In 1993, when Shamus Khan arrived at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, he was surprised to find himself "surrounded by black and Latino boys." St. Paul's is a super-elite boarding school which educates some of America's most notable politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals. Khan, though, had been placed in a special "minority student dorm." The dorm wasn't a racist policy on the part of the school - in fact, the administration had recently tried to get rid of it, and to integrate its students of color into the other residence halls. The problem, Khan writes, was that the non-white students liked living separately. They couldn't fit in. Khan himself lived in the dorm for four years.
In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School (introduction available online here), Khan - now a professor of sociology at Columbia - returns to St. Paul's to teach and study the nation's adolescent elite. He finds that the culture of the school has changed. Where before it was the minority students who clustered together, today it's "the most entitled students, some of whom come from the most established American families" who are "sequestered" in a special dorm. They no longer fit in with the rest of the students, who come from privileged backgrounds but are animated by an open, egalitarian spirit. "The students who act as if they already hold the keys to success are rejected as entitled."
Privilege sets out to understand "the new elite" and its place in the larger story of American education. It used to be that elites "worked to construct moats and walls around the resources that advantaged them." But, Khan explains, over the last fifty years, the nation's most elite educational institutions have opened up, admitting an increasingly diverse group of students. The student body of a school like St. Paul's is still overwhelmingly wealthy, and many of its student still come from the oldest American families. This new elite, though, tends to "deemphasize refined tastes and 'who you know' and instead highlight how you act in and approach the world." What marks you out as elite today is a certain social ease, an omnivorous cultural appetite, and a comfortable facility with the competitive hierarchy. It's a meritocratic elite, rather than an aristocratic one.
That doesn't make it any less elite, of course: Harvard's dean of admissions, for instance, has defined the school's "middle-income" students as those whose families earn between $110,000 and $200,000 a year. Today's meritocracy, though it's more culturally open, is still socioeconomically closed. Understanding why, Khan argues, means thinking carefully about the idea of "meritocracy." Meritocratic privilege, he writes, "is not something you are born with; it is something you learn to develop and cultivate." But doing that still takes money and know-how.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.