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Luther Spoehr, Review of Shamus Rahman Khan’s “Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School” (Princeton University Press, 2011).

[Luther Spoehr, an HNN Book Editor, is Senior Lecturer in the Education Department at Brown University.]

Nearly 30 years ago, when Sara Lawrence Lightfoot wrote The Good High School (1984), she subtitled her book “Portraits of Character and Culture.”  One of the six schools she portrayed was St. Paul’s, the exclusive boarding school—one of the so-called “St. Grottlesex” group—located in Concord, New Hampshire.   In a chapter called “Certainty, Privilege, and the Imprint of History,” she limned students, faculty, and administration, and concluded that the school was characterized by an “Eriksonian emphasis” on “trust, industry, and economy.”

Shamus Rahman Khan, a member of St. Paul’s Class of 1994, remembers the school of his student days, just a few years after Lightfoot’s visit, much less positively.  The son of a well-to-do Pakistani father and Irish mother, he was “not particularly happy” there--primarily, he says, because of his “increasing awareness of inequality.”  Now a sociologist at Columbia University, he recently returned to St. Paul’s for a year of teaching and ethnographic research, living the life of a typical boarding school “triple threat”:  teaching classes, coaching (squash and tennis), and advising 24/7.  He got to know students well.  And he was startled to find “a very different place” from the one he had left little more than a decade before.  “My ethnographic examination of St. Paul’s School surprised me,” he says.  “Instead of the arrogance of entitlement I discovered at St. Paul’s an ease of privilege.”

“Ease”—a personal style, a way of behaving, a persona that one adopts and that becomes part of oneself—allows students to be at home in the multicultural world they are inheriting (sometimes, of course, in more ways than one).  Building on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu, Khan shows how students at St. Paul’s learn literally to embody “ease.”  Where the old elite valued exclusion, the new one judges its potential members on how comfortable they are with inclusiveness and how good they are at acting as if the hierarchy they must navigate isn’t there.  Theoretically, at least, St. Paul’s is a meritocratic democracy:  success comes to anyone who can be comfortable in its diverse, intense, relationship-driven world.  “What St. Paul’s is teaching,” he summarizes, “is a style of learning that quickly becomes a style of living—with an emphasis on ways of relating and making connections rather than with a deep engagement with ideas and texts.”

Khan’s portrayal of St. Paul’s downplays traditional educational activities involving faculty, coaches, counselors, classrooms, studios, and playing fields.  For St. Paul’s students, “their classroom education is not the primary aim of their time in the school.”  Specifically, Khan says, a St. Paul’s education teaches students three things:  “(1) hierarchies are natural and can be used to one’s advantage; (2) experiences matter more than innate or inherited qualities; and (3) the way to signal your elite status to others is through ease and openness in all social contexts.”

One wonders what the faculty and administration make of a book that so minimizes their professional roles and waits until the penultimate chapter to discuss curriculum.  For instance, Khan looks at St. Paul’s highly touted Humanities courses and concludes (not unreasonably, but not necessarily relevantly) that what it presents—centuries of the Western tradition—is too much for any student, even any teacher, to master.  But not to worry:  “The emphasis of the St. Paul’s curriculum is not on ‘what you know’ but on ‘how you know it,’” Khan says.  “Teaching ways of knowing rather than teaching the facts themselves, St. Paul’s is able to endow its students with marks of the elite—ways of thinking or relating to the world—that ultimately help make up privilege.”  

What exactly are these “ways of knowing,” and how do St. Paul’s teachers inculcate them?    Khan doesn’t provide a clear pedagogical picture of what faculty do to educate their charges.  St. Paul’s has a rich array of curricular and extracurricular offerings, but, as Khan describes it, its approach to them seems neither intellectual nor anti-intellectual, but unintellectual.   The Humanities program is obviously expansive:  Khan talks about students “Learning Beowulf and Jaws.”  The risk, of course, is that the resulting educational experience will be a mile wide and a quarter-inch deep.  But if the road to success (and a selective college) is paved with “ways of knowing,” perhaps mastery of content won’t matter. 

It hasn’t necessarily mattered in the past.  Had Khan taken a more detailed historical approach, he might have noted that some version of “ease” has been a prevalent collegiate style for a long time, certainly among what Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz terms “college men.”  Elisa Tamarkin, in her recent book Anglophilia:  Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America (2011), describes an 1875 Harvard Lampoon article that described the preferred student style in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as “Harvard Indifference,” and added that it “had been in use for a generation at least.”  The characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920) cultivate a pseudo-aristocratic insouciance:  caring too much about one’s studies or showing excessive enthusiasm about anything at all are scorned as “running it out.”  Now students are learning “ease” at St. Paul’s so they will fit in at the same tony schools that St. Paul’s graduates have attended for generations.

That style doesn’t come easily to everyone.  Khan’s dissection of the special concerns and contradictions facing girls and minorities in pursuit of “ease” is thoughtful and persuasive.  But while he is good on race and gender, he is most original when focusing on class, particularly when stressing what is new and important about “ease”: its linkage to the idea of meritocracy, and the consequent cozy, comfortable assumption that because St. Paul’s is open to students of all races, creeds, colors, and nationalities, one’s privileges there have been earned.   Many of Khan’s most interesting and telling observations deal with how subtly shifting expressions of class make it more difficult to recognize the increasingly significant role that privilege and hierarchy play in American education in particular and American life in general.  Like the Ivy League institutions and their equivalents that routinely admit its graduates, St. Paul’s celebrates its diversity while assuming it also represents equality. 

St. Paul’s now is indeed diverse, but, of course, there’s not enough room for every qualified candidate who wants to go there.  As a result, although almost nobody talks in nakedly Social Darwinian terms these days, the ferocious competition to get a foot on the ladder to success within the elite begins as early as nursery school.  Motivated by a not-unrealistic sense that there’s less and less room at the top and that the economy is increasingly “winner take all,” parents are increasingly desperate to make sure that Sis and Junior are among those who make it.  Any number of studies, such as the one by economists Jon Bakija, Adam Cole, and Bradley T. Heim, have shown just how much the gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else is growing:  in 2008 the top 0.1 percent of earners took in more than 10 percent of personal income; the top 1 percent received over 20 percent.  Parents don’t even have to read the studies:  the comic strip “Doonesbury” recently pointed out that the richest 400 Americans have as much wealth as the poorest 50 percent. 

This new Gilded Age, glorifying hyper-competition and business success, seems to be generating fewer countervailing pressures than the first one did.  There are few counterparts to the Social Gospel, the labor movement, or an old-moneyed “traitor to his class” like Franklin Roosevelt.  Khan’s students may not be as overtly arrogant as the scions of yore, but their cheerful willingness to believe in the fairness of the system that has placed them where they are does not bode well for an enlightened future.

It’s easy to see why they believe as they do.  “Access,” Khan says pointedly, “is not the same as integration.  But what is crucial is that no one is explicitly excluded.  The effect of this is to blame non-elites for their lack of interest…The distinction between elites and the rest of us appears to be a choice.  It is cosmopolitanism that explains elite status to elites and closed-mindedness that explains those who choose not to participate.”   In an increasingly unequal society, the personal style cultivated and perpetuated by schools like St. Paul’s provides privileged students with socially protective coloration and the cultural style to attain and maintain elite status—all in the name of equity, inclusiveness, and diversity.  The more things change…