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Creating a new elite

Last modified: 2/20/2011 12:00:00 AM
If you want a peek inside an elite New England prep school, here it is. In St. Paul's School's imposing chapel, the seating is strictly by seniority, with the longest-serving teacher sitting in "coffin corner." In the Upper Common Room, a plush maroon couch rests on the senior rug, and woe to the underclassman who sits on it.

Sexual rituals and practices at St. Paul's reflect a troubling gender gap. This double standard also affects academics, where girls continue to do better while boys take home most of the honors.

The annual expenditure at the school exceeds - hold your breath - $80,000 per student. The main thing students get for the money is the sense that the world is full of possibilities, not constraints, and that they are exceptionally capable of taking advantage of it.

In Privilege, Shamus Rahman Khan offers these glimpses and many more of the rarified world just off Pleasant Street in Concord. But while nosiness about St. Paul's is a perfectly good reason to read the book, Khan's purpose is higher.

This is a book about the promise of America and how well the nation is fulfilling it. It is a book that suggests how money still trumps ideals and how a myth fostered at St. Paul's and other such schools serves a new elite class. Most usefully, the book explores why racial and ethnic diversity - a challenge that St. Paul's is meeting admirably - is not synonymous with mobility and equality.

Khan is a sociology professor at Columbia University. He is an alumnus of St. Paul's who was never happy there as a student. When he returned more than a decade later in the dual role of teacher and researcher, many things that bothered him during his student days were no longer a part of life there.

His father was born in Pakistan, his mother in Ireland, but as a student he had been placed in a separate dorm for black and Latino students. When he taught there, there was no such dorm. Minority students were fully integrated on campus, and faculty and students shunned even subtle racism.

The changes surprised him, but the new environment also posed profound questions. How have the wealthy maintained their place in a world in which their heritage no longer guarantees their elite status? At a school that is now an idealized microcosm of our diverse soci-

ety, how do rich white male students protect their advantage? In a society that has embraced openness, opportunity and meritocracy, why does the wealth and status of one's parents remain the best predictor of a child's future?

At St. Paul's, Khan found a student body of eager, confident, hardworking achievers in an environment that seemed to nurture these traits. The curriculum was demanding, the praise for success lavish.

When Khan scratched the surface, a different picture emerged. Most of the students believed they worked hard, but in fact they studied and read very little. In a school that purported to be a meritocracy, nearly everyone won honors of some kind. Khan found that although a few students don't fit at St. Paul's, no one fails.

Khan probed why the reality at St. Paul's contradicted the way students saw themselves. His conclusion is not reassuring. While St. Paul's no longer serves as an inland yacht club for the sons of the wealthy, it now helps mold a new elite whose chief talent is to get by with a minimum of effort.

 Indifference to knowledge

This is the source of the book's title. This is privilege - a sense of self and a way of dealing with others that, regardless of achievement, confers advantages. There are grinds at the school, of course - white students who are considered geeks, African-Americans who see St. Paul's as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Asians who face incessant pressure from home to excel. But in Khan's view their toil violates the core rule of privilege, which requires an easygoing indifference to knowledge.

What the new elite learn at St. Paul's is how to play the game. They don't read Beowulf; they Google it, look it up in Wikipedia and read plot summaries on the web. This gets them through. To read books and engage the ideas in them deeply would put them at risk and force them to relinquish the ease of privilege, Khan writes. If they actually worked hard, someone else might outwork them.

For most students, in Khan's view, the myth of St. Paul's follows a simple logical line. The students work hard. Ability and toil lead to achievement. Achievement justifies their elite status.

Although faith in this myth is widespread among students and teachers, the facts do not bear it out. Most of the students Khan writes about consider their classmates exceptional, whether as big brains, violinists, artists or squash players. If this were true, Khan writes, more of the school's alumni would be winning Nobel Prizes and squash championships or shining in the arts. Instead, their one notable common trait is wealth.

Students do stay busy, but their activity is aimed at fostering relationships, working in groups and developing personal character. The St. Paul's experience fosters self-confidence, connections and an ability to understand the gist of things - the tools of a manager, not a scholar.

Khan's arguments are cogent and thoughtful, but his approach leaves some gaps. He assumes that granting wider access to prep-school education will somehow cancel the advantages of the rich in society at large. On this question, the late sociologist Billie Holiday was sager, singing, "Them that's got shall get." Or, as Khan's own observations of the admirably diverse student body at St. Paul's demonstrate, people adapt.

His case also omits any analysis of what access to St. Paul's has achieved for the hundreds of minority graduates of recent decades. No doubt many of them are more prosperous than they would have been without a St. Paul's education. Besides, even though Khan counts wealth as the defining trait of the new elite, money is far from the only measure of success.

Khan's core question also seems amiss. If St. Paul's and other elite prep schools have embraced diversity, he asks, why does the income disparity between rich and poor continue to grow? What happens in prep schools may be relevant to the income gap, but so are plenty of other factors. To cite just three, the public will to use government to close the gap has faded, tax policies favor the rich, and money buys influence in both the public and private sectors.

 Money matters

Khan's book is nevertheless full of valuable insights. You can't read it without thinking about the gulf between St. Paul's and public schools. Money is the most glaring difference, of course. The next time you hear a politician say there is no correlation between money and the quality of education, ask him or her why there's a waiting list of people willing to pay tuition at St. Paul's.

A more disturbing difference is in measures of academic achievement. At St. Paul's, the key is how students learn, not what they know. Public schools, meanwhile, labor under the misguided belief that achievement can be measured by testing whether students have mastered a set of quantifiable facts.

Much of Privilege is a Tocquevillesque journey through the precincts of the forbidden campus. Khan provides insights into the rituals by which students claim their place in the hierarchy and into the way the school lands its grads in Ivy League colleges. He writes of the lives of the school's maintenance and cafeteria staff - people often invisible on campus despite administration efforts to see that students appreciate them.

When there is a problem in the St. Paul's community, like the sexual hazing scandal during Khan's research tenure, the school's response is to air it out. Khan invites readers to eavesdrop on the conversation, even as the talk turns to oral sex.

But the heart of Privilege is in the provocative conclusions Khan reaches about the school. Access does not necessarily lead to equality. Equating diversity with equality is a mistake. Individualism is too highly valued in American life. Students who believe work and talent, not lineage and wealth, keep them on top, are embracing a fiction.

As Khan writes in his postscript, his purpose as a sociologist is to expose and analyze problems. St. Paul's has an admirable record of fostering diversity, but the journey toward equality remains long and difficult. Khan's book should help point the way.


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