Janey Got Her Gun
Clearly, these are not schools for everyone--though virtually everyone who wants to attend can. Acceptance rates at both schools hover around 80 percent, ranking them among the nation's least academically competitive schools--albeit with the most fiercely loyal alumni (VMI boasts the highest per capita endowment of any publicly supported college or university). The brutality of the adversative method implants a deeply felt bonding among the men; solidarity among cadets is intense, and graduates join what they lovingly call the world's largest fraternity.
Two new books take us inside these bastions of Southern masculinity. Catherine Manegold's In Glory's Shadow offers an impressionist history of the school and its historical and cultural context as a citadel of Southern honor and male privilege. As an outsider with extensive access to historical documents and interviews with key players, Manegold, who covered the Citadel story for the New York Times, sees the school's resistance to Shannon Faulkner's admission into the Corps of Cadets as a morality play in miniature, a defining moment in the transformation of America. She provides an intricately detailed portrait of sadistic machismo, twisted by decades of insularity and insolent adolescence--a portrait that ends with the cadets' shamefully triumphant celebration at Faulkner's withdrawal, followed by a brief coda in which the school snarls and snaps at the prospect that others will take her place.
In Breaking Out, Laura Fairchild Brodie, an adjunct professor at VMI and wife of the school's band leader, writes from the inside, chronicling, with excruciating attention to detail, the deliberations and preparations for women's entry that followed the Supreme Court decision. VMI fought, valiant and bitter to the end, but when the end came, so too did its resistance. The difference between insider and outsider among the authors, though, is of less significance than the chronology each author unfolds--and the differences between two schools that on the surface appear so similar.
That surface gleams in the Southern sun like so many perfectly polished brass belt buckles, according to Manegold. The Citadel's public face is all honor, glory and integrity, an antebellum world where men and women are addressed as "Sir" and "Ma'am." "The success of the Citadel is no mystery" observed Bud Watts, the superintendent of the school during the litigation. "It results from the benefits of a well-rounded education which develops cadets academically, morally, spiritually, and physically; all within a framework of a demanding, strict, disciplined military environment. This experience builds character and self-confidence, instills integrity and honor."
The shadow Citadel is something else entirely. Readers may recall Citadel alum Pat Conroy's description in The Lords of Discipline, his fictional re-creation of cadet life:
We did not receive a college education at the Institute, we received an indoctrination, and all our courses were designed to make us malleable, unimaginative, uninquisitive citizens of the republic, impregnable to ideas--or thought--unsanctioned by authority.... It demanded limitless conformity from its sons, and we concurred blindly. We spent our four years as passionate true believers, catechists of our harsh and spiritually arctic milieu, studying, drilling, arguing in the barracks, cleaning our rooms, shining our shoes, writing on the latrine walls, writing papers, breaking down our rifles, and missing the point. The Institute was making us stupid; irretrievably, tragically, and infinitely stupid.
(Conroy was one of Faulkner's staunchest supporters, sponsoring rallies in her support and eventually paying her tuition at a private college after she fled Charleston.)