Unpacking The Invisible L.L. Bean
Monogramed Teal Duffelbag (apologies to
"God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence, hath so disposed of
the Condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor,
some high and eminent in power and glory; others mean and in subjugation."
- John Winthrop
From "A Model of Christian Charity
Increasingly, as Independent School teachers and administrators tend to
look beyond the issues of race as ones that impact school community and
culture (prematurely in almost all cases), they are focusing on the issues
of class and wealth as those that can dramatically shape the experience
for both students and faculty. The presence of great wealth is
paradoxically the source of an Independent School's health in admissions
and development and also the source of arrogant entitlement and expectant
privilege that creates unrealistic demands regarding courses and colleges.
Perhaps worse, wealth exists as one of the most powerful forces that can
fragment and divide, in unhealthy and unappealing ways, the student body
and parents, from each other and even from the faculty.
The hallway social swirl of ski vacation talk, summer homes on the Cape
or the Hamptons or the soft clink of Tiffany bracelets and heart necklaces
create an economic hierarchy in the Independent School student body that
directly impacts who is in and who is out. This does not mean that the
attractive child or the best athlete will be excluded by their peers; they
rarely are. However, the rich and privileged child is frequently able to
enter into the "cool group" with the ammunition of his/her wealth at the
ready. Meanwhile the middle class or working class child is left out of
conversations that touch upon, let alone dwell on, country clubs, second
homes in ski country or "on the water", and family trips to Tuscany,
London or Antigua.
One is reminded of the under-appreciated scene from The Great Gatsby when
Gatsby is silenced by the "Do you remember" Biloxi conversation that Tom,
Daisy, Jordan and Nick can all readily enter into but which is
unattainable for Gatsby because he is glaringly outside of this community
of Yale, weddings and shared acquaintances created by wealth. He can only
"...beat a short restless tattoo..." with his foot as the others reminisce
about Biloxi and in doing so reestablish the connection of class that is
ultimately unattainable to Gatsby.
For Independent School parents and alumni/ae there are also factors that
complicate the relationship with the school. Wealthy parents are, because
of a school's needs, more likely to be asked to join the Board of Trustees
or Senior Class Gift committees or to edit the Parent Newsletter or to be
stroked and feted by the Development Office. Other parents and "alums",
with less capital - both financial and class - can feel relegated to the
second tier. What is at question is not the intent and commitment of those
parents willing to involve themselves in the life of a school or the
impulse of the school itself in seeking out willing and generous patrons.
Instead we need to ask how the involvement, advice, questions and opinions
of a narrow wealthy population of a larger group that is already narrow
and wealthy shapes an Independent School's policies, publications and
Ultimately, dealing with wealth and the accompanying class issues are the
"deals with the Devil" that all Independent Schools must make to survive.
Like John Winthrop, and those other seventeenth white men of privilege,
who were able to shape the mission and purpose of a small homogeneous
community, leaders of Independent Schools try to promote altruistic intent
without disrupting - too much - the wealth that enables them to define the
experience and the culture of the schools.
How can we check ourselves out and see where we are in our perception of
our own wealth and class and their accompanying privileges and advantages
and how do we think these forces impact the Independent Schools that we
shape as students, teachers, parents and alumni/ae?
A quick test; answer True or False and be honest.
Family at Home:
1. Your family is likely to eat dinner out at a restaurant at least two
nights out of the week. T / F
2. When you do eat at home, your meal is prepared by someone other than
your parents or yourself. T / F
3. You can trace your family's presence and history in America back to
Nineteenth century or earlier. T / F
4. You or someone in your family has been able to use a connection
from family or friends in order to gain improved (not guaranteed)
access to a specific college or job. T / F
5. You or someone in your family has been audited by the IRS. T / F
6. Your family belongs to one or more "country clubs." T / F
7. It is unlikely that you or a family member would consider the Armed
Forces as an option after high school or college. T / F
8. The male members of your family consistently wear a tie to work. T /
9. One of your parents has/had their own office when they went to work. T
10. Your family has/had a nanny or au pere. T / F
11. In your family both parents are not required to work full time in
order to support the family. T / F
12. You go to a family doctor and not the Emergency Room for your
primary medical care. T / F
13. Your primary language is English and you are not fluent in another
language T / F
14. If you or a member of your family had a summer job, it was by choice
rather than by economic necessity. T / F
15. You and other members of your family tend to support Republicans. T /
16. You live in a neighborhood that is primarily made up of one race
and/or one religion - yours. T / F
17. There are few neighborhoods that your family can't afford to live in.
T / F
18. There are neighborhoods that your family's finances allow you to move
out of or avoid living in. T / F
19. You live in the suburbs or have trees in your backyard. T / F
20. Your family owns a second home that is not the primary residence of
someone in your family i.e. grandparents, aunts and uncles etc. T / F
21. Members of your family, beside parents (i.e. same sex siblings) are
not expected to share a bedroom. T / F
22. Your home has a bedroom that is reserved for the occasional visits
of guests. T / F
23. Your family has a pool. T / F
24. You pay someone outside of your family to cut your lawn. T / F
25. Your family drives in cars that are usually purchased as new. T / F
26. Your family has two or more cars in your driveway. T / F
27. Your family is more likely to use a credit card than cash for a major
purchase. T / F
28. You are rarely embarrassed by your or your parents' lack of money
and what you can not purchase. T / F
29. You rarely worry that your clothes or shoes or jewelry will place
you in a certain class that is defined by wealth. T / F
30. Advertisements on television and in magazines often display cars and
products that your family can afford or already owns. T /F
31. When you were young, your expectations of presents during Christmas
and Hanukkah and/or birthdays were usually fulfilled. T / F
31. You attend private school before you reached high school age. T / F
32. During school vacations, your entire family was able to travel by
air to a destination that includes hotels and the amenities of beach,
skiing or tourist travel. T / F
33. In your family, French, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian etc. are
languages primarily for academic pursuit rather than practical use. T
34. You did not have to take on a job during high school and/or college
to pay for your education, books etc. T / F
35. A four year college is an expectation for all of the members of your
family. T / F
36. Members of your family do not need to apply for financial aid or a
student loan when they apply to college. T / F
37. You attended a college that another member of your family had
previously attended. T / F
38. Multiple generations of your family have attended a "private
school", sometimes even the same school. T / F
What if we answer "True" more than "False" to most of these questions
than False which is likely for many students, parents, alumni/ae and, even
some teachers, in Independent Schools? Does this mark us as inconsiderate
or indifferent to the experiences of others? No, not necessarily. But it
does define the world that we create for our children and ourselves, and
certain assumptions that we carry along with our privilege work their way
into the decisions that become policy and practice in our schools.
Empirical experience can lead us to these unscientific conclusions about
class, wealth, college and the role of Independent Schools.
oAccess to college is determined in part by socioeconomic status of a
oAccess to Independent Schools and/or college is greatly enhanced by
having wealth in one's family, despite the complaints of the wealthy who
see their deserved access to first choice colleges blocked by the "unfair"
practices of Affirmative Action. oSome Independent Schools admissions
offices actually cater to the wealthy in the form of special legacy or
sibling dates for applications and notification. Legacy and sibling
relationships with a school often come with a family's wealth.
oWealth can also provide families with better access to Independent
School administration for concerns and complaints. This does not mean that
certain families of color cannot reach a similar level of access to school
decision makers, only that wealth can determine more immediate access.
oIt is unlikely that students of poor or working class families will have
legacy status during the Independent School or college application process.
oTeachers at an Independent School will probably have less wealth and be
of a lower class than the families of their students. However, in a public
school, especially an inner city school, the reverse can occur and
teachers can reach a middle class status that families in the school will
find difficult to attain.
oThose in Independent Schools who would dismantle race from class to
focus on socio-economic factors, do so at the risk of leaving one task
unfinished while taking up another that can have unforeseen implications
for a school's college acceptances, the curriculum etc.
oIn Independent Schools, Class and wealth issues for low income white
students are the primary dividers with their white peer group.
Independent Schools are schools in which wealth, legacy, tradition and
prestige - all essential pieces of the structure of class - are
acknowledged and honored as both the foundations of a school's past and
the framework for its future. This arrangement allows for both positive
and negative impacts on a school culture. On one hand, forces like wealth
and tradition enable schools to provide superior levels of teaching,
technology, art, theater and music, athletics and travel. And these, in
turn, provide success, both in college acceptances and beyond, that are
unmatchable by American public schools - not in the accomplishments of an
individual student but in the fortunes of all of an Independent school's
graduates. However, the privilege and entitlement that frequently
accompany this wealth and tradition, also create graduates, alumni/ae,
trustees, parents and teachers whose views can be myopic and arrogant,
their expectations haughty and out of touch with the nation and world that
Independent Schools are supposedly preparing their students for.
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