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Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School

MiguelLerdoMiguelLerdo Registered User Posts: 17 New Member
edited February 2013 in Prep School Parents
I just finished this book; has anyone else read it? I'd be interested in how it aligns with people's experiences with boarding school.
Post edited by MiguelLerdo on

Replies to: Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School

  • 2prepMom2prepMom Registered User Posts: 1,140 Senior Member
    I thought "Privilege" (2011) by Khan was a searing examination of group of kids who are continually told they are "the best" and learn to skimp on their academic effort and thus enter the world of the entitled elite. I cannot imagine that this is the real St. Paul's, a real academic powerhouse, but the author was a minority student there in 1993 and certainly experienced it as an elitist entitled culture. Never having attended, perhaps the huge SPS blog group can comment - I doubt most people experience St. Paul's this way.

    There are several other books that offer a much more positive, although equally detailed view of boarding school culture and its transition from elite enclave to modern institution.

    I loved "The Headmaster" by John McPhee 1966 (about Deerfield historically as a humane rescue institution for the behaviorally challenged from other schools). Great book.

    "After the Harkness Gift" by Heskel and Dyer 2008, who in true Harkness fashion discuss multiple viewpoints in the historical transition of Exeter from an elitist institution to the modern Exeter that celebrates diversity (including the challenges about the first women who attended - football was a required sport).

    "The Best of the Best", also about Exeter by Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez in 2009, also carefully explores masculine and feminine social norms as reflected in Exeter's becoming co-ed. Fascinating if a bit more sociological (it was his PhD thesis in sociology at Harvard).

    Dated, but an old stand by of "prep" cultural experience is "Preparing for Power" by Cookson and Persell (1985), from the days when going to prep school actually INCREASED one's chances of getting into the Ivies.
  • PeriwinklePeriwinkle Registered User Posts: 3,500 Senior Member
    Shamus Khan returned to teach at St. Paul's School. The book draws on his experience as student and as teacher at the school. He does note changes which had taken place at the school, in the years between his student years and his time teaching.

    I would recommend the book to any parent considering the school.
  • SevenDadSevenDad Registered User Posts: 3,825 Senior Member
    As any longer-term forum members know, SPS was the front runner for a long time in our BS search 2 cycles ago. Reading this book was perhaps the beginning of the erosion in my superfandom of the school. Not the only thing, of course, but a bit of a wake up call. I wonder how many parents of kids who matriculate there have read it.

    Note that I think there are three ways to read this book: A) As totally accurate; B) As totally inaccurate; C) As somewhere in between. Neither A or C are very comforting.
  • MiguelLerdoMiguelLerdo Registered User Posts: 17 New Member
    I didn’t react as negatively as others to the book. I was encouraged by the idealistic transition to conceiving the school as a meritocracy. Yes, the kids had delusional expectations about the abilities and futures of their classmates. However, this is similar to the attitudes I have observed among most upwardly mobile 20-somethings I have worked with. As a working class kid from the rust-belt who has enjoyed some level of success but always feels one mis-step away from returning to McDonalds, this overconfidence annoys me. Nonetheless, I will admit that it seems to be correlated with risk-taking and success (except, of course, for those individuals whose risk-taking fails and find themselves unemployed and wondering why the world was so “unfair” to them). My (perhaps more realistic) view of my limitations and the risks inherent in the labor market have caused me to be more conservative than I hope for my kids.

    Two aspects of the book did disturb me. 1) the apparent worthlessness of communal meals. 2) the assertion that the humanities curriculum is designed to develop dilettantes capable of holding their own at cocktail parties but with unrealistic expectations for the difficulty of conducting meaningful research.

    Regarding #1, not all schools have communal meals, but two schools high on our list (SPS and Deerfield) emphasize these meals. In theory, I like the idea of teaching the kids to interact at dinner with the elite – they may need to ask the elite for funding someday. I also like the idea of my kids interacting with a wider range of students and teachers. However, I would hate for my kids to waste 5 hours a week if the meals are as described in the book.
    Regarding #2, I wonder how much the author was influenced by pride in the difficulty of what he does rather than interest in what is best for the students. I took a more positive view of the students who proposed an overly-ambitious philosophy project. I see the enthusiastic attempt to do meaningful research as an educational experience in itself, even if the end-result is what you would expect from a high-schooler. In your experience, do boarding schools produce dilettantes or budding, but inexperienced, researchers?
  • PeriwinklePeriwinkle Registered User Posts: 3,500 Senior Member
    It's been some time since I read the book, but I seem to recall Khan singled out the sit-down meals as essential to the school's effect on students.
  • MiguelLerdoMiguelLerdo Registered User Posts: 17 New Member
    He does say that, but it is not completely clear to me what “effect” the sit-down meals have (beyond the ability to eat “at ease” in a suit and fancy surroundings). At any rate, I don’t think Khan believed the “effect” was a positive. His description was scathing; he describes tables of uncomfortable people who don’t talk, don’t eat, and don’t want to be there. Is this what students have experienced? Does anyone know of students who have made unexpected friends or had stimulating conversations at these meals?
  • 2prepMom2prepMom Registered User Posts: 1,140 Senior Member
    My older D was at a "sit-down" formal dinner school, and I think she became better at dinner conversation.

    However, the clothes WERE A FORTUNE for a girl, because a suit, dress or nice skirt and sweater was required, and she did not want to wear the same thing over and over. Some girls really got dressed up in designer clothing for every season, spending thousands of dollars a season. There was a major status element to this among girls, who compare each other's outfits and designer clothing mercilessly. So now my D has a fair number of "fancy" (but not designer) clothes she rarely wears. For boys a jacket and tie should do the trick, much easier.
  • friendlymomfriendlymom Registered User Posts: 379 Member
    I went to St. Paul's and my daughter is there now. I haven't read the book but my husband did, and he felt like Khan had a huge chip on his shoulder. Based on this thread the book will be next in my reading queue and I promise to post my impressions back here after I've read it.

    As for the seated meals, I think they helped build extremely useful skills, actually, and not in the areas of getting dressed up and eating in fancy surroundings. (Anyone who has ever been in the Middle or Lower dining halls at SPS would be hard-pressed to call them "fancy".) As an adult I've found that I can carry on a conversation with just about anyone. This skill has served me very well in my professional life, and I'm not in a PR or sales job. While I might have been able to do that anyway, it certainly didn't hurt to have to get through dinner at a table of people I otherwise wouldn't have spoken to 4 nights per week for 3 years. I actually think that Seated is a very valuable experience. My daughter has so far complained about her tables, but I notice that she gets several new Facebook friends from all different classes every time the tables switch. One characteristic of SPS is that there's a lot of blending of the classes which my D feels is a good feature of the school.

    SPS tries to keep the clothes from getting too out of hand but I think they haven't had much success there. However, my daughter definitely doesn't have expensive designer clothes for seated meal. They only have it 2x/week now (as opposed to 4) and not at all during winter term. Some teachers think that the lower frequency results in more dressing up. D has a few dresses that she got at places like H&M or Forever 21, and 2 pairs of dressy (but not expensive) shoes.

    I emphatically do not feel that the Humanities program is all about cocktail parties. It's an approach to covering work that involves similar skills in an integrated way.
  • mayhewmayhew Registered User Posts: 643 Member
    Back in the Dark Ages, I went to a boarding school with seated dinners, and my child is a current student at SPS. My impression of the seated meals is a positive one. The students mix with friends from different classes, people who they may have never struck up a conversation with, etc. It definitely seems like a beneficial element to the structure of the school.
    I did real the Khan book right before my child matriculated, and I have to agree with friendlymom's husbands opinion, in that Khan had a chip on his shoulder. Yes, there is tremendous wealth amongst the students, just as much as there are students from upper middle class, middle class and working class backgrounds. My child is friends with children from all walks of life, which is a fantastic preparation for life in general, in my opinion. What they all have in common, and much more of a bond than any income level, is a love of learning, self discipline, self motivation, focus, drive, ambition and commitment.
    Our experience thus far at SPS - and we are not new parents - has been nothing short of extremely impressive.
  • friendlymomfriendlymom Registered User Posts: 379 Member
    It's hard not to be influenced by a book, I think. I read the book about the Milton sex scandal and I have to admit that it prejudiced me against the school, even though I realize that the situation wasn't unique to Milton in particular or even to boarding school in general. It's easier to see the bad than the good sometimes, or maybe just easy for the bad to seem like the whole picture rather than a piece of it.
  • Charger78Charger78 Registered User Posts: 711 Member
    Khan may or may not "have a chip on his shoulder", but would that bear on whether the incident in the girls dormitory happened or not?

    Assuming that it happened, I ask myself whether this sort of thing "happens everywhere" or it doesn't.

    In my experience at two different boarding schools (four and eight years each), under three different headmasters, worse happened at one and nothing comparable at the other. (While individuals certainly have hellish experiences at all schools, without "scandal", and for personal reasons as often as institutional ones. Sad, and impossible to entirely prevent.)

    I feel that the head's leadership is a pretty good indicator of the "green light" for the scandalous events. A positive voice can do wonders; an indifferent, passive, or misguided voice opens all sorts of doors. In the wake of the head's voice, listen to as many of those "down the chain" as you can stand, to those many students, included, who speak at chapels and in so many other forums. Then, cross your fingers.

    Wasn't it Bishop Anderson back then? I was aghast at the financial numbers, and meeting him failed to soften the feeling. Those things certainly affect the morale of a faculty, which has its own consequences. Today's SPS culture is undoubtedly a lot different from that of those years, and in ways that are meaningful. A book like Khan's simply reinforces that prospective parents should take due diligence seriously or risk being surprised.
  • SevenDadSevenDad Registered User Posts: 3,825 Senior Member
    "A book like Khan's simply reinforces that prospective parents should take due diligence seriously or risk being surprised."

    I think that's what reading the Khan book did for me...it took my rose colored glasses off.
  • friendlymomfriendlymom Registered User Posts: 379 Member
    The Hicks-Anderson years were not the best for SPS, to put it mildly. I agree with Charger (and with SevenDad on other threads) that school leadership makes a difference and sets the tone and culture for the place. Putting in Bill Matthews, a much beloved and longtime leader in the school, was a very deliberate effort to get things back on track. Mike Hirschfeld is still new but he's also from within the school and seems to be doing well.

    But there are two separate types of issues for parents to think about. One is the scandals, whatever their nature, and what's telling is how the school handles them. The other is the fundamental culture of the school. Does a place like St. Paul's take mediocre kids who happen to be privileged and shape them to be the glitterati of the future? What's the underlying message that the school gives about its purpose to its students? The culture and the scandals are related; the scandals should be considered in light of what they say about the culture.

    Judging by the diversity of lifestyles that my SPS classmates now enjoy, I would question how much influence the trappings of SPS have on the students' expectations for their lives. My classmates are now teachers, artists, theater producers, doctors or nurses, professionals in the nonprofit or government sectors, environmental advocates, etc- and yes, some of them are wealthy 0.01%ers. It's going to happen.
  • friendlymomfriendlymom Registered User Posts: 379 Member
    I promised that I would post back on this thread after reading the book. My impressions might be somewhat disjointed, but I thought I'd give all my reactions:

    1) I don't blame anyone for thinking negatively about SPS after reading the book. Khan really seems to have a lot of contempt for the students. However, I don't think think the student attitudes he describes are isolated to SPS among other boarding and day schools of its kind (nor does he mean to imply that they are - Khan never makes that claim and is in fact trying analyze a certain sector and attitude in society, not the school itself).

    2) The entire hazing incident in the girls dorm was clearly an extremely unfortunate and regrettable situation from start to finish, and one in which many mistakes were made. I like to think that it's not something that would happen there now. The only good that comes of something like that is that a lot of institutional attention and energy gets turned to trying to fix the environment in which the problem was able to occur.

    3) I think it's just as much hubris for the faculty to perceive that they're sacrificing themselves for the students as it is for the students to think they deserve any such sacrifice. Teaching at boarding school is a certain lifestyle, one that's friendlier to people at some points in their lives than others. There are many paths for a teacher to take that are more difficult than teaching at an elite boarding school. I'm not saying teachers don't work hard, because they do - incredibly so. But they gain tangible and intangible benefits from the choice to teach at a school like this. I really hope that the teachers at SPS or other places don't have the kind of contempt for the students that Khan conveys.

    4) Tying the topic of girls, their clothing, and their sexuality just to the situation of an elite boarding school is a faulty link. Girls' clothes are highly revealing and inappropriate everywhere. Good for SPS for trying to address it even if they're not very successful. Also, the issue of girls' social and sexual capital affecting their choices and behavior is one that pervades every level of our society. Yet Khan treats this issue as if it's unique to SPS.

    5) Khan's critique of the Humanities curriculum is probably accurate in terms of the kind of skills that it emphasizes and develops. However, I see nothing wrong with learning how to learn and engage. When I read this section I kept comparing SPS (both as I know it and as Khan describes it) to the recent article about cheating at Stuyvesant High School in New York. That is a school where kids are learning "things" rather than skills, and according to the article a large proportion of students "succeed" at the school through widespread cheating that's tacitly approved of by the faculty. Are they getting any better an education than the kids at SPS? Is this a better way to handle homework, assignments, and tests?

    6) Formal seated meal is one of those things that people appreciate more in retrospect than they do at the time. I thought Khan sounded kind of petulant in his critique of it. Even if an individual student doesn't get much out of it, I hardly see it as a waste of time (to address Miguel's concerns). It's only twice per week, it doesn't last that long, and sometimes you get a good mix at the table. Khan sounds like someone who didn't do a very good job with his table, frankly. He didn't want to be there and when the teacher feels that way the students know it.

    7) The use of "ease" as a way of differentiating those who were successful at SPS from those who weren't was interesting and, I felt, spot on. That was the most useful insight of the book, in my view. A whole separate topic that the book wasn't trying to address is what happens to people after SPS. If they don't attain the "ease" what do they gain from school? Using Khan's model, there are going to be people at every place on the "hierarchy", but I feel that there's as much to gain from being in a lower place as there is in being in a higher place for someone at that stage of their lives.

    So those are my thoughts. This post has been interrupted many times so I'm probably not very coherent. All in all I would say that Khan was contemptuous more than resentful. He had some useful insights, but it said more about our culture as a whole than it did about SPS.
  • SevenDadSevenDad Registered User Posts: 3,825 Senior Member
    @friendlymom: Thanks for the point by point commentary. I admit that it was probably my reading of this book that started to loosen the "spell" SPS had cast on our family. It made me take off the rose colored glasses for revisit day, at which I saw a number of things that I didn't like.

    I will probably not have the time to reread Privilege any time soon, but I wanted to touch on one of the points you make:

    Girls' clothes are highly revealing and inappropriate everywhere.

    Yes, but not in our house. This is one of the reasons we took our daughters out of the local public school system. I started noticing young girls wearing clothing that was, in my opinion, thoroughly inappropriate for middle schoolers. I assume that their parents are buying the clothes, so to me this means that the parents are fine with it. Which means that I must have very different values from these parents. Maybe some parents feel that "well, that's what all the kids are wearing these days"...to which I say "only if we let them".

    On our revisit to SPS, I spied a few girls in the cafeteria wearing skirts that, frankly, were immodest. Which, at the time, I probably viewed as validation of Khan's book.

    (As I was writing this, Faith Hill appeared in a promo for Sunday Night Football wearing a dress that ends about 2 inches below her privates. Pop culture is so great, isn't it?)
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