Elite Education and the Reproduction of Inequality

This week I have had the occasion to consider once again the intersection of education and inequality. I do this a lot anyway considering that I teach for a living but since I was told that I am out of touch with issues of private secondary education in the United States and its many advances, I decided to familiarize myself a little more with these institutions and the literature about them. The issues that interest me particularly as a professor in a public, majority-minority, research university, are what effects elite education has not on individual lives but rather the overall landscape of social inequality, production of knowledge, and governance. A secondary concern is the ongoing instrumentalization of minority identity in service of the status quo in which some minorities are allowed into otherwise restricted spaces and then used to show that the restrictions do not, in fact, exist.

My understanding of elite education is unavoidably colored by a history of trying to understand the nature and effects of such education in the Indian subcontinent. For those of us from postcolonial states, elite education in English medium schools has been understood as a remnant of a colonial intervention. This is not to say that it is normatively bad but simply to note that education of this sort was a result of the needs of empire. It exists at one intersection of education and governance. Many South Asians are familiar with Macaulay’s minute on Indian education with its famous dismissal of all the knowledge produced by Asians in general:

I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit [sic] or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanscrit works. I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.

One of the key requirements of the colonial powers was a functioning and adequately trained Indian bureaucracy. As such, educating Indians was not so much an end in itself but rather a means by which the administration of an extractive and economically exploitative relationship could be managed. An effective native bureaucrat had to cabin his Indianness to a private sphere and if he valued native knowledge, he had to learn it parallel to the formal English education that would make him part of the administrative cadre. Native knowledge had to be unlearned, sublimated, or quarantined in order to allow for professional success. Since independence, at least in South Asia, elite schools produce and reproduce social, professional, and economic elites. Most schools are diverse and have different socioeconomic groups represented yet they have not made much of a difference in changing the inequalities that exist in society. If anything, it has been the widespread access afforded by public education and hotly debated but vigorous quota systems at the federal level that have led to a small measure of advancement for impoverished minorities.

It was recently pointed out to me, the U.S. is not India and things are different here. The implication being that U.S. schools were more enlightened and had changed. Indeed, private schools here may not have the legacy of producing a ruling class for empire. Historically, they seem to be not far off from precisely that—educating the upper classes. But, I wonder if, at this present juncture, they continue to reproduce a ruling class insulated as they are from the changes to public state-based education. Moreover, what might the effects of elite education—albeit enlightened—be on inequality and democracy? And does diversity within the elite structure have appreciable impacts outside the institution itself?

In order to examine these questions, I explore three areas of which I think are particularly important: the reproduction of class inequalities, the impact on public schools, and the use of diversity programs and minorities to hide the epistemic hegemony of dominant groups and normalization of “whiteness” to which minorities must assimilate (or even upper middle-class-ness to which the working class must aspire).

(Re)Producing elites

Elite private schools like their higher education counterparts tend to produce elite individuals who are more powerful than the vast majority of the population. Even if the recent generations of students are more cosmopolitan and less “elitist” than their predecessors, a majority of the pupils must come from the economically and socially advantaged backgrounds in order to maintain the finances that are required to run a private school and its various exceptional programs. For every student who receives economic assistance, there must be another who pays full tuition or a substantial endowment that provides the funding. In many of the elite schools on the East Coast, the legacy tradition continues to ensure that some families will have access whether they merit it or not and those students both conceive of themselves differently and are treated as such by the institution. For an interesting exploration of this issue, Shamus Khan’s ethnography on St. Paul’s School is worth reading.

For argument’s sake, let us assume that a school of 500 students has a 50% population on economic assistance. What might be the class characteristics of the students receiving aid. With tuition for school alone anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 a year, it is very unlikely that children living at or even slightly over the poverty line could afford to attend such a school unless they are given full tuition. The poverty line for a family of four is $24,250 and those earning 180% or roughly $45,000 are considered middle income. Full tuition waivers would cost a school charging $25,000 roughly $7 million dollars a year in aid. If the operating budget is about $20 million, this is an unworkable scenario. Clearly, this is not what is happening. More than likely less than 20% of the student body is receiving “some” aid or even 100% aid. So, without belaboring the point, even with economic assistance, a small (perhaps miniscule) portion of the pupils are poor, a majority of the students come from very wealthy families (top 5% by earnings), and even those who do not would be considered middle income. And the result that logically follows is that the school reproduces the privilege of the upper class students, improves the privilege of the upper-middle class, and the bottom 30% of functionally poor are either represented in miniscule numbers or are not attending these schools at all. Furthermore, even if 30% of the school is comprised of students of color, if a majority of them are wealthy, the school is merely exacerbating the representational problems of wealthy minorities (who don’t need financial assistance) displacing poor minorities because they can bring in the commodity of “diversity” as well as pay full tuition. With regard to the most selective institutions of higher education, the problem of class and its reproduction have been heavily debated. One point that I think is unarguably true is that these institutions produce the vast majority of our leaders, our Presidents, our Supreme Court justices, our business leaders. The concentration of power in the hands of those who come from elite backgrounds is not a demonstration that these individuals have mastered “democracy”, it is a reflection that we are in an oligarchy in which elites control the mechanisms of governance while effectively the vast majority are shut out. This is in no way the equivalent of asserting that an elite education is a bad education. It is merely to point out that quite apart from the content of what is learned—given that most of these schools have a vast array of knowledge to offer including a great deal that encompasses non-Western terrain—the institution itself as a structure is built on and maintains a hierarchy.

Advancing the myth of a meritocracy

Students who attend these schools believe that they are there because they have earned their place. While surely academic standards require students to work hard and to maximize their potential (after all what is it that their parents are paying for if not this?), the idea that merit is the primary reason for students’ success in school fails to account for a number of other factors. For instance, it has been shown wealthy parents leverage substantial school resources to ensure that their children will be distinct (through programs like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate) from others and these two factors result in greater enrollment in selective postsecondary institutions.

The point here is that it isn’t just hard work and brains. It’s the resources that are available to elites that give them an advantage over pupils in an under-resourced inner city school. Unquantifiable factors such as expectations of achievement, social cohesion and stability are all unearned advantages. Also unearned is the effects of being a legacy student, belonging to a politically powerful subgroup, and so on. The idea that everyone at an elite institution “earned” that place has been thoroughly contested. If in ideal conditions, students do not succeed, then it can be assumed that it is the capability of the student alone. But in ideal conditions, we expect even mediocre students to do well–which is precisely what happens.

Given that these elite schools are also mostly feeder schools that send their graduates on up the stream to Ivy League institutions, they perpetuate the problem by compounding the “pedigree” advantages accruing to precisely the people who don’t need a leg up.

Exacerbating impacts on public schools

A common argument for charter schools and school vouchers is that everyone has a right to go to a school of their choice. And there is something very attractive about diversity in school choices. However, the idea that private schools have no impact on public institutions is untrue. There have been arguments that private schools skim the brightest students leaving those who cannot access private education in a learning ghetto. While this may or may not be true given the diversity of types of private schooling, my concern is with elite schools with substantial tuition costs which cater to the wealthy. There are two impacts on public schools and on democracy in general that I think are worth mentioning.

First, elite schools are designed to reflect the superiority of their students and their professionals no matter how graciously they do it. And they do this at the expense of public schools that suffer simple class and race based reputational discounting. Anyone who has gone to an elite college has experienced the not-so-subtle sorting that occurs between public school students and private school students. Yet, it is highly questionable whether all private school students really outperform public school students. One study suggests that they do not and, indeed, private schools underperform. That study is not restricted to elite schools which likely do not underperform; however, churning out a model Ivy League college student is not the only measure of success which suggests that our very metric of success needs to be questioned.

Furthermore it has been argued that gaps in achievement have more to do with family background than the school itself. So if the school doesn’t really matter as much as has been touted and the actual benefit of going to elite schools is the reputational and pedigree advantages, thereby, reinforcing and exacerbating class and maybe even race differentials, it is not an incredible leap of logic to argue that this, in fact, sets up a social ordering that is oligarchical rather than democratic. And who are these elite students going to the lead in their brave new world? Those educated in public school. Alison Benedikt makes this point a little more hyperbolically than I.

Fleeing the ghetto of public schools is exacerbating inequality and it is irrelevant what fraction of private school students are given aid. Private school students are small fraction of the overall student population. Their already better than average life chances are further improved by private elite education but I have seen no study showing that these schools produce the kind of racially and socioeconomically egalitarian citizens on which fair and democratic societies run. That’s what public school was meant to do. For a variety of reasons, including bureaucratic mishandling, underfunding in some cases, uneven resource distributions, and assaults by conservative lawmakers, public schools are facing tough times. But if the parents who are most able to make an impact through active participation in the school system, the ones most likely to be influential, absent themselves into a gated community of private education, reform becomes harder and “public” becomes a much poorer place.

Whitewashing privilege with diversity

One of the most interesting responses to what seems to be liberal guilt about unearned privilege is the championing of diversity. To paraphrase my friend Oishik Sircar, diversity is the favorite aphrodisiac of the liberal white educator. It is as though allowing a few middle-income minorities into the gated community will mitigate the problem of the rest who are outside the gates. Moreover, if the minorities are sufficiently wealthy, they are likely to be more similar to their white peers than they are to the poor members of their own identity group. Diversity is a messy concept which most educational institutions flatten into skin color and ethnicity and numbers. With sufficient numbers, the assumption that these students of color will bring a different perspective and enrich the education of other students instrumentalizes their identity into an educational benefit. And while this is okay in some sense, it in no way challenges the “normalizing” of white culture into which students of color are placed. Nor does it challenge, for many schools, the pedagogical and epistemological supremacy of dominant culture. I’m sure they agree that a class on hip hop or even jazz is probably a “waste of time” while taking orchestra is not.

Safe spaces are carved out, programs are instituted to ensure that LGBT, black, Asian, and all the “Others” feel safe. These are great programs and should continue but they don’t change the minority experience of being a minority and having to conform to specific notions of appropriate behavior and speech defined by the mainstream and often against minority culture and experience. The only way to actually know this is if a minority speaks out, or if you have behind the scenes conversations with other minorities as an insider. And here again, class matters. Minority students primarily socialized by white culture may not find easy coexistence with those who were raised in predominantly minority communities and schools.

Public education is not so engrossed with diversity for obvious reasons. It has a different problem altogether in that in some schools, the racism is so significant it has resulted in a school to prison pipeline. Black students get punished at disproportionate rates and this continues into the criminal justice system. Moreover, they are discounted even when they perform on par with their white counterparts. The desegregation of schools that was meant to achieve equality has failed. By catastrophically reducing the number of black teachers, a similar kind of hegemony is created in majority white schools. However, there are still schools in which minorities are the majority and while these may be seriously under-resourced, students in these schools do not suffer identity based inferiority. Moreover, there is a sense of ownership in  a public school which creates spaces for epistemological democracy, the demand for a more inclusive knowledge. A lot of attention has been paid to these issues. But it might be argued that wealthy blacks are able to insulate their children by a variety of means one of which is private schooling and socialization among the well off. Poor minorities have to suffer the slings and arrows regardless of where they go to school.

Elite private schools with vigorous diversity programs are to be lauded for their efforts at trying to be inclusive. However, the majority of students, teachers, and administrators of private elite institutions are white. They are not in the position to understand the lived experience of minorities who remain minorities in elite schools. In The Lawrenceville School, for instance, white faculty, administration, students and alumni voiced objections to an African American student body president’s protest of what can only be seen as the school’s culture of white male supremacy.

Three weeks later, the administration told Peterson she would face disciplinary action unless she resigned from her post as student body president…. Peterson was the first black woman to serve in that role at The Lawrenceville School, a prestigious boarding school near Princeton, N.J., that costs around $53,000 a year to attend, making it the most expensive high school in the country.

A critical mass of faculty members and students believed “it was not fitting of a student leader to make comments mocking members of the community,” Dean of Students Nancy Thomas told the Lawrenceville student paper. But the photo was simply the last straw for many white students who never wanted Peterson to be president in the first place — and for Peterson herself, who said she was sick of fighting vicious attacks from the most privileged members of the elite school.

What is considered fitting is determined by existing school culture and administration. Minority students or parents may have little influence particularly if their child is receiving economic assistance. As such, while the student body may be diverse, the knowledge and culture being (re)produced is not. Again from the piece on Lawrenceville:

One freshman student from Shanghai, China, wrote in the Lawrenceville student paper this year that he was fooled by the “faux ‘diversity’” the school advertised.

“Years ago, the average Lawrentian was privileged, Protestant, and deeply involved in athletics; that conception still holds today,” he wrote. “Lawrenceville, in many ways, hasn’t changed much since the twentieth century — it really is a seemingly homogenous, fancy American prep school after all.”

The school is 30% minority. Outspoken minority students have produced a lot of material that indicates that diversity in prep schools is a mixed bag. It certainly isn’t an unqualified success in spite of substantial gains. Moreover, unless minorities make a fuss over their racial identity or white privilege as Peterson did, they are unlikely to set off any alarms in schools who consider “respecting” everyone’s opinion as the prime directive—no matter how politically and economically privileged some of those opinions might already be.


Elite private education has never been a bastion of progressive thinking. Indeed, privatization, exclusivity, and the assumption that these students are the future leaders of the world because they are meritoriously better than others are deeply conservative views. Diversity and inclusion are important and these changes are to be applauded but they should also be contextualized as factors that only mitigate entrenched privilege. In other words, these institutions cater to the very wealthy as such, they are primarily reproducing class privilege that is slightly moderated through diversity. But the number of poor minorities these schools educate will not impact the overwhelming race and economic inequality that prevails in the U.S. And in fact, further privatization is likely to increase those disparities.

In other words, private school change is undoubtedly good for the private school in question but it will not have much of any effect on structural inequalities broadly speaking. Only serious reform and investment in public education will do that. So, we may find another Barack Obama at Choate after it has diversified its students to a seemingly standard 30% threshold and indeed, our Barack might also be lower income at first. But as we all know, one elite educated Obama in power does little to change the lot of all the blacks. If we want to change society, we will have to do it in the public, through the machinery of the state, with radically different ideas of redistribution of resources. To put it directly, diversifying elite institutions is beneficial and worth the effort but it should not be mistaken for structural change. Exceptional individuals who are trained to maintain the status quo are unlikely to dismantle the very institutions that provided their success.

Taking it full circle to India, it turns out elite private schools serve very similar social functions here in the United States after all. I am deeply skeptical that private schools with modest (but important) initiatives with small percentages of students will have any significant impact on inequality over all. Certainly, there is no data to show that they have done since they began to diversify in the 1980s and since then, if anything, elite class privilege has become more entrenched and greater over all in the United States. If elite schools want to produce a great leader beyond the stock Wall Street tycoon or political oligarch, they will have to examine how class is reproduced in their institutions and how race can provide a shield for the continuation of epistemologies of inequality. Furthermore, they will have to come to terms with the use of these modes of inclusion that certainly make administrators feel good about themselves but do little to change a very problematic societal status quo. It won’t do to assume a white savior posture and demand recognition for admitting more poor and minorities while shoring up the privilege of the 1%. As it stands now, these institutions are unlikely to produce a Eugene Debs, a Harvey Milk, or a Malcolm X and they did not produce Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or even a significant number of those now fighting to reduce inequality, racial disparity, and increase democracy.