Top of the Class
Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Shamus Khan, Princeton University Press, 248 pages
Status has always been hereditary. A warlord establishes a dynasty; a merchant buys a title; a politician gets his son elected to office. The desire to pass power, rank, and wealth down to one’s descendants is a universal that human institutions have always flexed to accommodate. Even communist dictators have consolidated rule within their families.
Americans have a rich, if forgotten, history of aristocracy. Royalist cavaliers flourished in Virginia; the Dutch granted patroonships in New York; armigerous families reproduced the feudal system in Maryland. The last manorial estate in the United States did not break up until 1840s.
To be sure, Americans from time to time have found it convenient to exaggerate their differences with Europeans. Thomas Jefferson, declaring independence from the English king, claimed that all men were created equal. Benjamin Franklin, conducting diplomacy in France, played to European fantasies of the American as guileless frontiersman. Ever since, intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic have interpreted the United States as the embodiment, for better or worse, of equality of condition.
In reality, Americans have never rejected the prerogatives of birth. By the early 20th century, wealthy families had founded a panoply of institutions designed to preserve class prerogatives for their sons and daughters. Genealogical societies such as the Society of Colonial Wars and the Society of 1812, summer resorts such as Cape May or Bar Harbor, urban men’s clubs such as The Pacific Union or The Brook ensured that the ranks of the elite would remain closed. Every man may have had the right to vote, but not every man had the right to a Social Register listing.
The central vehicle for cementing upper-class loyalty was the English-style boarding school. Founded (or revitalized) in the mid to late 19th century, schools such as Groton, Lawrenceville, Hotchkiss, and St. Paul’s ostensibly sought to rescue boys from the corruptions of the city. The habits and attitudes formed there became indelible. At school boys learned how to dress, what to say, which interests to pursue. Only at boarding school could one pick up what Tom Wolfe called the “Northeast Socially Acceptable Honk,” or, more vulgarly, “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” A man’s school made his class background as unmistakable as his gait or the sound of his voice.
Today, the Ivy League no longer recruit exclusively from prep schools. At least since the SAT was introduced in the 1920s, they have instead claimed to admit the most promising candidates regardless of background. After short-lived reaction, when admissions offices, fearing that their campuses were becoming “too Jewish,” emphasized “character” as well as aptitude, the meritocratic ideal triumphed. Any youth today who combines extraordinary talent and extraordinary effort can in theory get into Harvard and ascend from there to the pinnacles of government, business, and academia.
Boarding schools and private academies, meanwhile, have not only survived but flourished. Recent graduates of my own alma mater, St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, are more likely to attend Harvard than any other college. Eighty percent matriculate at one of the top 30 colleges in the nation (according to U.S. News & World Report’s famous rankings). That is a falling off from my father’s day, whose entire St. Paul’s class, apart from a handful of “thickies,” went on to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Still, St. Paul’s admissions rates at the top colleges have remained remarkably high. Parents no longer send their children to St. Paul’s School so that they can affect the proper sense of entitlement. Instead, they send their children to St. Paul’s because it’s a great place to get ahead.
In Privilege, Columbia sociologist Shamus Khan sets out to explain how St. Paul’s has managed the shift from caste to meritocracy. Khan discloses early on that he believes that “too much inequality is both immoral and inefficient.” Yet he wastes no time disabusing readers of the naïve view—widespread on the left and faithfully presented in pop culture effluvia from “Gossip Girl” to “Scent of a Woman”—that the wealthy and powerful self-consciously conspire to exclude outsiders. Privilege begins with the story of “Chase Abbott,” a third generation Paulie who acts like he owns the place yet for that very reason doesn’t fit in. Faculty and students alike complain to Khan, who spent a year at St. Paul’s teaching and observing, that Chase shows “what is bad about St. Paul’s.” The school even sequesters him in a dorm full of entitled mediocrities “like him.”
Tom Wolfe once wrote that Paulies “are generally fond of St. Paul’s reputation as the most snobbish school in America.” That snobbery has today become a liability, most especially at St. Paul’s itself. “Some of the most adamant defenders of the moral imperative of an open society that I have met,” Khan writes, “are to be found among the faculty, admissions officers, and administrators of St. Paul’s School.”
At the same time, Khan, who graduated from St. Paul’s the same year I did, takes a jaundiced view of its claims to promote meritocracy. Merit, he argues, is manufactured, if not simply bought and paid for. Start with the “effort” side of the meritocratic equation (“IQ + effort = merit”). To get into Yale today, mere brilliance is not enough. You also need some distinctive achievement. One undergraduate I met recently had directed and produced an award-winning documentary. Another had founded a fashionable nonprofit.
These students’ successes are genuine but also artificial. Only rich kids, after all, have the resources even to think about directing documentaries. Their parents and teachers urge them relentlessly to develop their passions, preferably ones that can set them apart from all the other applicants with perfect SAT scores. (Once admitted, students often abandon the very pursuits that helped get them in.) The rich, in other words, can afford both to create more dimensions in which their children can excel and to place them in an environment where such excellence is rewarded.
St. Paul’s for example, with an endowment of nearly $1 million per student—more than all but a handful of colleges—spends $80,000 a year per student. Paulies choose from a cornucopia of extracurriculars, from community service to rowing crew. As Khan writes, “most high schools cannot create music, painting, photography, sculpture, and dance programs; they cannot have seemingly countless clubs for students to join, from literary to philosophical, and language societies to science teams that build robots and observe the heavens from their own observatory.”
While the hapless middle-class valedictorian has nothing to do but edit the school yearbook—thereby signaling just the sort of unimaginative but earnest striving that spells college admissions doom—every kid at St. Paul’s can find something that makes him special. It is no wonder, then, that even as Harvard has become more racially diverse, her undergraduates hail from wealthier backgrounds than ever. Harvard’s admissions criteria favor the affluent.
Girls have an especially easy time of it. Like other private schools, St. Paul’s doesn’t have a cheerleading squad. Instead, the prettiest, most popular girls play field hockey—in the United States, a women-only sport—squash, or lacrosse. Many row crew in the spring. For colleges greedy for scarce female athletes, New England prep schools are a Title IX goldmine. Every year, several St. Paul’s girls get recruited to play varsity sports at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Having created a class of high-achieving seniors, St. Paul’s uses its historic access to college admissions offices to inflate the number of who get accepted. College admissions are notoriously secretive. Khan was not allowed to sit in on the St. Paul’s college placement office. He confirms, however, that a full-time staff of four is actively “working their phones.” Presumably, they are not wasting their time.
Suppose that every year St. Paul’s has a pool of 27 seniors who have a chance of getting into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Neither Harvard, Yale, nor Princeton will take more than a third. If each college makes its decisions independently, on average only about 19 out of the 27 get at least one offer from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Now suppose that St. Paul’s coaches each rising senior to have a “first choice” college. (While we’re at it, why not make your “first choice” the same college that your parents and grandparents attended? If you’re a strong candidate but not quite as strong as some of the others, why not consider Yale or Princeton rather than Harvard?) Having identified each student’s first choice, St. Paul’s calls each college and drop hints that so-and-so, if offered admission, will accept. The colleges, eager to increase their yield (so as to look better for U.S. News & World Report), take the hints. Yale, Princeton, and Harvard each make nine offers but to different candidates. Presto! By “working the phones,” St. Paul’s has increased the number of students who get offers from 19 to 27—nearly a 50 percent improvement.
Note that St. Paul’s need not persuade Harvard, Yale, or Princeton to accept a larger absolute number of candidates. It merely has to channel each college’s choices. The key assumptions are that St. Paul’s has a concentration of strong applicants, which it does, and, through repeat plays of the game, can influence to which candidates Harvard, Yale, or Princeton will extend offers. The middle-class high school that sees one potential Ivy League applicant a year cannot be trusted to tell colleges where he really wants to go, as they do not regularly play the game. The applicant just has to take his chances. A similar St. Paul’s student who has the same degree of “merit,” by contrast, has a significantly greater a chance of getting into his “first choice” college.
The final way in which St. Paul’s creates merit is through diversity. Recently retired rector William Matthews made diversity the centerpiece of his administration. He hired a “Director of Multicultural Education,” gave priority to diversity hires (having 19 percent “teachers of color,” he told the board, is “better than most schools” but “not high enough”), published a “Diversity Values Statement,” and commissioned a year-long study of diversity that was the most “comprehensive” ever undertaken by an independent school. His efforts were extremely dear. To lure a critical mass of talented non-Asian minorities to Concord, New Hampshire costs millions of dollars annually. “St. Paul’s,” Khan observes, “has an intentional diversity that few communities share or can afford.”
St. Paul’s success suggests that the money is well spent. By buying the top diversity candidates through scholarship offers and other means, St. Paul’s expands its pool of attractive candidates for college admissions. A larger pool, in turn, increases college acceptance rates, both directly (by having the best candidates to begin with) and indirectly (through St. Paul’s ability to horse-trade its best candidates). Finally, diversity saves Paulies from the taint of growing up in an all-white neighborhood. They can instead truthfully claim to have learned the “value of diversity” first hand. As one recent study found, colleges don’t discriminate uniformly in order to create diverse student bodies. On the contrary, they discriminate only against the middle- and lower-class whites who can’t afford the marks of “merit” conferred by private schools such as St. Paul’s. At St. Paul’s, the bromide holds: diversity truly is her strength.
St. Paul’s hardly admits that it exists in order to manufacture “merit” for families who can afford to pay more than $45,000 a year in tuition. (Not to mention the all-but-mandatory tax-deductible contributions that private schools demand of parents.) On the contrary, Khan finds everywhere at St. Paul’s an unshakeable faith in its superiority. Students assume that anyone who is the best at St. Paul’s must be one of the best in the world. It is bruited about, for example, that the top-ranked squash player at St. Paul’s could beat the top-ranked player in the world, that the long-haired boy who likes to paint will become an internationally famous artist or that the 14-year-old who has already completed calculus will surely win the Fields Medal.
Such self-congratulation, though occasionally embarrassing to the faculty, is written into the school’s very curriculum. At St. Paul’s, students aren’t taught English literature, American history, or other subjects that might be tested on an Advanced Placement exam. Instead, they undergo an interdisciplinary program called “Humanities.” Unique to St. Paul’s, the Humanities program (which I was old enough to avoid) eschews dates, events, influential individuals, facts, causes, and anything else that smacks of the concrete. Instead, students are presented with a text or painting—say, Plato’s allegory of the cave or Rembrandt’s Night Watch—and asked questions such as, “What does this say about the relationship between knowledge and virtue?” or “What does this say about the place of religion in the world?” Teachers then ask pupils to make “connections” between the various cultural flotsam and jetsam that drifts their way.
By this method, St. Paul’s claims to inculcate nothing less than mastery of Western (if not world) civilization. According to course descriptions, the third form (ninth grade) Humanities curriculum follows the “central ideas in the Western tradition through literature, religion, and history.” In fifth form (11th grade), students “encounter … a rich interdisciplinary study of European civilization from the beginnings of the Renaissance to the First World War, integrating [sic] literary, visual, musical, historical, philosophical, and religious themes that help develop perspectives useful to the understanding the complexities of the twenty-first century.” If one takes these words at face value, St. Paul’s routinely graduates an army of young Arnold Toynbees.
Not surprisingly, the reality is somewhat less impressive. During his year teaching at St. Paul’s, two seniors asked Khan to lead them on an independent study of Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Kant. Bemused by their ambitious proposal, Khan agreed, only to find on the first day of class that the two boys—described by their former Humanities instructor as “two of the finest philosophical minds in the school”—were unable, when asked to define the Enlightenment, “to generate any ideas that might even loosely connect with Enlightenment developments.” It turns out that they did not even know who Spinoza was. They only chose the name because it sounded cool. St. Paul’s teaches 17-year-olds that, no matter how ignorant, they can bluff their way through anything. After all, the two boys who approached Khan had already persuaded their Humanities teacher that they had the makings of fine philosophers.
According to the theory of the Humanities curriculum, knowledge doesn’t matter. Students are rewarded for blurting out “Like Everyman!” or “Kinda like Dostoevsky!” but not for knowing who wrote The Prince or who fought the Peloponnesian War. Arch-humanist Francois Rabelais recommended that one learn at least five ancient languages, memorize the best texts, and keep one’s mind well stocked with every tale from history. St. Paul’s recommends instead that to keep one’s mind wholly un-stocked by anything. St. Paul’s own claim that Humanities helps “develop perspectives useful to the understanding the complexities of the twenty-first century”—whatever that means—gives the game away: a claim need not be true so long as it sounds impressive. In a twist that Rabelais, the old scatologist, might have enjoyed, St. Paul’s teaches not knowledge but bullshit.
Khan, with evident disdain, calls the Humanities program “shocking and ingenious.” The one thing students will never be told is that they are wrong. They don’t, after all, have to learn any facts that they could get wrong in the first place. As for what the school calls “making connections across traditional boundaries of time, place, genre, and discipline,” well, when put that way, one such “connection” is as good as any other. In the past, the wealthy made sure that their children acquired “elite” knowledge—such as the ability to read Latin—that was both expensive and useless. Today, they strive instead to be culturally omnivorous. St. Paul’s does not expect her graduates to learn anything in particular, but it does expect them to be at ease with any topic. In this way, Khan argues, the elite prove that they have the aptitude to justify their position.
Khan finds that St. Paul’s manages to interpret even its initiation rites into paragons of meritocratic competition. New students at St. Paul’s are called “newbs” (a contraction of “new boy”). Seating in daily chapel is hierarchical, with newbs sitting at the bottom of bleacher-shaped pews and sixth formers (or seniors) and faculty at the top. By an immutable custom enforced by generations of students, only sixth formers may sit in the couches in the common room outside the school’s lofty dining hall.
Other rites are more sinister. In the early 1970s, St. Paul’s went coed, relaxed discipline, and generally left students “free to make their own mistakes.” Not surprisingly to anyone who knows anything about adolescents, they used their newfound freedom to torment the most vulnerable. By the 1980s, St. Paul’s had a well-earned reputation for having the most severe hazing of any American boarding school. I personally witnessed a classmate projectile vomiting across the room during a late-night hazing ritual, tacitly condoned by the faculty, known as “newb Olympics.” Three years later, another classmate of mine was kicked out for sodomizing a newb with a broom handle.
The year that Khan returned to the school, senior girls were permitted to organize “newb nights” in their dorms without the supervision of faculty. On one such night, newbs were locked in a closet, made to wear adult diapers and, finally, forced to simulate oral sex on a banana. In response to the ensuing outrage, the dean of students flaccidly told a reporter, “These kids were wonderful kids who made a mistake here.” None of the ringleaders was expelled. Although St. Paul’s belatedly adopted a zero-tolerance policy against hazing, it is clear from Khan’s book that faculty intervene only half-heartedly to stop it. (When a newb is especially “cocky,” they may even encourage it.) Faculty and administration, one teacher tells Khan, “don’t want to make decisions that are unpopular with the kids.”
Indeed, hazing is popular with the students. (How popular is difficult to say: most students in public falsify their own preferences.) The same boy I witnessed projectile vomiting as a newb delivered a speech to our graduating class three years later denouncing recent (and failed) attempts to impose discipline. He even invoked Niebuhr’s serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” In other words, don’t mess with St. Paul’s traditions. The very girls who were sexually abused during their “newb night” became their tormenters’ most earnest defenders. The harrowing ordeals that Paulies learn as newbs and inflict on the next generation instill an intense pride.
They also, once reinterpreted according to the meritocratic frame, instill a sense of entitlement. Khan quotes one senior with a below-average record congratulating himself on what he has “earned” and “achieved,” even though, in finishing St. Paul’s, he was merely following a path set out for him since birth. Explaining why she likes to sit on the sixth form couches, one girl says that she considers it a reward for all that she has achieved. “Life here is tough,” she explains, “And this place [the sixth form couches], this was a goal for me.” St. Paul’s students hardly know why they enjoy humiliating each new crop of newbs. (Hazing recurs frequently enough in so many different cultures that a tendency to haze is likely genetically hardwired.) They do know, however, how to justify these practices: namely, in terms of hard work and achievement.
Despite its narrow focus, Privilege is essential reading for understanding today’s elites. Not since Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites has the meritocracy been so effectively skewered. To be sure, Khan’s thesis—that the system is rigged in favor of the children of the rich—can be overstated. Privilege never mentions that the most obvious reason that St. Paul’s graduates are still getting into Harvard, namely, that St. Paul’s, which accepts less than 20 percent of applicants, only admits those students likely to get into the top colleges in the first place. Nonetheless, as Khan shows, money does buy success, even in the meritocracy.
Further, the ideology favored by elites today obscures the subtle ways in which they monopolize status for themselves and their children. The vaporous mediocrity that emanates from St. Paul’s today, from its Mission Statement (“We strive … to nurture a love for learning and a commitment to engage as servant leaders in a complex world”) to the dean’s sermons (“plurality is a sign of the Spirit drawing differences together”), belies the school’s cunning. St. Paul’s has survived as a bastion of privilege through all changes in the ruling class’s identity. At all times, she has served her masters well.
Austin Bramwell is a lawyer in New York City.