Somewhere under the thick cocoon of academic writing (if you had “performative” in your fantasy vocabulary draft for this book, you win) about how social inequality is perpetuated at St. Paul’s school, there is an interesting Harper’s article struggling to get out.
With the consent of the school administration, this sociologist who is an early nineties alum is embedded as a teacher to study inequality at the school. Virtually every anecdote first hand from the students is interesting. His digressive meditations about them are not.
Worse, it’s hard to know what he’d like to see St. Paul’s do about the problem he’s identifying. He recognizes they are, indeed, more or less on the same page: “Some of the most adamant defenders of the moral imperative of an open society that I have met are to be found among the faculty, admissions officers, and administrators of St. Paul’s School.”
So do we need extensive lectures on how problematic seating arrangements for students and faculty are in chapel, which is really the school meeting? Or some faux scholarship: “From the earliest incarnations of Christianity, having a seat has marked the importance of a community member; such sitting was an expression of power and the position from which teaching was done. When Jesus gave the sermon on the mount, he did so sitting down.” Well.
Students he says are indifferent to the staff that serve them. But, wait, if they talk to them, is that worse? “If you can chat with the cashier or trade jokes with the janitor, then you obscure the categorical distinctions essential for durable forms of inequality.”
Readers interested in learning about inequality on campus, how it is lived are better off with Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep.
I consider this a two star book. However, there is an underlying clarion call, which relates not to inequality, but excellence. There are many anecdotes about widespread…even universal? academic laziness and indifference amongst the future leaders of government, business and academia. This at the very least doesn’t comport with the school’s image. He seems befuddled anyone even bothers to try to do liberal arts at St. Paul’s. He is less impressed with the efforts by students when they do.