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.


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.

The Social Isolation of the Privileged

This article offering advice for living frugally while in grad school was making the academic rounds last week.

And the comments on the article, on the Chronicle’s Facebook page, and across Twitter were consistent:

This couple’s story is about what can be done when absolutely everything has gone right in your life and your parents have a a backyard “that is by no means big”  where they can frugally host your wedding reception for 150 people (this tidbit is from the author’s financial advice blog she links to, not the article) and have pretty much financed everything for you except what your generous grad school stipend covers.

Or as Tressie McMillan Cottom tweeted:

What strikes me about all of this is how seemingly unaware the author  — and the Chronicle — were of her audience.

I’m sure that they did live relatively frugally while in grad school in a city where apartments can still be had for $875 a month.


She writes in her blog that she and her husband both attended an “elite” private college as undergraduates that was a “perfect” match for her (she repeats this part about it being a “perfect match” several times, to justify the expense).  She left with $17,000 in debt and his parents paid for all of his schooling.  She writes of her guilt that her parents were borrowing money to pay for her undergrad degree, but just a few years later in an unrelated post, writes that her parents are “debt free” as they head into retirement.

She writes of living with her parents as she started working after college.

She writes of parents gifting children with cars.

And yet a second wedding reception for another 150 people in another city.

But still, I’m not convinced that she’s actually living all that frugally.

There seem to have been no crises.

She could have rented for even less, but those apartments come with roaches.  She doesn’t address what happens when your bike is stolen and you lose your only form of transportation in a low-rent neighborhood with no buses.  She didn’t address how one saves on bulk food at Costco when there’s no car to get to those mega stores in the burbs.  There was nothing here about missing nearly every family celebration because there was simply no money to travel back and forth for weddings or birthdays or how working extra jobs makes it challenging to cook from scratch every night.  She mentions moving several times to save money on rent but says nothing about how much it actually costs to move and rent equipment and put down deposits and then fight with your old landlord to return deposits and the exhaustion of doing all of that while holding down at least a few jobs and keeping up with classes.

It really is quite wonderful that they saved $100,000 while in graduate school.  Wow.

And it’s a bit chilling that she seems to have absolutely no idea that for many, many grad students, creating special accounts to track all sorts of different expenses will create little more than multiple empty accounts.

For me, the main lesson of this piece was how incredibly isolated those from privileged backgrounds can be from everyone else around them, and yet they understand themselves to have valuable life lessons to offer those others.

Earning One’s Way

I start teaching my Education and the American Dream tonight, and we’ll be working for the next weeks on complicating the idea that through education, we earn our way up the ladder by virtue of talent and hard work in school.

So it’s with interest that I read yet another article in the New York Times about rampant cheating in elite high schools and colleges and especially, today, this particular sentence:

They are convinced that they are bound for bright futures, yet not all are equipped for the work that entails.


If these children of privilege don’t believe the meritocracy and so justify their cheating, why is it that we would expect poor and working class kids to buy into our admonitions that they’ll be fine, if only they work hard in school?