Thoughts on Public Schools, Private Schools, Privilege, and Inequality
Interestingly, both the left and the right seem to find the programs problematic. Freddie De Boer believes that the programs will largely allow the kids who attend these elite private schools to feel good about themselves and show amazing cultural capital in their college classrooms but will do nothing to actually change or challenge inequality. There is some indication that administrators had been terminated when the privilege combating programs went too far. The New York Times story mentions that Brooklyn Friends terminated their diversity director because of his focus on white privilege and how it made many white students and parents uncomfortable.
Conor Friedersdorf also finds that the programs are doomed to failure because the kids still largely exist in a bubble of economic wealth, comfort, and opportunity.
I agree with both Conor and Freddie. One thing I’ve noticed about this discussion is that it is largely focusing on white privilege instead of directly on economic privilege. There are a lot of proxies for race/ethnicity and levels of wealth but to me talking about white privilege is a convenient way to ignore the fact that many or most of the students at these elite private schools come from the upper-middle class at least. As someone who grew up in close proximity to the world of NYC private schools, this is a kind of hobby area of thought for me:
1. Sociologically, one of the things that I find fascinating about the upper-middle/professional class (at least in the Northeast Corridor) is the decision about whether to move to a suburb with a good school district or to stay in the city and send your kids to private school. My mom was a NYC public school teacher and administrator and she thought that the NYC private school scene was too much of a rat race in the 1980s (it is probably even worse now). So my parents moved to a suburb that was known for good schools and was largely populated by doctors, lawyers, engineers, consultants, and other professionals. My hometown had a reputation for being a place where you moved for the school districts and has had this reputation since the Post-WWII era if not before.
2. The kids in college who grew up in cities were awfully smug about it and liked to say that the suburbs are horrible, monochromatic, limiting, and boring. When I was between 18-22, I did feel like the kids in college who grew up in the city and went to private school were more worldly and sophisticated but now I realize that they existed in just as much of a cocoon as my upper-middle class Long Island hometown. They were just better at projecting otherwise.
3. That being said, I do think there are real differences academically between private schools and even very well-healed public schools. My public school district was very good at getting many kids into colleges and universities that are considered elite. Many people I went to college with still felt like they were fishes out of water for the academic expectations of these colleges and universities. One woman I know who spent her entire K-12 career getting nothing but top grades, received a D on her first college paper at an Ivy League university and it momentarily destroyed her confidence. She felt like she knew what was expected because she always was in Honors and AP classes but those did not prepare her for college.
4. My friends who attended private school before college and university largely did seem to be on a more academically advanced schedule. One person mentioned reading the “Lady and the Tiger” in 6th grade, I was not aware of this story existing until 10th grade when I saw it in my English class textbook. There were other books that were part of my high school English classes as standards that my private school friends read in middle school. I briefly discussed this with Kazzy via e-mail and his quick thought was that private schools need to differentiate themselves from public schools and one way to do so is by calling themselves “academically rigorous” and an easy way to do rigor is by doing more, faster, and earlier.
5. Private schools also seem to treat their students as little adults/equals as opposed to being students/underlings. Hence being on a first name basis with your teacher instead of having to say “Mr. Smith” or “Ms. Rosenberg”. This much teach kids to feel very good about themselves and like they are naturally on the top. There was only one teacher in my high school who went by his first name. There was another teacher who let students call her Doc but that still acknowledged her PhD.
6.Other seeming advantages are letting students do interesting experiments that are bound of failure but likely to give confidence. In the theatre department at my undergrad, the kids who went to private school came in with much more experience including working on productions of really difficult plays like directing and starring in a production of Waiting for Godot or works by experimental playwrights like Chuck Mee. My high school was pretty liberal with what we could do (we did an uncensored Cabaret) and we had a student-directed one-act play festival but there were still requirements like “Everyone who wants to be in the spring needs to be in the spring musical.” A lot of people I knew who went to private school also went on a lot of international trips via their school.
7. In the end teaching private school students about privilege is not going to end privilege because they are not giving up anything. There parents are not going to send them to an ordinary public high school and many of these students will likely end up in the same place as they were born. I will likely end up moving to an upper-middle class suburb and sending my kids to a good public school district because that is how I was raised. Even states that mandate school districts receive equal funding remain unequal, California public school districts ask parents for additional contributions and the amount can range from a few hundred to a few thousands per a year based on the wealth of a town. The solutions to school and academic inequality are probably going to require much harsher remedies than most people have a political stomach for.