The past few years have witnessed much upheaval in the name of political reckoning. Is the pendulum swinging back to tradition? We have seen over and over in recent years that privilege is in crisis. Undone by guilt, jittery about an authority it is not eager to relinquish, lost in internal conflicts and contradictions; the claim has earnestly worked to rebrand itself, alienated its longstanding constituents, backtracked, corrected, and wrung its hands.
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One of the clearest views into the confusion has come from the debate and transformation taking place at elite private schools, some of the most elite institutions in America. In 2016, for example, messages written in black Sharpie appeared on the walls of a bathroom at New York’s Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. The messages were hateful and racist, and they provoked a public reckoning.
In response, Dalton hired an outside firm to review its policies and procedures around diversity and inclusion. The school also adopted a new curriculum that included lessons on race and racism.
But two years later, some students and parents at Dalton felt that the school had not gone far enough. In May 2018, more than 100 students staged a walkout to protest what they saw as a lack of progress on issues of diversity and inclusion. And in November 2018, nearly 200 alumni signed an open letter criticising the school’s handling of the racial problems.
The letter, published in the school’s alumni magazine, said, \”We are deeply troubled by the lack of progress Dalton has made on becoming an inclusive community. We are also frustrated by the administration’s unwillingness to listen to the concerns of students, parents, and alumni about these issues.”
It is not just at Dalton where we see this pattern play out. Similar controversies have erupted at other elite private schools, such as St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and trinity School in New York City.
In each case, elite institutions are confronted with demands for change from those who feel excluded or marginalised by the status quo. And in each case, the institutions struggle to respond in a way that is both true to their values and responsive to the needs of all their constituents.
This tension is not new. It is, in fact, a defining feature of privilege. Privilege is defined by its exclusivity, insularity, and self-perpetuating nature. It is built on the idea that some people deserve more than others, and some are entitled to more.
This hierarchical view of humanity has always been in tension with America’s egalitarian ideals. But in recent years, as America has become more diverse and interconnected, this tension has become a sharp relief.
On the one hand, we are growing aware of how privilege reinforces inequality and injustice. On the other hand, we have an ever-expanding definition of what it means to be an American.
This tension is playing out in our politics, culture, and economy. It is a tension that is likely to continue for some time. And it is a tension that elite private schools are struggling to navigate.
So far, they have not always been successful. But as these institutions find themselves at the centre of America’s ongoing conversation about privilege, they have an opportunity to lead the way in finding a new way forward.
What do you think of this article? Do you believe our elite private schools do enough to reckon with privilege? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
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