Title: Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition.

(book reviews)
Author: Peter W. Cookson Jr.

For most Americans, prep schools are mysterious places. In a society in love with its own image of egalitarianism, the idea that there exists in our midst a set of elite, exclusive schools for the children of the wealthy seems discordant, even a little embarrassing. Our nasty little social secret is the class structure; 1 percent of Americans own 56 percent of the national wealth. This 1 percent holds enormous social and economic power. Most of this power is exercised quietly without too much fuss. In a society where politics has been reduced to talk-show chatter, the invisible empire of wealth remains unexamined. A public conversation about the significance of concentrated wealth on the republic, on our neighborhoods, and perhaps even in our personal lives would raise difficult questions that, in all likelihood, would challenge our taste for easy optimism and quick-fix social solutions and our belief in the social efficiency of markets to produce a just and sane society. We have discovered a "culture of poverty," but not a "culture of privilege."

For educational thinkers, the existence of a rigid class system creates many theoretical problems. If schools are the institutional embodiment of mobility through merit, how do we justify the awkward facts? The greater a family's wealth, the more and better educational opportunities will be available to its children. Society is a power structure; the complex chain of property relations is its social DNA. In advanced capitalistic societies, enforceable property rights precede human happiness and the legal system is the active expression of this Lockean social contract. Because of this, our school system reproduces the social system with almost eerie accuracy. Much of educational research has an aura of political innocence that borders on self-deception; one can reason one's way into a belief one knows to be false, re-creating the belief through memory by removing from active memory the original self-deception. Cognitive self-deception is similar to selective perception, only deeper. This kind of self-deception, I fear, is the fatal flaw in Arthur Powell's book Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition.

The causes and consequences of this fatal flaw are worth examining in some detail because much of Powell's research and his interpretation of the social world is representative of the research genre known as "if it's private, it must be better." The assumption that public schools can become more effective and just by imitating private schools is a trickle-down theory of educational reform that sadly inspires the work of many private school advocates. Wittingly or unwittingly, this socially naive posture throws open the political doors to voucher proponents who will only rest when public education is deregulated. The belief that private schools are better because they are market sensitive and promote that sociologically slippery term "social capital" is a dangerous oversimplification that, left unchallenged, could result in a chaotic, fragmented educational system accountable to everyone and, as a result, to no one. Thus, even though Powell's book is intellectually slight and poorly researched, it deserves some attention as an example of how the opponents of public education attempt to set the policy agenda through unjustified generalizations based on frail databases.

Ironically, in the same week I received Powell's book to review for this journal, the New York Times Magazine profiled two prep school legends who died in 1996. One profile was of Harold Tinker, who taught at Choate (now Choate-Rosemary Hall) for 39 years beginning in 1923. He was a prototypical prep school teacher who collected books and kept the unruly sons of the upper class in line with such pithy statements as "No man ever appears ridiculous by what he is; he only seems ridiculous by trying to be what he is not" (Prescott 1996, p. 26). John F. Kennedy was one of Tinker's favorite students; perhaps the president's detached style began in Tinker's class - to sweat publicly is not good upper-class style. And Choate is not Groton - where class really matters. Fifty percent of the students at Groton come from families included in the social register.

The other eulogized prep school authority was E. Digby Baltzell. Baltzell coined the term "WASP" (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) and wrote sociologically complex books about the Protestant establishment, including Philadelphia Gentlemen (1958), The Protestant Establishment (1964), and Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia (1979). Baltzell was a loyal, but honest, critic of the role of the prep schools in American life. Nowhere does he appear in Powell's book; the rich, if controversial, tapestry of elite life and education is simply missing in Powell's work. He says, "The focus of this book is the education that privileged schools provide and not privilege itself, the schooling experience and not the social system that permits independent schools to exist" (p. 6). I think I just heard Baltzell roll over in his grave.

In fact, Powell's book lacks references altogether, except those scattered throughout the footnotes, a very selective set of readings and research to be sure. No scholars of elite schools need apply, including Christopher F. Armstrong, David Boyd, George MacDonald Fraser, August Heckscher, Steven B. Levine, James McLachlan, and John Wakefield; and certainly no critic of the class system need apply, including C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, and Caroline H. Persell. It should be mentioned that Powell does refer to my work with Persell in a footnote as a "most savage sociological critique" of prep schools, yet finds that we are "remarkably positive" about the curricula of prep schools. Common sense might tell us that we can admire academic rigor but worry that rigor in the service of class power can perpetuate privilege.

In place of a systematic review of the literature is an appendix, "Sources and Methods." According to the author, he reviewed more than "a hundred histories of individual schools, all issues of national independent-school journals, and articles about prep schools in educational and general periodicals" (p. 252). Qualitative databases include information culled by the National Association of Independent Schools, the Admissions Testing Program of the College Board, the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, and the Schools and Staffing Survey of 1987-88. Powell visited 10 independent schools during 1991-92, after the author had identified the book's main themes. According to the author, "the field studies were brief" (p. 258). The author also tells us that "there were no classroom observations" (p. 258). A rather odd admission, considering the author was interested in the "education that privileged schools provide." Powell visited 10 schools: three from a previous study and seven that were chosen for "representativeness and convenience" (p. 259). Most astonishing was the decision by the author to exclude boarding schools from his field studies (p. 259). Let's pause here. A study subtitled The American Prep School Tradition is based on private school histories and promotional materials, a secondary analysis of national data sets that include some independent schools, and a field study that did not include one boarding school. Strictly speaking, Powell did not visit one "prep" school, yet this does not in any way limit him in making sweeping generalizations about elite schools and drawing for us important educational lessons.

Powell chooses to view the schools as they would like to be viewed by the public - good schools doing an honest job. There is a great deal of time spent describing how private school teachers mentor students and grade papers. He believes private schools build community by emphasizing decency, hard work, and participation. This is partially true, but the ethos of "be nice and work hard" is only one side of the story. Real-life prep school student cultures are seldom about being nice; prep student cultures are fairly raw, competitive, and often exploitive. At virtually the same time I received Powell's book, New York magazine published an article entitled "Prep-School Gangsters" (Sales 1996), which describes a prep school crime wave. The article may exaggerate, but if Powell had interviewed any actual "prep" school students or spent time in a dorm at an elite school, he would have realized that some privileged kids cheat on tests, take drugs, drink, establish rigid social hierarchies, resort to physical intimidation from time to time, sleep with each other, and occasionally sleep with teachers. Prep schools are hothouses; yes, the students work hard, but they also play very hard.

The organization of Powell's book ignores the awkward facts; he chooses instead to focus on community, governance, diversity, and standards and includes a very long and oddly out-of-place discussion of the College Board system. In a chapter entitled "The Challenge of Average College-Bound Students," Powell argues that private schools can teach public schools a lesson by maintaining "the standard of doing one's best" (p. 183). Powell believes that the hard work and clean living he found at the elite schools explains why so many prep school students attend colleges they might not otherwise have, based on their achievement. If Powell had conducted a review of the literature he might have discovered David Kamens's work, which documents the admissions procedures at Harvard, which is only partially meritocratic. Prep school students do get a special "look" from admissions officers eager to keep the elite school/elite college tradition alive. One of the lessons from privilege is that money and status count in the scramble to the top. Without any theory of the relationship between school and society, Powell must fall back on the moral worth of privilege, a position to which the dominant class eagerly subscribes. Powell becomes another private school "virtuecrat" praising the uprightness of the dominant class, while holding his moral nose when around the kids who must attend "shopping-mall" high schools.

To support his position, Powell quotes from private school administrators, one of whom said, "Excellence is only excellence if it isn't some arbitrary standard, particularly in a school like this where we really work well with kids in the middle range of ability. The reason we do so well with these kids is that we don't have arbitrary standards" (p. 183). Powell reports this quote without any sense of text or subtext. This quote is pure prep school understatement, a kind of calculated false humility designed to confuse the researcher to mistake power for purity. Powell's simplistic view of the social world leads to the reporting of such wooden quotes as that which a student is supposed to have said to a teacher while receiving tutoring under a tree, "I'm really sorry I took so much of your time. I really appreciate it, but I'll let you go now." The reply was, "Absolutely not, Jessica, I want to get to know you as a person. We have another half hour. Let's just sit and talk and find out who Jessica is" (p. 228). For Powell, this says it all. For me, this says that the author's rose-colored glasses have caused him to write a naive book that borders on the silly. There are many fine teachers in private schools, but there are also many fine public school teachers. If all private school teachers were angels, there would be no need for headmasters or headmistresses.

Powell believes that there are several lessons from privilege we can draw from his work. A summary of these are: decency ("a longing for a basic school ethos of 'be nice and work hard' is widespread" [p. 239]); parental involvement and school choice ("choice is today publicly celebrated at the school level" [p. 240]); accountability ("prep schools gain a sense of true independence only after they have convinced society that they are deserving of it" [p. 241]); leadership ("there is no substitute for strong leadership by prep school principals" [p. 241]); standards ("each student, regardless of ability, struggles with much the same basic academic studies" [p. 244]); and personal attention ("personal attention, at the least, can reduce anonymity and increase connectedness to a caring community" [p. 245]). At one point, Powell calls for public boarding schools, forgetting perhaps that we already have such schools, only they are called reformatories.

If the structure of society is its property relations, then the shadow it casts is its cultural distortions. For nearly a decade and a half, the public has been bombarded with private school studies claiming that these schools embody virtue, efficiency, and academic effectiveness. The evidence is weak and debatable, but still the argument is made. If only public schools looked like Catholic schools, or prep schools, or market-driven businesses, then all children, like those in Lake Wobegon, would score above average. Authors such as Powell perhaps mean well, but there are research sins of omission and commission. A researcher may sincerely believe that private schools are models of excellence and report this finding in good faith; we might think of these shortcomings as research sins of omission. These problems are bad enough, but when authors ignore the most important social facts about private schools and, nonetheless, repeat their questionable findings, a research sin of research commission has been committed. In the marketplace of ideas no ex post facto political act of contrition can ever bring back democratic education if it is destroyed by ideology camouflaged by self-interested research.

To exclude power from privilege distorts our understanding of the relationship between schools and society. Private schools are private; they are not common schools and they are not ex officio public institutions. They may or may not do public good, but from a policy perspective, creating public good belongs in the public sector. For the record, it should be noted that private schools, in general, receive considerable indirect and direct public support through subsidized transportation, special education services, and, yes, government food; moreover, private schools do not pay real estate taxes - and prep school acreage is as large as the state of Rhode Island.

The time has come to rethink and redesign public education not by invoking such back-to-the-future strategies as school vouchers and privatization but by creating a genuinely democratic public school system adequately funded and held to high standards. What we do not need is an unstable system of private schools - some good, some mediocre, some appalling - touting their virtue as they quietly go about the business of reproducing the very inequalities most Americans find repugnant.


Baltzell, E. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1958.

Baltzell, E. The Protestant Establishment. New York: Random House, 1964. Baltzell, E. Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Prescott, P. "The Teacher Is Father to the Child." New York Times Magazine (December 29, 1996), p. 26.

Sales, N. "Prep-School Gangsters." New York (December 16, 1996), pp. 32-39.

PETER W. COOKSON, JR., is the director of the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has written several books concerning educational policy, the most recent of which are School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education and Choosing Schools: Vouchers and American Education. For several years he has studied educational policy making at the national level. He is currently writing a book and a textbook about educational policy making.

-- End --





Source: American Journal of Education, August 1997 v105 n4 p504(6).

Title: Lessons from Privilege: The American Prep School Tradition._(book reviews)
Author: Peter W. Cookson Jr.

Subjects: Books - Reviews
People: Powell, Arthur G.
Rev Grade: F

Electronic Collection: A20191827
RN: A20191827

Full Text COPYRIGHT 1997 University of Chicago


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