Monday, September 23, 2013

No pretending that the nurturing of America's young elite is the most pressing educational issue of the day, but still...

Some highlights of this wide-ranging interview with Shamus Khan about the development of elites in today's most prestigious private schools:
Books & Ideas: Would you say that this new definition of privilege based on merit rather than birth makes the elite status more acceptable to a society based on equality?
Shamus Khan: In the United States, when we think of equality, we think of diversity, particularly more recently. These last 50 years, a lot of what we think about when we think of inequality is not class but race.
From there he details factors that support the narrative of meritocracy:
We have such residential segregation in the United States that people who come to St. Paul’s or Columbia from wealthy backgrounds come from towns and areas that are totally homogeneous. Also getting into an elite institution is extremely difficult even for privileged kids (Columbia’s acceptance rate is below 8%). So they have to beat out a whole bunch of their peers to get to these places. When they arrive, they are presented with a campus that looks very different from their home environment. It provides an anecdotal support for the idea that this institution is a meritocracy, and therefore it was their hard work, their dedication and their inherent skills and their capacities that help to explain how they were able to get to a place like that.
And I found his take on cultural openness fascinating:
It is the idea that high status people have gone from being snobs to being omnivores, that they have gone from people with very particular cultural tastes (say a taste for classical music) to people with quite varied tatstes (from classical music to hip hop or rap or rock music, to jazz...) [...] The way the new elite distinguishes itself is as being the most inclusive, democratic, open. This promotes the view of the world as a kind of space of opportunities in Thomas Friedman’s sense of the flat world. It is the people who see its wideness who are able to be successful. Who are the closest minded people, the most likely to listen to their very small range of things, heavy metal or country music? It is poor people. 
Food for thought, especially if you find yourself associated with a private school in any way. Read the interview, and even if you don't drop your thoughts into the comments.

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