What with the rebellion of the low-information voter and the ascent of Donald Trump, the white working class is in the news a lot these days and everyone is reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (previously mentioned here), a personal eulogy from an upwardly-mobile ex-Marine to his rust-bucket hometown and left-behind family and friends.
The perfect counterpoint book to read, I think, is Shamus Rahman Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.
J.D. Vance describes how History and Culture have failed our society’s losers.
Shamus Rahman Khan describes, with a mixture of astonishment and congratulatory applause, just how one of the absolutely snobbiest and most expensive secondary boarding schools in America (the place that educated John Kerry and Doonesbury’s Gary Trudeau) educates future winners in a combination of graceful personal ease, the ability to fake your way through anything you don’t actually know, and a nihilistic belief in the complete equality of all things (excluding only your own special elite status).
St. Paul’s often touts its academic program as the best in the nation. In its advertising literature, the school boasts that it has “the highest level of scholarship” and that its “students stand at the top of their peer group in terms of academic preparation.” And according to eager administrators and lackadaisical adolescents alike, the centerpiece of St. Paul’s academic program is undoubtedly the humanities. The humanities program introduces students to the history, literature, and thoughts of different moments in world history. The humanities division describes in some project is an interdisciplinary, multi-vocal investigation of “great questions.” …
This program, significantly, does not teach students to know “things.” The emphasis is not on memorizing historical events, for example. Instead it is on cultivating “habits of mind,” which encourage a particular way of relating both to the world and to each other. …
The enormity of this program is both thrilling and terrifying. The thought of knowing all of that, being swept up and carried through the tide of history, is tantalizing. It is also the product of St. Paul’s hubris. How can any one person possibly teach everything..? As I prepared to teach my own class at the school, I soon found out that I was asking the wrong question. Of course the expectations were ridiculous. No high schooler could ever learn all that the course offers. The more important question, I eventually realized, is much harder to answer: what this mean to present material in this way to teenagers?
Perhaps the point is not really to know anything. The advantage the St. Paul’s installs instills in its students is not a hierarchy of knowledge. As we have seen, knowledge is no longer the exclusive domain of the elite. And these days, information flows so freely that to use it to exclude others is increasingly challenging. By contrast, the important decisions required for those who lead are not based on knowing more but instead are founded in habits of mind. St. Paul’s teaches that everything can be accomplished through these habits, even while still in high school. What strikes me as presumptuous, even shocking, about this vision of the world is taken for granted by pretty much every teenager at St. Paul’s.
Though I marveled at how impossible it seemed to teach students all these things, the school itself seems largely unconcerned about this. Indeed, St. Paul’s approach seems closer to Plato’s outline of education in Republic. Building upon his famous cave metaphor, Plato tells us, “Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely putting knowledge of the souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes …” ..In short, education is not teaching students things they don’t know. Rather it is teaching them to think their way through the world. …
“I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.”
“What do you mean how to think?” I asked.
“I mean I learned how to think bigger. Like everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”
The emphasis of the St. Paul’s curriculum is not on “what you know” but on “how you know it.” Teaching ways of knowing rather than teaching the facts themselves, St. Paul’s is able to endow its students with marks of the elite –ways of thinking or relating to the world– that ultimately help make up privilege. As the exclusionary practices of old the become unsustainable, something new has emerged from within the elite. …
[S]tudents learn to consume from an enormous variety of sources. They learn to work and “interact” with art, literature, history, from the popular to the scholarly, and have a huge range of materials their disposal. For example, one of the major assignments in Humanities III is to compare “Beowulf” to Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.” Students are asked to think about the ways in which Beowulf is a monster [Beowulf is the hero. Grendel is the monster. –JDZ] that man must confront, just as “Jaws”‘s monster prowls the waters of humanity (and perhaps even our own internal waters [And the BS keeps on flowing. –JDZ]). The goal is not to endow the students with a kind of highbrow elite knowledge. Rather, they are taught to move with ease to the broad range of culture, to move with felicity from the elite to the popular. They learn to be cultural egalitarians. The lesson to students is that you can talk about “Jaws” in the same way you can talk about “Beowulf.” Both become cultural resources to draw upon. And most important, the world is available to you –from high literature to horror films. They’re not things that are “off-limits” –limits are not structured by the relations of the world around you; they are in you. Students are not to stand above the mundane, perhaps lowbrow horror flick. Instead they are taught the importance of engaging with all aspects of culture, of treating the high and low with respect and serious engagement. As our future elite, the students are taught not to create fences and moats but instead to relentlessly engage with the varied world around them.
The consequences of St. Paul’s philosophy can be seen all over campus, evident even in how students carry themselves. Students have the sense that they could do it. The world is a space to be navigated and renegotiated, not a set of arrangements or a list of rules that are imposed upon you. The students are taught that they are special, and they begin to realize this specialness. This is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy –thinking everything is possible just might make it so.