18 August 2018

Review of the book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School by Shamus Rahman Khan

The book Privilege by Shamus Rahman Khan is very readable, 

I devoured it within 24 hours of getting it. 
I believe this is a very important book for everyone concerned with how education influences social justice. 
Khan has put forth an important thesis regarding the subtler factors that undermine the goal of creating a healthy society that supports all it's citizens to have healthy and productive lives. 
Educators of all stripes would do well to reflect on the lessons that are taught at St. Paul's (an elite boarding school for teenagers) and how their own school's policies and practices might be playing into the inequities of our present society.
Privilege has evolved.
American elite institutions (as exemplified by St. Paul's) have become relatively diverse and more open across races and gender, but those signs of democratic enlightenment hide the fact of their ongoing reinforcement of advantages for the advantaged. 

The elites in America are cultural omnivores (in the sense of respectfully sampling cultural offerings). 
They signal their elitism, also known as privilege, by exhibiting an unflappable ease in any situation. 
The marks of lower class membership are discomfort or ineffectiveness in challenging situations and closed mindedness to cultural diversity.
These elites view hierarchies as natural. 
Hierarchies are also ladders to be climbed not barriers to be reinforced against vertical mobility. 
Everyone is welcome to climb, but you make it on your own character. 
If you don't make it you don't have the right character.
Those who make it deserve their status and wealth. 
Those who occupy low levels equally deserve their fate, since they obviously have the opportunity to mobilize themselves but either do not take it or fail to make it. 
These elites feel that they earn their privileges through individual hard work.

American cultural elites are taught to drink the Kool Aid of individualism at schools like St. Paul's and that perspective provides the reinforcing feedback for enduring social injustice and inequalities. 
The individualist perspective obscures the embeddedness and embodiment of collective values and perspectives that are substantially more responsible for the privileges, opportunities and accumulations these elites have and are not sharing. 
They believe that everyone has the opportunity for access based on their apparent diversity and openness, but they are blinded to the barriers their parents, or the school's endowment funds, bought their way past. 

Such is, I believe, what Mr. Khan is saying, and if that's the case then I am convinced he is correct. 
He wisely confined his work to being primarily descriptive, though in his conclusion he does go a little beyond his observations to sum it all up in the phrase “the democratic inequality conundrum.” 
It's surprising that the very diversity and openness that was hard fought and won through social movements of the past have substantially contributed to the inequality and social disparities that exist today. 
I think this is attributable to the way in which schooling has been shaped by deeper currents in the history of education
In the absence of his providing a prescription for addressing the conundrum, I will offer one. 

I believe that the ability of a person to operate effectively independent of the vagaries of their circumstances is a highly valuable skill to have which is why I advocate for teaching attitude first deliberately instead of by unconscious default. 
We learn attitudes first in any case, but what attitudes are being reinforced is the important question and one that is rarely addressed. 
Khan's whole book champions this perspective. 

I am convinced we can and should create cultural omnivores on a wider scale, on a tighter budget, and with a minimum of self-contradictory situations for people (Khan pointed out how St. Paul's creates self-contradictions for some people, such as girls and blacks). 
I suspect embracing a greater degree of collectivism and providing maps that help guide the learning community to understand and navigate the kinds of minimal hierarchies that are, in fact, natural (as opposed to accepting as natural the arbitrary hierarchies we have inherited and elites play on to maintain their elite positions) would lead to the kind of cross cultural dialogue that is necessary to have a more egalitarian society. 
The leverage for creating appropriate changes in the existing school system can be created by explicitly making policies that require schools to meet the basic psychological needs of teachers and students and aligning systemic incentives to support those policies. 
This is strategic school reform that could begin the process of more fully realizing the promises of a diverse and open society.
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