by James McGirk
America should be more open than ever. Women and minorities are no longer excluded from high-earning professions and, if you are willing to take on the debt, a university education is more accessible than ever before. But if anything America is less egalitarian than it once was. The income gap between rich and poor has been growing since the 1970s. More worrying than that, a permanent class system seems to be calcifying into place: people born rich are getting richer, while the poor stay poor. America's elite has found a way to protect and perpetuate itself within what should be an inclusive system.
Sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan has a convincing explanation for how they do it. For his new book, “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St Paul's School”, he spent a year doing ethnographic research, living among students as a tutor and conducting interviews at the exclusive boarding school in New Hampshire. “Elite schools exclude,” says Mr Khan “but today they frame themselves as doing so on the basis of talent.” Not necessarily money or good breeding, as many assume.
What defines talent is actually an arbitrary thing. When these students apply to university there is little to distinguish top applicants from one another, yet all want the academic boons such as research opportunities, close relationships with professors necessary for a postgraduate education, or the fast-track to elite employers. Attaining the highest board scores and grade point averages is no guarantee of admission, so decisions are instead made on the basis of narrative. A successful applicant must recommend him or herself through extracurricular achievement and other, squishier categories such as character and public service. All the more reason to be groomed at an elite secondary school that can foster students’ hobbies on top of their academic studies.
Elite secondary schools have, of course, been doing this for generations. What Mr Khan noticed is a shift in the attitude of students and teachers at St Paul's to accommodate a more egalitarian atmosphere. Wealth and good breeding is no longer enough, the new elite must create the illusion that they have worked hard for what they have achieved. As Mr Khan explains, “Elites of the past were entitled – building their worlds around the ‘right’ breeding, connections, and culture – new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them.”
The graduates of St. Paul’s have a special advantage over their peers. In a society riddled with gatekeepers, St. Paul’s graduates have refined their ability to network until it has literally become a reflex.
Mr Khan uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ease to explain how St. Paul’s grooms its graduates to feel comfortable ingratiating themselves into any social context. Ease suggests learning something so deeply that it becomes embodied, inscribed into the subconscious the way a champion football player need no longer be conscious of his dribbling a soccer ball across the pitch.
Khan demonstrates how both the curriculum and the school’s social events force St. Paul’s students to interact with their social betters and navigate through social hierarchies until it becomes second nature. This happens both formally and informally. Teachers live in student dorms and interact constantly, eventually learning to coexist and feel comfortable in one another’s presence.
At every stage in a student’s education a sense of triumph over adversity is fostered (despite graduation already being a foregone conclusion – barely anyone fails out).
And this sense of triumph extends far beyond the bounds of St. Paul’s. Students perceive one another as being not just above average but world-class, an illusion that is reinforced by a procession of prominent visiting speakers and class trips to prestigious locations. Every St. Paul’s athlete was considered a potential Olympian; Mr Khan’s own pupils assumed he would one day win a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
Knowledge alone is no longer an important way of projecting status, says Mr Khan. In today’s Google-world it is not tricky to discern the difference between a Louis Vuitton suitcase and a Samsonite. Instead of memorizing facts, at St. Paul’s, the young elite are taught to employ “a kind of radical egalitarianism”, writing papers that draw parallels across disciplines.
People who cannot appreciate both “Jaws” and “Beowulf” seem wilfully narrow to the students at students at St. Paul’s. They do not realize that their ability to slither so effortlessly between disciplines is a consequence of their privileged backgrounds. To the young elite, someone who does not share their radical egalitarian attitude, and as a consequence fails in the meritocrcatic system, chooses to fail.
“Privilege” is a convincing book and like most good sociological arguments it feels intuitive. Mr Khan sought out students, faculty and staff who did not quite fit in and by analysing why, he extrapolates his model. But as powerful as this study is, it wants for a bit of comparison and context. St Paul's is a boarding school – would an elite day school or even another boarding school have a different approach? And though Mr Khan's dissections of race and gender are exquisitely described, it would have been interesting to see comparisons drawn within the racial and gender categories he segments out – why expose the differences between rich and poor white students but not the rich and poor black students, for example.
And how do we know that the elite haven't always been a bit smarmy? There may be an answer soon. Though “Privilege” is limited in scope, Mr Khan's next project is not. Tentatively titled “Elite New York: A Sociological History”, Mr Khan plans to chart a history of elites in New York City, focusing on the Astor family's collection of personal papers, as well as embedding himself into elite culture by attending a series of formal events around New York. It seems Mr Khan is fond of the upper echelons – it all sounds a bit too fun for serious academic work. That said Mr Khan presents a powerful case for how something as democratic as the American system of higher education purports to be can be so deeply unfair to the vast majority of its citizens.