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Privilege: How Society's Elite Are Made

I’ve spent two decades studying the very poor, and only a few years studying the very rich. One common question that people ask me is, “Do the poor and rich differ that much– except for the fact that one has more money?” I do find similarities, some surprising. For example, neither the very poor nor the ultra-wealthy (whom I’ve only recently observed) define their lives via “work.” One can’t find a job, the other doesn’t need a job. For me, a middle-class person, work is one of the core anchors of my identity. My colleague Shamus Khan has written a fascinating book about the making of our wealthiest citizens. Privilege is his sociological study-cum-reported memoir on going back as a teacher nine years after graduating from St. Paul’s School, perhaps the leading prep school in the country. It is one of the few in-depth looks behind the curtain at the making of the elite. I recommend the book, and here are some thoughts from Shamus as part of my Q&A with him.
Venkatesh: Do we need an “elite” or “privileged” class in America? What are the benefits to a society? And, do we in fact have an aristocracy?
Khan: So, this is a hard question to answer. Because whether or not we need elites, we’ll always have them around. Elites are not good, they just are. But they certainly can be bad [like] when they control a large or increasing share of wealth or power, and they’re worse when they are fairly stagnant. Our American elite are getting more and more powerful (the rich getting rich, not the poor getting poorer, drives inequality) and they seem to be more stagnant. So in my view we increasingly have the worst kind of elite. Since we’re never going to get rid of elites, the trick is to ensure that they aren’t so powerful that they limit social mobility. The easiest way to do this is to limit their overall economic power.  Almost all the national income gains over the last 40 years have gone to the richest 5 percent of Americans. If you think that only the top 5 percent of American earners have become more productive or been the sole producers of value, you don’t understand how an economy works. Elites have used their power to extract a greater and greater share of the national wealth. And that must be addressed.
Venkatesh: Was it hard to penetrate this insular world? You were a student and then you returned to teach. What were the challenges you faced in terms of managing your identity?
Khan: To be honest, it was surprisingly easy to go back to St. Paul’s. I’m not one of those people for whom the best time in their life was high school. Far from it. So it’s not as if going back to St. Paul’s was like returning to my glory days. But there is something about a place like St. Paul’s — or any exclusive space — that gets inside you. And even if you struggle with that, returning to such a place is returning to something familiar. But this was also dangerous. I was there as a researcher. And I needed to maintain a research orientation. But this is a challenge for any kind of ethnographic research. Our aim is to intimately know the lives of our research subjects. To do that we have to become part of their lives. And so with good ethnographic work, the researchers themselves become an object of analysis. Reflexivity is required. This doesn’t mean a kind of self-indulgent soul searching. But it does mean that for social scientists we must recognize that we’re part of the same processes we analyze.
Venkatesh: The dormitories at St Paul’s School don’t have locks on the doors. Why is that? Is there a particular attitude towards crime and social order that is part of the socialization of elite youth at the school?
Khan: When I was a student at St. Paul’s, one of the first things I learned was NEVER to knock on a fellow dorm mate’s door. Why? Because if someone knocks on your door you know it’s a teacher, and if you’re doing something you’re not supposed to be doing, you should stop right away. But beyond that, not having locks conveys just how much trust and community there is at a place like St. Paul’s. The school works hard to be like a family. And families don’t put locks on their doors; they trust one another. This is a really powerful idea. It’s something admirable that the school tries to instill in its students. And it creates a deep bond between the students, along with the suggestion that those in your family (or class) can be trusted. More interestingly still, when things do start disappearing in a dorm (usually small items — like candy bars, pizza, or other food), it’s rare that the faculty will get involved. Students police one another. If they figure out who’s stealing, they socially isolate that person — which in a small high school of around 500 kids is incredibly painful. External authority doesn’t really get invoked. You could certainly think about this as part of the way that elites learn to subject themselves to their own rules, and to avoid external imposition of rules upon them.
Venkatesh: If there were features of the school that could be exported to less privileged environments in order to produce success, what might they be– and do you think it is feasible to adopt such attributes in order to achieve success?

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Khan: I often describe elite kids as having “well-fed child syndrome.” The idea is simple enough: they’re told not about their limits, but their capacities. They get a sense of the world not as rules and regulations, but instead as an open terrain to be negotiated. Whereas the experience for a lot of disadvantaged kids is that of “you can’t” — of the limits placed upon you, the rules you have to follow, and the punishments likely to be laid down on you, the experience at St. Paul’s is that “you can.” This is a really empowering way to treat children. This ethic — this sense of potential and an open world before you — helps with success. But it’s important to remember just how different a school like St. Paul’s is from less privileged environments. Whereas the average school spends around $9000 per pupil, St. Paul’s spends around ten times that. And no amount of psychic support will help the less privileged even come near competing when investments at St. Paul’s are 10 to 1. So while we could think about the best practices of a great school like St. Paul’s, we shouldn’t be naive about how much money is simply buying advantages for people.
Venkatesh: How do the students think about themselves as members of the “elite”? Do they embrace this notion, resist it…? And, what is their version of the social contract?
Khan: While the word “elite” can be a bad word for a lot of people, at St. Paul’s, it’s a good one. The view from St. Paul’s is that if you’re going to have an elite, you’d want an institution dedicated to “doing good” to help mold them in a moral way. So the school often embraces the idea of an “elite.” That means the kids also think of themselves this way. But importantly, they think of themselves as a deserving elite. The view is that of a meritocracy: that the students at the school are among the best of the best. As for the social contract, I’m not sure that students think very much about this. Remember that these are high school kids. They’re still figuring themselves out, and to suggest that they should have high ideas about things like a social contract is a little unfair. But still, I will say that thinking of themselves as a deserving elite can have consequences. In particular, the flip side to the idea that you deserve your advantaged position is often that others similarly deserve their disadvantages. St. Paul’s fights against this quite vehemently. But the tension between the explanation of your own success and the failures of others is one that is difficult to escape.