Thursday, February 3, 2011

Shamus Rahman Khan's "Privilege"

Shamus Rahman Khan is assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University. He is an alumnus and former faculty member of St. Paul's School.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School, and reported the following:
In Privilege, I return to my alma mater, St. Paul’s School, to provide an account of one the nation’s most elite private boarding schools – a place with 500 students, 100s of millions of dollars at its disposal, and a stepping stone to positions of national influence. Yet in the text I argue that things have changed at places like St. Paul’s. Elite schools are now diverse. In positioning themselves to lead they have adapted to the moral codes of today: merit, hard work, talents, and individual capacity. In short, I argue that there is a new elite who are not an entitled group of boys who rely on family wealth and slide through trust-funded lives. The new elite feel their heritage is not sufficient to guarantee a seat at the top of the social hierarchy, nor should their lives require the exclusion of others. Instead, in certain fundamental ways they are like the rest of twenty-first-century America: they firmly believe in the importance of the hard work required to achieve their position at a place like St. Paul’s and the continued hard work it will take to maintain their advantaged position. Like new immigrants and middle-class Americans, they believe that anyone can achieve what they have, that upward mobility is a perpetual American possibility.

Whereas elites of the past were entitled—building their worlds around the “right” breeding, connections, and culture—new elites develop privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them. The old entitled elites constituted a class that worked to construct moats and walls around the resources that advantaged them. The new elite think of themselves as far more individualized, supposing that their position is a product of what they have done. They deemphasize refined tastes and “who you know” and instead highlight how you act in and approach the world. This is a very particular approach to being an elite, a fascinating combination of contemporary cultural mores and classic American values. It harnesses a twenty-first-century global outlook, absorbing and extracting value from anything and everything, always savvy to what’s happening at the present moment. Part of the way in which institutions like St. Paul’s and the Ivy League tell their story is to look less and less like an exclusive yacht club and more and more like a microcosm of our diverse social world—albeit a microcosm with very particular social rules. Privilege takes us into the world of St. Paul’s School to outline this idea of privilege, and how it helps form a new elite.

On pp. 99, in talking about thread counts on shirts, I seek to show how exclusive cultural knowledge is no longer the mark of our social elites:
Harrison then moved to the care of such a tailored shirt. “The problem here is that there’s no place to wash them. I mean, you can’t put them in the laundry, and the dry cleaners ruin them. It’s a real problem. I’m doing them in the sink now. I guess it works. Hand washing is the best. But it really is a problem here. Something I didn’t think of.”

I didn’t know this. I had never thought of hand washing one of my own shirts. I didn’t realize I was ruining them—but I soon remembered they weren’t much to ruin. Though my brother had lived in London for the previous ten years, and I had visited him often, I still had no idea what Savile Row was or that the street was famous for quality tailors. It was clear that none of the other young students did either. As Harrison took his shirt off and let the other students touch it, I could not help but join in the ritual, appreciating the softness of the shirt. I was seduced by the moment. I was watching, so I thought, the training of the new elite.

The following Sunday, I drove the house seniors, James, Peter, and Ed, into Boston for dim sum. During the ride, they brought up the interaction that Harrison had had with the younger students.

“I heard you were on duty Tuesday when Harrison was talking to the newbs about clothes or something.”

“Yes. It was interesting.”

Almost before I could finish my sentence, Ed interrupted, “It was bullshit, is what it was.”

I was honestly shocked.

“I mean, who owns shirts like that?” Peter asked, rhetorically.

“Not even my dad,” James decided to answer. I knew James and Peter to be from fairly wealthy families. Paying what they did for St. Paul’s, their parents could also have bought them shirts like the one Harrison was wearing.

“I know. I mean, maybe Larry.”

Thinking perhaps my seniors were not like other seniors, I asked who Larry was.

Peter answered, “Oh, those guys from Hong Kong. They have crazy clothes.”

But so as to emphasize that this was unique to Hong Kong, and not St. Paul’s, James told me, “Yeah. But no one here does. Harrison doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

After Harrison’s conversation with the new students, Ed had some of them come to his room and ask him about it. The new students were…
Read an excerpt from Privilege, and learn more about the book and author at the Princeton University Press website and Shamus Rahman Khan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue