Brett Kavanaugh - the Catholic boys' school archetype

The senate testimonies of US supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accuses him of an assault at a teenage party three decades ago, felt like an almost perfect news event. The academic Blasey Ford, was cool, measured and accurate, an icon for our #MeToo times. Kavanaugh, Donald Trump’s pick for one of the most important positions in the United States, was everything we expect from the president and his cadre. Impetuous, irrational, hyper-defensive, at turns self-pitying and self-aggrandising.

Kavanaugh’s testimony should have rung bells for anyone who went to what, for the purposes of this article, we will call a “good school”. It certainly did for me. As Kavanaugh repeatedly listed his achievements - high school basketball team, bench pressing, entrance to Yale - I could tell, without even checking, that he had attended a private Catholic boys’ school. I could tell because I did too. Kavanaugh went to Georgetown prep, a Jesuit boarding school in Maryland, set on 93 idyllic acres outside Washington DC and with a firm remit to prepare its pupils for a life among the elite in America’s capital.

My own experience of the private Catholic boys’ school came at Presentation Brothers College in Cork, Ireland.

These institutions may be separated by geography, and certainly by cost, but they are set up create the same kind of people.

It feels obligatory to caveat this: by and large, I enjoyed my time at “Pres”, was given as good an education as my truculent teenage mind would take, and made friends with people who remain close and dear to me and will for the rest of my life.

But the caveat should not preclude the criticism.

What characterised Kavanaugh’s flustered, belligerent and self-pitying appearance before the senate committee last week was a sense of utter entitlement. This is something deeply instilled in the Catholic private school: you are a better person by virtue of the very fact you attend this school. You are part of an elite that is being trained to run your town, your city, your country through its businesses, media, and courts. All this is done not for personal benefit, but in the name of “service”, a noblesse oblige that dictates that one takes one’s good fortune and puts it to good use for society: how, then, can anyone question your actions, or your motives: we private school boys could be selfish, could keep our undoubted skills and talents to ourselves, but our ethos, drilled into us at school, means we do not. The schools produce generation after generation of little colonels, ready to take charge, to bring order and justice to a chaotic world.

The Georgetown Prep website lays this out neatly on its homepage: the school does not just promise an education, or a better than average chance of getting into a good university. Oh no. Georgetown Prep (day students $37,000 per year, boarders $60,000) creates “Men of courage; men of competence, men of faith; men of compassion; men of conscience; men for others.”

So when Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for a role is questioned - a role he assumes he is entitled to by virtue of his excellent preparation at school - it’s little wonder that his reaction should be volcanic. The indignity is worsened when the allegations of misconduct date back to his time at school, a time when he was at his very peak.

It would be wrong to speculate on exactly what happened at those house parties many years that has now come back to haunt Kavanaugh.

But to anyone who attended a “good school”, the atmosphere described must sound familiar. Kavanaugh’s accuser Blasey Ford, attended a selective girls prep school. There is an expectation that boys and girls from private schools will socialise and build relationships with each other to the exclusion of others - an intense, clearly stated pressure from your early teenage years to be seen with the right people, doing the right things. You could argue that this is the case for all teenagers, but the private school teen has the added weight of the idea that the whole community, the whole city, is watching them, either expecting them to set an example or more insidiously, hoping for them to fail. The tie, the crest, the blazer, all have meaning beyond the school gate. All this combined brings a searing intensity to a private school adolescence: some thrive on it, others struggle to survive it.

Paul Murray’s 2010 novel Skippy Dies captures the hothouse atmosphere of the private school - an atmosphere that even affects the staff - from the very first chapter (“In winter months, from his seat in the middle desk of the middle row, Howard used to look out the window of the History Room and watch the whole school go up in flames.”). Murray’s Seabrook College for Boys is a place where reputation and continuity come above all else.

The same obsession with presenting a good face - tipping over into a siege mentality, was portrayed in Lenny Abrahamson’s film What Richard Did, a terrifying but resonant portrayal of how an entire class closes ranks to protect the reputation of a teen rugby star, and, as important, his school.

As with the Kavanaugh case, Abrahamson’s film centres on allegations of criminality at a house party. But for Kavanaugh, the implied omerta of private school life has been broken, albeit decades later. Kavanaugh, one sensed, did not fully comprehend how the allegations of sexual assault in his school days came to be made against him. Because he had been good at school, in every private boys’ school sense. He had done the right things, all the things demanded in the private school realm. He had excelled at sport, he kept reminding us. He had studied hard, and got into Yale. He had, of course, drank beer, because he was not just an athlete, or a scholar, he was also a fun guy. Why then, were his school days seemingly turning against him?

For men like Kavanaugh, school is the alpha and omega. A “good school” is both a means to an end and a tie that binds.




Brett Kavanaugh
Christine Blasey Ford
United States