Blogs > HNN > Jim Cullen, Review of Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández's "The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School" (Harvard, 2009)

Feb 28, 2010 6:28 pm

Jim Cullen, Review of Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández's "The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School" (Harvard, 2009)

[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of ten books, among them The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003) and Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write, and Think about History (Blackwell-Wiley, 2009). He blogs at American History Now.]

It may well be a universal dilemma for individuals to want the benefits of privilege in a society without the burden of guilt and doubt they engender in oneself, and the skepticism and resentment they engender among others. Whether or not this dilemma is universal, it certainly is widespread in the United States, a nation founded, in part, on the premise that all men are created equal. And nowhere is it more acute than among children of privilege, who almost by definition cannot have earned any benefits they enjoy (any more than children are responsible for the burdens they endure).

But children, no less than adults, are prone to close cognitive dissonances of this type with various strategies of rationalization. Anatomizing them lies at the heart of Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández's The Best of the Best. Gaztambide-Fernández spent two years at the fictively named"Weston School" (reminiscent of Phillips Andover Academy or one of its peers), shadowing its students in an anthropologically-minded piece of field research that included focus groups, surveys, interviews with faculty and staff, and sitting in on classes and other school events. Though his research was commissioned by Weston, the book also grew out of Gaztambide-Fernández's doctoral work at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While there were inevitably limits on what he could see or say, the book in any case is no unvarnished endorsement.

The key concept in Gaztambide-Fernández's analysis, which he unveils in his introduction, is that of a"discourse of distinction" that shapes the students' view of themselves. As he explains, distinction has two meanings here: a presumably neutral denotation of sorting (as in a group of students who stand separate from a general population) as well as a more normative denotation of ranking (as in those who are distinguished by virtue of particular talents of achievements). Both definitions, however, at least imply a sense of hierarchy, and Weston students apply both to themselves.

In terms of the former, Westonians are collectively defined by their membership in the student body. This membership is understood in five dimensions that Gaztambide-Fernández calls"the five E's: exclusion (in terms of admission); engagement (in terms of rigor); excellence (in terms of talent); entitlement (in terms of privilege); and envisioning (in terms of future prospects). At any given time or in any given way, a Weston student will invoke one or more of these categories to understand their presence at the school. What they tend not to do, the author explains, is reference the class, race, or other forms of privilege that are typically prerequisites for their future achievement, whether in the form of parents who have boarding school backgrounds themselves or the financial resources to underwrite their educations. Very often, he notes, the students assert that the choice to attend was largely theirs.

In any case, this is only part of the discourse of distinction. Another axis is the way the students subdivide themselves once their within"the Weston bubble." Here a series of hierarchies define the students' sense of themselves in domains that Gaztambide-Fernández calls"'the three spheres of experience': the sphere of work, the social sphere, and the sphere of intimacy." It's at this point that we enter a relatively familiar sociological landscape of jocks, beautiful people, nerds, and so on, with the partial qualifier that Weston and its ilk tend to offer more status for intellectual achievement than most schools do (though few students are comfortable defining themselves solely on academic terms). Gaztambide-Fernández literally diagrams the spatial relationships, noting that space itself, literal as well as figurative, is crucial to what it means to have an elite education: there's always something, or somewhere, you can go to find the sense of distinction that you crave.

There is a another dynamic at work here, and that is the way that outside identity politics function as third axis of experience. Financial aid recipients lack the economic resources of their peers, but seek psychic prestige by virtue of their talents. Students of color are seen, and often see themselves, as enriching the social climate of the school -- it's not so much as they experience diversity as it is that they are diversity. Students who depart from gender norms are tolerated, though not embraced. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, for their part, continue to function as the baseline norm. Students alternately uphold and lament these dynamics of their identities, which have tended to remain relatively stable.

Toward the end of the book, Gaztambide-Fernández quotes a student who aptly encapsulates the presumed logical result of this complex process:"You may have been like, the world-class pianist at your last school, but it doesn't matter here, because there's probably another one just like it. And so, when you come out of here, you don't have that special something that, like, distinguishes you from the rest. Yet you know that you're special, just because of everything that you do." You got in because you're special, and you're even more special because you got in (and out).

This is, of course, tautological reasoning. And after a while, it gets tiresome, even in what is a short book. Partly that's because these are adolescents talking, some presumably as young as 14 years old. Gaztambide-Fernández does not really take this developmental vector into account, perhaps because many of these students are articulate even when they're naive. But it's also because the author's frame of reference gets a little too narrow. He listens long and hard to the students' necessarily uninformed speculation as to why they were admitted, for example, but does little -- even with the boilerplate explanations that are surely available -- to explore what the people charged with the responsibility of choosing them have to say on the subject.

Moreover, some of the more striking aspects of the book come less from the author's findings than the fact that he finds them so. Noting the various kinds of social inequality that are reproduced in the school, he asserts that "this unequal distribution of distinction [emphasis his] underscores and perhaps strengthens the status hierarchies in the broader society, pointing to at least one way boarding schools are implicated in the perpetration of social inequality." At least one way? Why would it not be obvious, in institutions that discriminate on the basis of intelligence, wealth, and lineage -- a word we tend not to use but which accurately describes legacy preference -- that there are many ways?

This is not a rhetorical question. Actually, one of the more remarkable aspects of liberal thinking about elite educational institutions is a seemingly widespread assumption that social equality is somehow the goal. But it is not, has never been, nor can such institutions afford -- literally or figuratively -- to ever be, whether or not they're"need blind." It is true that they do offer avenues for advancement for people who could otherwise not attain it through typical channels. But that's less because this is a core mission than because without such hedging the sense of resentment they'd generate would threaten their internal as well as external viability. They want to see themselves, and be seen by others, as creators of opportunity. But they need to be sustainers of a ruling class to maintain their power, partly sustained by limited infusions of outside talent. That talent needs to adopt to the ruling class (even if a healthy ruling class evolves over time), not the other way around. Indeed, successfully grappling with such frictions is part of what defines a talented youth.

Elite students, and the adults who supervise their educations, lose sight of the larger social purpose they serve at their peril, and the peril of the societies over which they preside. Their presence at the Westons of the world is not finally about their"merit" or their comfort. It's about what they will ultimately contribute to the civilization that made them possible: not whether their admission was justified, but whether they will justify their admission. Those who lose sight of this truth will forfeit any legitimacy in their privilege, if not privilege itself, and justly earn the contempt they receive.

comments powered by Disqus