Q&A: Private school confidential

A professor peeks inside an elite boarding school

By Interview by Francie Latour
September 20, 2009

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To the closeted Jew in the film “School Ties,” they were WASPs almighty: the ones who held the keys and his prep-school fate in their hands. To J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, they were little phonies destined to become their big-phony parents. And to Lorene Cary, a black girl riding on scholarship money, they were a wall of white privilege - one she was permitted to scale, but never penetrate, in her memoir “Black Ice.”

They’re the students at America’s elite boarding schools. And while the Old World image of a boarding school might seem an anachronism in today’s “flattened” world, it’s still these students who are being groomed as America’s future elite, who disproportionately feed its top colleges, and who populate its highest income brackets.

Baked into these largely New England institutions is a contradiction: They’re built on a legacy of inherited privilege, yet they often invoke the American ideal of meritocracy, the belief that cream rises through sheer intelligence, talent, and drive. When Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández spent two years immersed at one elite New England prep school - not as a student, but as a fly-on-the-wall ethnographer - he found young people who fell back on that meritocratic ideal to justify their position in society, carefully avoiding any acknowledgment of the privileges handed to them since birth. And although prep schools look more colorful than a generation ago, recruiting more minority students and unfurling welcome banners in the name of diversity, he found an uneasy but shifting relationship with the changing face of the country.

In his new book, “The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School,” Gaztambide-Fernandez describes how students at the margins struggle within hierarchies of coolness; he finds racial minorities, still few and far between, cast as part of a “diversity curriculum” that whites feel entitled to explore. Some of the scenes he observes are cringe-inducing, from the two curious white girls who rip a headband from the hair of a terrorized black classmate, to the white male student who recounts drawing straws with two friends to decide which would attend Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.

To win the school’s cooperation, Gaztambide-Fernández agreed to fictionalize certain identifying elements, including the school’s name. He won’t reveal which school he visited. But the resulting portrait of “the Weston School” is still a unique look behind a wall that most Americans never get to peer over.

Ideas spoke to Gaztambide-Fernández by phone at his office in Toronto, where he teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Ideas: A central theme in your book is how students rationalize their elite status, despite the fact that their family’s wealth or connections may have gotten them admitted. Explain that.

RG-F: Whenever students tell stories about the admissions process, they oftentimes will say, “Well, for most students their parents are involved, and they really don’t come to these places because they want to learn - but not me. I am here because I was inspired to be here. I am here because I am interested in learning.”{hellip} Even among themselves students will say, “Everybody who comes here comes here because their parents forced them - but not me.” Or, “Everybody who is here is here because they just want to get into a really good university - but not me.”

Ideas: Don’t a lot of these kids just take their privilege for granted?

RG-F: There is one student who, when I asked, “Why did you decide to attend an elite boarding school,” she looked at me in disbelief and said, “Why would anybody choose anything else?” She almost looked at me like I was asking her a trick question. And then there are other students who are extremely conscious, particularly students of color, of the differences, and they’re very suspect of the kind of privilege they’re being given.

Ideas: You talk about hierarchies of coolness at “the Weston School” - the jocks and pretty girls, the weird kids, the smartest kids. How is that different from any other high school?

RG-F: At a public school, the captain of the football team would not have to worry about being smart in order to have the most status. ... [At the Weston School], status is not premised on a lot of one particular kind of status, like being captain of the football team, but being able to mobilize lots of different kinds of status. ...And at the top of that hierarchy are neither the jocks nor the artists, but the really smart kids who can do everything. That’s the idea of the perfect Westonian: the person who gets really good grades, who participates in the play, plays an instrument, is captain of the hockey team, plays lacrosse. That’s the perfect, impossible Westonian.

Ideas: These days, a lot of lip service gets paid to increasing diversity at elite institutions. How would you characterize the experiences of black and Latino kids at the school?

RG-F: I think it is at times painful, at times exciting, at times encouraging. ...I think students of color are able to endure a tremendous amount of psychic pressure. To be in a context that on the surface is premised on the idea of being welcoming, but ultimately premised on exclusion, and where they are ultimately excluded... Does that mean students of color don’t experience intimacy? Of course not. Does that mean they don’t experience a sense of belonging or loyalty to the school? Of course not. They experience all those things.

Ideas: What was going through your mind when you witnessed the two white students closing in on the black student and pulling her headband off? Did you think about intervening?

RG-F: This occurred pretty early in my research and it was a pretty traumatic experience for me to witness. I have to admit I was pretty paralyzed and sort of stunned that it was happening in front of me and that no one seemed to think it was a big deal, except the student, of course{hellip} The idea of touching someone’s hair becomes a metaphor of what role students of color actually play within the context of the school - what one [Latino] student in the book called “becoming a lab monkey”... this feeling that he was supposed to teach white students about himself.

Ideas: Do you consider your book to be an indictment of diversity efforts at elite schools?

RG-F: I wouldn’t say that the book is an indictment as much as a reality check, or a sort of view of what these diversity efforts actually translate into in practice. There is no doubt that elite boarding schools do very little to address broad inequities [in the system]; I would argue they do the opposite, and that their “diversity” efforts end up reinforcing that process. Now, that might sound like an indictment, but really it is a question of what kind of society we want: one that is stratified but where there is “diversity” within stratas, or one in which there is redistribution - and that is a question my book can’t answer.

Ideas: Were you concerned that your editorial arrangement with the school would compromise the scholarship?

RG-F: I was. I’ll confess that it was not easy... The school at one point thought that they could actually stop the publication... Once it was clarified that what I was asking for was their involvement, not permission, then we were able to continue the process.

Francie Latour, a former Globe reporter, is an associate editor at Wellesley magazine.