Monday, May 30, 2011

Making privilege

While reading sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan's Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School, the thought uneasily crossed my mind that this is exactly the kind of academic book Malcolm Gladwell might make more popular by turning its critical analysis of the making of privilege into a between-the-lines instruction manual for business-class tiger-parents.

It could be a chapter of Outliers 2.

In Privilege, Khan argues against the popular understanding in the United States that elites are people who are entitled - that is, that they simply were born into their privilege. Entitlement might have described the elite 100 or 50 years ago.

Today, however, he suggests that the "new" elites themselves share at least an ideal and rhetoric of having had to "work for" their privilege. Privilege has become not what you were fortunate enough to be born into, but what you were clever enough to "earn."

Up to this point, readers of Gladwell will be happy to recognize themselves - members of the new elite - in the pages of Privilege! However, Khan's point is that the new elite is as troubling as the old elite. There is no nostalgia here for a ruling (white) class based on exclusion, but Khan is equally skeptical of the current embrace of so-called meritocracy - a term that I was surprised to learn had been coined in Britain in the 1940s to criticize "the cold scientization of ability and the bureaucratization of talent" (Khan 2011:8). In fact, the new elite is based on assumptions that could prove to be even more insidious:

With "merit" we seem to have stripped individuals of the old baggage of social ties and status and replaced it with personal attributes - hard work, discipline, native intelligence, and other forms of human capital that can be evaluated separate from the conditions of social life. And the impact of the adoption of this approach has led to rather contradictory outcomes. It has undercut nepotism. It has been used to promote the opening of schools to talented members of society who previously were excluded. But it has also been used to question policies like affirmative action that taken into account factors other than performance on select technocratic instruments. It has been used to justify the increased wages of the already wealthy (as their skills are so valuable and irreplaceable). And most important for me, it has obscured how outcomes are not simply a product of individual traits" (Khan 2011:9).

For whatever reason, reading this passage called to mind a moment in "The Osbournes"* when Kelly describes how hard Ozzy worked for everything that he has today. I found it jarring to hear the tribute to hard work paid by a young woman who I got the impression has not had a lot of personal experience with it.

*I know. A dated reference to a TV show that I watched back when I watched TV! Sigh.

Khan argues that hierarchy remains as entrenched under the new privilege as it had been with the old entitlement. Hierarchy under the old elite represented ceilings. Under the new elite, it has become a ladder to climb: You just have to make the right choices, and do the right things.

Enter the guru, Gladwell, and other prophets of privilege and hard work: David Brooks, anyone?

The new elite purports to include the "best of the best" regardless of class or race / ethnicity - at least in theory. A point that Khan makes is that inequality persists even with growing awareness and acceptance of "openness" and "access."

As exploration of privilege, Khan's book is revealing about the state of the American Dream today.

I think about how many of us have a stake in the hope of "hard work." I stop short of calling it a myth, which reveals how high a stake I have in it, too.

Or as Khan observes: "Students learn to emphasize hard work and talent when explaining their good fortune" (Khan 2011:15).

Khan tells us that his own story is "familiar": A tale of immigrants who find opportunity and success in the United States and then give their children more and better than they had themselves. I think it would be worth telling his story in terms of how and why Pakistani doctors and Irish nurses were brought to the United States in the early 1970s.

Or for that matter, I could tell my own story as a tale of the sacrifices that my parents made and the hard work that bought our family a house in the suburbs and elite educations for my brother, sister, and me: Or I could tell it in terms of an American embrace of Koreans as anti-communist Asians and of a shortage of doctors and nurses that brought guest workers to the United States.

None of us arrives on our own merits only.

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