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Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology) Paperback – October 14, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 35 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Khan's work reminds me, above all, of Arlie Hochschild's pathbreaking studies... both are bold and original thinkers. Khan's book is full of surprises, and when you read it, you will understand why snobbery is out and why ''democratic inequality'' has become the creed of the chosen. - Contemporary Sociology

[E]thnographic research into the very heart of privilege... [Khan] steps down from his pedestal and lets himself get closer to these future masters of the universe. -- Robin D. Schatz, Bloomberg News

[T]his book is beautifully written and filled with important insights into processes of socialization among the elite. I recommend this book for all scholars interested in the reproduction of inequality in U.S. society. -- Wendy Leo Moore, American Journal of Sociology

[T]he elites in Britain and in America have changed. They now appear more open. More worldly. More meritocratic. For a description of how that process works, look at [Privilege]. -- Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian

Khan's many perspectives--as a minority student in a rich WASP school, as a teacher interacting with his students, and as a researcher observing his subjects--gave him unique access to understanding the American elite... Khan's objectivity turns to pessimism as he describes the result of greater diversity, which he finds 'does not mean mobility and it certainly does not mean equality.' -- Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe

Privilege sets out to understand 'the new elite' and its place in the larger story of American education. -- Josh Rothman, Boston Globe, Brainiac

Shamus Rahman Khan has his part in loosening the knot of privilege, by analyzing America's dreams and telling us why some of them remain thwarted... Privilege is an exceptional cultural study of inequality that concentrates on elites. It is a brave piece of work, guaranteed to raise the hackles of more than a few private school trustees, administrators, faculty and parents. -- Michael D. Langan, Buffalo News

[Privilege] fills in the crucial missing piece. It's a well grounded description of the people who are the 'input' into the elite higher education system. It's a view of elite life from the 'training camp,' right before they are unleashed into American society. Highly recommended to anyone interested in stratification and education. -- Fabio Rojas, OrgTheory.net

If you want a peek inside an elite New England prep school, here it is... But while nosiness about St. Paul's is a perfectly good reason to read the book, Khan's purpose is higher. This is a book about the promise of America and how well the nation is fulfilling it. It is a book that suggests how money still trumps ideals and how a myth fostered at St. Paul's and other such schools serves a new elite class. Most usefully, the book explores why racial and ethnic diversity--a challenge that St. Paul's is meeting admirably--is not synonymous with mobility and equality... Full of valuable insights. -- Mike Pride, Concord Monitor

While the empirical meat of Privilege is from the United States, Canadian scholars of inequality and education will find this book useful. The ethnographic material is worth reading for its empirical contribution alone; but more importantly it also illustrates how the relative steepness of the U.S. postsecondary system contributes to enduring social inequalities. -- Janice Aurini, Canadian Journal of Sociology

Returning to his alma mater as faculty member and ethnographer, Khan offers an incisive study of the formation of a new, meritocratic elite... Of utility and wide appeal to a range of academics, Khan's study is consistently engaging and of potentially enduring value. -- "Choice

Essential reading for understanding today's elite. Not since Christopher Lasch's Revolt of the Elites has the meritocracy been so effectively skewered. -- Austin Bramwell, American Conservative

There are few ethnographic accounts of life in exclusive American boarding schools and Khan's book is far and away the most sophisticated among them. But the contribution of Privilege goes beyond this narrow field. Those interested in the sociology of culture, stratification, everyday life, education, race, and gender will find much to appreciate. . . . Khan is a versatile and earnest ethnographer with a sharp eye for gesture and a keen ear for dialogue. -- Victoria Bonnell, Contemporary Sociology

From the Back Cover


"Privilege is superb. Khan skillfully narrates from the perspective of both teacher and researcher, and the personal portraits are very well-rounded. This important book is a masterly look at a disturbing current in the formation of elite American society."--Richard Sennett, author of The Corrosion of Character


"This is a terrific book. Khan's strong authorial voice and wonderful personality shine through and it is a pleasure to follow his life and travails at St. Paul's."--Michèle Lamont, Harvard University


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Product Details

  • Series: Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology
  • Paperback: 248 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 14, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691156239
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691156231
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.7 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,611 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Dr. Cathy Goodwin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 26, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I love reading books that take us behind the scenes where we're normally barred from entry. And I've often envied people who got the boarding school experience. So... what's life really like at an elite school?

One of the most elite, of course, is St. Paul's Academy. Author Khan attended as a student, then returned as a faculty member and ultimately a participant-observer in an ethnographic study. The result is a book that's enjoyable - especially specific scenes - but less enlightening that one would hope. Mostly I would have liked to see a clearer organization, either chronologically with the school year or thematically. I also didn't get a clear sense of the author's premise. He seems to demonstrate that the "elite" learn how to behave or are reinforced in appropriate behavior, by both students and faculty. In particular, the school emphasizes norms of appearing "at ease" and confident.

My frustration with this book is that it's somewhere between sociology and memoir. I can't help comparing it to P.F. Kluge's book about returning to Kenyon College as a professor, over 20 years after his own graduation. Kluge shared the experiences of being at Kenyon; one of the most memorable is his chat with a colleague, a single woman who was headed home to a lonely dinner.

Khan tries to draw insights from observations. One good example involves a dialogue between a "Mrs. Brown" dorm leader and a student "Evan" who was showing off his knowledge about St Paul's just a few hours after arriving. Khan observes that the adult (presumably a faculty member) cleverly put down the young man.

We get less sense of what actually happens in classes, art studios and athletic fields. I'd have liked to get a sense of a typical day in the life of a student.
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This is an excellent ethnographic study (conducted in a top boarding school) of how the contemporary elite constructs its relationship to the world. A central argument of the book is that, with the death of the class movement and the rise of the individuality cult, elite status is now presented as a personal achievement rather than a consequence of inherited privilege. This stance is false and Khan proves why, in crystal clear writing. Many of us intuitively know already that the apple does not fall far from the tree. However, even if one is not 100% convinced by the book's material, or feels that no generalizations can be drawn from a study of a single school, however in-depth, the debate on inequality is a vital one - so many thanks to the author for keeping it alive.
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Shamus Rahman Khan studies the issue of privilege by studying students at a boarding school, St. Paul, from the point of view of a sociologist. His explanation of privilege helps to clear its meaning as the word is used way too often incorrectly. As a popular phrase of student activist and of activist in general, the phrase is given a negative connotation by implying that others have unfair advantages over others that should be redressed. Of course those under attack are none too thrilled by mobs of protestors chanting against them and they view the words tossed around as slander. Khan avoids the confusion around what privilege means by giving an objective view of what privilege is and provides reasons for why it remains invisible. He also provides reasons for how privilege has aided in ushering in a new era of "democratic inequality."

That being said a majority of conclusions in his book are based off his interaction with students and faculty. During some parts of his book his observations appear to be stretching quite a bit. Generalizations based off the observations of a selected number of students at one school can stray to the limit of stereotyping. However, important trends in the new elite youth are addressed such as "exceptional indifference" and "reading shortcuts." Overall a decent read that follows a narrative of a teacher trying to observe how St. Paul is structured for success.
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I was attracted to this book as a result of it having been mentioned in news stories about the Owen Labrie case, an interest informed by the fact that my maternal grandfather and his brother attended St. Paul's a century ago.

Unfortunately, this well intentioned book barely scratches the surface of its subject and is disappointing even if viewed on the level of memoir, consisting of a series of anecdotes strung together along the lanyard of the author's shibboleth or pet theory that the central feature of what makes an elite prevail in the present era is their sense of "ease", their nonchalant attitude and smooth adeptness in social interactions that obscures the realities of social class privilige that undergird their station in life. But Mr. Khan harps on this observation so incessantly to the point that he only succeeds in thickening the fog around this issue.

While it is worth noting that the "Chase Abbott" (think Thurston Howell III) style has been mostly abandoned by the WASP elite in recent decades, it is an entirely unremarkable outcome given the changes that have occurred in society as a whole during that time. Mr. Kahn speaks to this broader history in the early chapters of the book, but later becomes completely absorbed with opining about the implications of his anecdotes about St. Paul's without clarifying that this is a broader trend.

Wealthier Americans no longer seek to identify themselves as a patrician caste and have thus adopted a more plebeian style consistent with mass culture. Workmen no longer imitate "bourgois culture" by wearing shirts and ties as they did as late as the 1930s, rather bourgois youth now wear jeans and baseball caps.
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