Privilege and Power, the High School Edition

I read Seamus Kahn’s excellent book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite and St. Paul’s School a few years ago, and have quoted it often in classes and conversations.   Kahn attended the elite boarding school as a student, and later, as a teacher there, also did his doctoral research on the culture of privilege at the school.   He writes of students being flown into New York City for opera performances and of rituals of socialization into elite culture, including elaborate dining traditions.

I’ve often talked with others about Kahn’s observations of the apparently rigorous curriculum that confirms for the students that they are the best among the best, that they deserve their privileges.  The challenge, Kahn notes as a teacher and researcher, is that given the many competing demands on students’ time — all part of their induction in a life of privilege they’ll come to understand as earned –no student has time to do all the required reading.

Instead, Kahn suggests, students learn not to read massive amounts of history and literature, but instead to learn to talk about important books without having read them in any depth. And they learn this well.

It seems an important distinction, that they would learn to act educated, without actually doing the hard work of thinking about challenging ideas.

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I felt incredibly sad to read today that a former St. Paul’s student is being charged with sexual assault of a younger female student. Beyond the obvious personal tragedy, it is particularly troubling that a number of people have described the incident as part of a yet another ritual —  of senior men “scoring” with young women students as part of graduation traditions.  In a highly competitive environment, there was a system for keeping tracking who was in the lead.

Kahn wrote extensively about education for privilege. He wrote little about educating these students for the power they would hold over others as the assumed their elite status, but it seems that at least at some level, tolerance for the abusive exercise of power over the less powerful was part of becoming educated as St. Paul’s.

A woman who graduated from St. Paul’s explained:

She said that much of the social hierarchy at the school, which began admitting girls in 1971, is controlled by boys, and one way girls established themselves was by hooking up with older guys. Many sexual encounters were based on power differentials, she said, and did not go as far as assault but “easily could have.”

It cannot be surprising that young men at St. Paul’s would at least tacitly understand that their privilege also entitled them to simply use others, all while they were being educated to also believe that they were the best of the best.

At least some seem to learn to act as if their privilege is earned, without doing the hard work of actually living lives more worthy than others.

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