I suppose I’m biased. But bias or no, Privilege is must reading for anyone interested in the intersection of education, schools, and the American class structure. The full title of Shamus Rahman Khan’s sociological study is Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School; understanding both that and the unlikely name of the author will give you a leg up in realizing why this is an important book.
I began this essay by saying that I suppose I’m biased. That’s because I attended an elite New England prep school (though Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, is not nearly so class-conscious as St. Paul’s School, in Concord, NH) and because I now teach at a public high school that can’t officially be elite at all (though of course in many ways it is). So I have three schools I can compare here, ignoring for the moment the other schools at which I’ve taught. But first we have to address the question of why the book’s full title and the author’s full name are significant. The significance of the latter is that the author’s mother was the daughter of Irish peasants and his father was the son of Pakistani peasants, a combination that immediately tells you something about the changing notion of what “elite” means in American society. The significance of the former is that it reveals all four of the book’s themes: a discussion of what privilege means, its context in the life of teenagers, the emphasis on elite society, and a specific description of one particular school.
The author’s credentials are relevant. For better or for worse, this book is a sociological treatise, even though most of it is in popularized format and is blessedly almost free of sociology jargon. Khan, a former St. Paul’s student himself, is now a young professor at Columbia University and recently spent a year as a visiting teacher and researcher at St. Paul’s, where he gathered his research material for this book. So we have here a first-hand ethnographic study written by someone who has seen the school from both sides; he would never claim to be an objective outsider, but the account is far richer for its lack of objectivity.
As I said, I went to a somewhat similar school myself. But I expected to be struck more by the differences than the similarities; after all, 45 years have gone by, so both schools have changed. The biggest change is simply that both schools used to be all-male but now both are coed. Of course this difference is significant — and Andover didn’t have the kind of upper-class snobbery that St. Paul’s had and still has — but otherwise St Paul’s in 2009 seems to be remarkably like Andover in 1964.
Here are a few of the observations that struck me forcefully:
- There is a pervasive emphasis on “knowing your place.” This was true of Andover then, and it’s true of St. Paul’s today. At Andover we were not allowed to eat meals with students from another class (note the intrusive double meaning of “class,” though here of course I refer to year of graduation, not social class). We were not allowed to listen to the radio until 11th grade. (Why? Good question. Because it identified our place in the hierarchy.) At St. Paul’s even the faculty are seated by seniority in chapel, and the older students are given the seats closest to the faculty. It’s important to know your place. Some of this, of course, even occurs at Weston, where there are limited open-campus privileges for seniors, and where the juniors descend on the seniors’ territory in the cafeteria as soon the seniors leave for their internships. But that’s minor compared to what’s described in this book.
- College admissions are a major selling-point of New England prep schools (they’re called prep schools, after all). Things today are no longer quite the way they were when I graduated from Phillips Academy in 1969 — when 15% of our class went on to Harvard and another 15% to Yale, and the head of guidance could get half of those groups admitted on his say-so without going through the formal admissions process — but only the numbers have changed. Qualitatively it’s the same. Here’s what Khan has to say: “A cursory look at St. Paul’s leaves no doubt that the school is a place where already privileged youths spend their adolescent years; two-thirds come from families who can afford over $40,000 per year for high. The college that students from St. Paul’s are most likely to attend is Harvard, followed by Brown, Penn, Dartmouth, Yale, Cornell, Princeton, and Stanford… In recent years, 30% of graduating classes attended an Ivy League institution and around 80% attended one of the top thirty colleges and universities in the nation.”
- St. Paul’s still hold formal dinners (“seated”) for all students and faculty twice a week. Everyone has to dress up, and students learn proper upper-class behavior. “In these moments,” Khan observes, “students are learning a vital piece of upper-class culture: how to act casually while dressed formally.” But there’s another side to the story: “The meals are obviously a training session: teaching students how to eat a ‘polite’ meal, how to make table conversation with relative strangers, how to discern what is acceptable and unacceptable in formal interactions. But on most occasions students sat with downturned eyes, pushing their food around, thinking of little more than leaving the burdensome event. If St. Paul’s was teaching the finer, more subtle points of table etiquette, I never saw it. What students seem to learn was how to be ambivalent about a meal like this — ambivalent, and terribly bored. What happened at these tables was not something that I would want to subject anyone to.”
- St. Paul’s is still an Episcopal school, despite a diverse student body. Regular chapel attendance is required. This used to be true when I was at Andover, where we had chapel five days a week. The service was called “non-denominational.” When I was in tenth grade, I remarked to the school minister that this seemed to be a misnomer, and he replied that it was non-denominational because it was a mixture of Episcopal and Presbyterian. When I then said that requiring attendance seemed inappropriate, he said, “We have to require it. Otherwise nobody would go.”
- Obviously great strides have been made in diversity. Andover in 1965 looked like the image on the left, whereas Andover in 2012 looks like the image on the right:
I’m sure a similar pair of pictures would represent St. Paul’s then and now. Today’s ethnic and gender diversity is genuine, but it’s misleading. Diversity is not enough. As Khan observes, “as elite schools appear to have opened their doors, to a large degree they have not. There are more rich kids at top schools than there were 25 years ago and fewer poor ones…. The lack of a language of and identification with class in our nation presents challenges to confronting our increasing class inequalities.”
- Throughout the book we see the implicit message that “you are better than hoi polloi.” Perhaps this is an improvement over the situation at Andover in the ’60s, when were continually given the same message but it was quite explicit. “You are the elite; you are the future leaders of America.” Do students at Weston High School hear the same message? In some ways yes. When Boston Magazine lists Weston High School as the #1 school in the Boston area, you can bet that we got the message. We’re proud of our academic success, our scores, our college admissions results, our athletic victories, and our efforts at supporting the entire range of students, not just the top ones. Clearly there are some students who feel elite. But I don’t think that Weston High School as a whole fosters that attitude, either explicitly or implicitly. We’re more likely to follow the precepts of last year’s famous graduation speech by David McCullough, Jr., at nearby Wellesley High School, where he said, “You are not special. You are not exceptional.” Yes, some of our students do consider themselves special, but that’s not the attitude that the school promotes.
I remarked above that the most obvious difference between Andover/St. Paul’s in 1964 and Andover/St. Paul’s today is that both schools are now coed. (A brief aside: my Latin teacher said repeatedly that Andover would go coed over his dead body. Well, that didn’t quite happen, but the day that the decision to go coed was made public, he announced his retirement.) Perhaps you think that girls and boys are now equal at St. Paul’s (and similar schools). But think again. As Khan observes, “To put it simply, girls have to work harder than boys. Study after study has concluded that girls across the nation have better grades than boys and perform better in college; in no small part this is because they are working harder. But elite colleges are gendered institutions that strive for an equal male-female ratio, even though the girls are stronger candidates. Girls at St. Paul’s must work harder than boys to find a space within the ‘girls’ pool’ of college applicants. Having to work harder makes it harder for girls to display the requisite St. Paul’s ease.” More concrete is this surprising finding about student perception as contrasted with actual achievement:
Nevertheless, although girls work harder and get higher grades, they get fewer awards… When I casually asked a series of students to identify the “best” student in different areas, boys were almost always named. The best artist was a boy. The best athlete was a boy. The best student was a boy. Even breaking academics down by topic area, the best students in each were almost always boys. The exception was in physics, where the best student identified was a transgendered boy. Boys dominated the realm of the extraordinary, even though girls were doing better. [Even the girls who were interviewed named boys 70% of the time.] It generally shocked students when I pointed this out to them. In fact, without exception, they quickly named girls they thought could compete with or even beat the best boys. But I was primarily interested in who immediately came to mind for students. Further, with the exception of a black athlete who was occasionally named and an Asian musician, all of the boys talked about were white.
I could easily go on to discuss the issue of entitlement vs. privilege, arrogance vs. ease, the notion that working hard is commonplace but maybe not real, the exciting but unrealistic humanities course at St. Paul’s, the amazing list of prominent guest speakers (similar to what I enjoyed at Andover), and the whole idea of inequities, but this essay is already far too long. So I want to close by quoting a small part of Khan’s conclusion: “The elite story about the triumph of the individual is just that; or, better, it is a myth. Even though they are outperforming them in educational institutions, women still make less than men; blacks make less than whites, and students from St. Paul’s get into better colleges than equivalent ones who attend non-elite schools.” If you decide to read the book — and you definitely should — don’t be put off by the occasional heavy bits of dull sociology that the editors allowed to creep into parts of the first half of the book. The author is a sociology professor, after all — so what would you expect? The rest of the work is eminently readable. Read it!