In Privileged, sociologist Shamus Khan discusses what he learned by studying one of the most elite boarding schools in the country, St. Paul’s School. The school molds some of the most privileged members of our society, sending them off into some of its most powerful positions. So, how do these high school students think of themselves?
Khan argues that new social mandates to diversify elite education may have some pernicious negative effects. A generation ago, when most students who attended the high school came from rich backgrounds, St. Paul’s students knew that they were there because they were members of the privileged class. Today about 1/3rd of students do not pay full tuition. Students, then — both those on scholarships and those who aren’t — learn to think of themselves as individuals who have worked hard to get where they are.
The problem, as Khan articulates it, is that identifying as a member of a class acknowledges that privileged individuals are lucky and may owe some gratitude to a society that has boosted them up. Thinking of oneself as a uniquely talented individual, in contrast, encourages a person to attribute all of their privilege to their own merits, so they not only feel no gratitude to society, but also fail to notice that our social institutions play a part in disadvantaging the disadvantaged.
And, in the end, students at St. Paul’s School may very be talented individuals who have worked hard, but they’re also members of a class. Two-thirds of St. Paul’s students pay full tuition — $45,000 per year — so 2/3rds of the students still come from the top 1% of society. Now, more than ever, they fail to recognize their privilege.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.