship that the administration hoped would come from the recognition of scholastically strong students by their peers never materialized because of all the pre-determined factors working against it.

Also, as Turner points out, the creation of communitas is usually uncontrollable and unharnessable. Thus, no amount of exhortations by the principal to work together and be a community of scholars only aggrieved the tensions that existed in the social system and reinforced the desire to stick to the established hierarchy.

There were some instances of communitas that happened during the ceremony, such as the explosion of feeling by the senior class at the mention that this would be their last convocation. In a way, this illustrates Turner’s idea that communitas does have a rapport with structure – that in fact, it is often a response to too much structuring. But these moments are few an far between, and sadly brief.

Honors Convocation meant well. It wished to instill feelings of goodwill in its students. However, the arbitrary imposition of communitas and a new social structure based on the overturning of structural inferiority only brought into sharper relief the conflicts and stratification of the senior class and the student body. It succeeded in distinguishing for a moment those who had excelled academically, and this ephemeral triumph call to mind the theories of ritual rebellion put forward by Max Gluckman.

 

IV. Gluckman on Honors Convocation as a Ritual Rebellion

Max Gluckman’s ideas encompass a new vocabulary and a new frame of reference.

There are many questions that arise from a brief examination of his analysis, such as: what is ritual rebellion? what are the criteria that allow this classification? and, in regards to an application of his theories to Honors Convocation, what are the elements of this ritual that resemble the structure and significance of a ritual rebellion?

The rituals of rebellion in south-east Africa offer Gluckman ample concrete examples for this theories. The sacred protests against the king, but not necessarily the kingship, both release pent-up tensions and affirm the support for the institution that allows society to continue.

Every society is full of tensions resulting in both struggle and cooperation. The societies in which these rituals of rebellion against the distribution of power tend to occur are in what Gluckman would call “repetitive” societies, where there is relatively little, or extremely subtle change in the institutions. This can be seen in the structure of the student body.

The designation of class years does not change, and there always seems to be the athletic crowd, the brainy crowd, the popular crowd, etc. According to Gluckman, a ritual of rebellion is an institutionalized and traditional protest by those in habitually subordinate roles.

In the African tribes, the ceremonial expression of hatred for the king is not just a mass assertion of unity in face of the oppression, but also it is a highlighting of the conflict inherent in their society, and a statement of rivalry with the king. The king himself is made to be the symbol of the nation and its strength and prosperity.

By transposing the structure of a monarchy to the structure of a social hierarchy, it is not hard to see how many of these concepts are applicable to an analysis of the social organization of the student body as well as Honors Convocation.

This ceremony is definitely a reversal of roles for students at opposite ends of the social hierarchy, and this factor may be the most important link to Gluckman’s theories.

By giving these students on them bottom a moment of importance that allowed them to assert their worth, tensions were released since there was no concession by those on top because the entire ceremony was handled by administrators.

Those on bottom were only responsible for having worked hard, and thus they avoided spreading the image of a personal attack on the system that allowed everyone to know his place and to establish the pattern of social relations.

Having publicly affirmed their value, these students could return to their position of the social hierarchy and to enjoy the unity and in some cases prosperity of a class that functioned well because of everyone playing the same social game. Thus, in evidence here is the paradox the Gluckman sets forth by showing that through dissent, unity (happy or not) is possible.

Perhaps Honors Convocation did succeed at creating unity, although not the kind it necessarily wanted, by the very disruption it caused in the social fabric of the student body. Whatever its original goals, the effects and perception of Honors Convocation are closely aligned to those described in rituals of rebellion by Gluckman.

 

V. Conclusion

 

Honors Convocation was a problematic event in the course of the scholastic year.

By its elevation of the students who had excelled academically, it overturned dramatically and briefly the established and sanctioned social hierarchy. Its goals were to honor those who had received good grades and to encourage a feeling of academic fraternity.

However, because of all the factors working against it, the ritual fell short of achieving this scholarly agape among the students through the methods the administrators thought would work. As the application of Victor Turner’s theories shows, many elements of the cultural context of Honors Convocation, such as the inherent social structure, the shallow quality of any liminality, and the firmly entrenched structural inferiority, all turned the odds against the development of communitas through this ceremony.

The analysis of Honors Convocation from the point of view of Max Gluckman’s theories comes much closer in its conclusion that it represented to the students a ritual of rebellion. All of these analyses and evaluations attempt to delineate the social dynamics of the cliques of the student body.

Honors Convocation is but one ceremony at one particular high school. There are numerous other rituals ripe for studying and who could yield a valuable guideposts on the road to understanding the impact of high school social structures on the development of groups and individuals as the move on in society.

Bad Ideas in Catalogs: The Talking Scale

I once made the mistake of ordering from SkyMall. It was a moment of weakness. That’s my only excuse. Well, that, and I couldn’t find a wrought-iron Christmas tree anywhere else. Don’t judge.

Ordering from SkyMall is like the embarrassing drunken selfie that goes viral. It’s bad enough that your friends know you ordered from this terrifying catalog of gadgets-yuppies-need, but soon, it goes beyond being a one-time sin. It becomes a recurring infection.

I now get all kinds of catalogs from the vendors who populate SkyMall with their wares. At least four times a year, I get bombarded with cat-warming beds, meaningful beaded jewelry for mothers, and ultra-pure-aerating-straining-diffusing wine pouring mechanisms.

The burden has becomes too much for me to bear alone. I have decided to share the shame with you, and you will be better and wiser for it.

Case in point. The Talking Scale.

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This, my friends, is a really bad idea.

Raise your hand if you are one of those people who enjoys getting on the scale. *crickets* I thought so. It’s hard enough to look at the numbers in a readout, let alone listen to a recital of the effect of yesterday’s cupcakes-and-wine self-pity extravaganza.

Especially, if you’re fudging about your progress with weight loss. Don’t deny it. We’ve all done it, hoping to make up the difference in the end: “I’ll just lose two pounds next week!” Or, it could be you’re going for the time-honored excuse of “It’s just water weight.”

Regardless, I feel your pain. I’ve been there. I still go there with the water weight one sometimes. But the LAST thing I want is to have a scale reading out numbers in the homicidal rage-inducing voice of automated helplines, clearly enunciating and patiently condescending.

Oh, and don’t forget, we’re now living in a global economy. That means that torturing yourself with a scale isn’t just limited to English-speakers. You can now get your daily dose of embarrassment in Spanish, Greek, German and Croatian. How’s that for a language selection?

If you’re feeling particularly masochistic but don’t really want to weigh yourself at the moment, enlarge the photo and read the ad copy. Then go read 10 pages of Strunk & White to recover.

Until next time, when we will experience the joys of the Electric Wine Opener!