Belonging In Grad School?

There’s this guy I went to grad school with who is super successful or, more accurately, he seems super successful. He talks the talk and walks the walk like he was born to it. Even though he became a friend of mine, I always found him rather intimidating in classes, at conferences, and in the hallways in the college where we both taught. I felt a palpable sense of unease around him. See, he belonged in the PhD program. And his belonging made me feel like I didn’t.

You probably know the type of person I am talking about: those stellar students who communicate an unspoken confidence in their abilities and a natural belonging in the place where they are. They seem to effortlessly glide through their programs, fulfilling an obvious destiny to achieve while the rest of us struggle and feel bad about ourselves and wonder when we’ll be revealed as the imposters that we are. I’m not talking about people who are smart (you are smart.) Nor am I talking about people who work harder than others so they deserve their status (that is just crap).

I’m talking about those who have developed a sensibility, a corporeal disposition, that allows them to be at home in places where others never quite seem to fit in. I’m talking about something that separates elites from the rest of us: ease.

How elites cultivate ease is the subject of a really great book that explains a lot about everything: Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, by Shamus Rahman Khan.

If you are interested in class and education, or why you never feel comfortable anywhere, you should drop everything and read it right now! It is a killer book.

Khan went to high school at the elite boarding school, St. Paul’s, in New Hampshire. Later, he went back to work as a teacher and to write a book about how the school trains its elite student body to become wealthy power brokers in society.

Khan’s thesis is that elites aren’t what they used to be, even though elite social status is still widely reproduced across generations. For example, he acknowledges that most “Paulies” are white kids from extremely wealthy families. But some of them are not. St. Paul’s does a good job of recruiting talented students from non-elite backgrounds, and there’s also a fair amount of racial diversity at the school. But that just proves Kahn’s point. It turns out that elites have embraced the notion that society should be fair and meritocratic. They too think people should be judged by the content of their character.

They have to distinguish themselves in other ways.

Khan’s ethnographic research illustrates that becoming elite is not about learning cognitive skills or developing a love of opera or any of the other tastes we often associate with elite culture. Cultivating privilege is about learning how to communicate ease. Elite schools help teach these upper-class students how to embody privilege, just like my grad school friend embodied belonging.

How do elite institutions (schools in particular) teach elites to display ease? They do it by teaching them to be omnivorous. Students at St. Paul’s love hip-hop music and action movies as much as (or even more than) they love classical music or canonical literature. St. Paul’s encourages such a wide range of tastes because it doesn’t teach students a subject matter or a set of skills; it teaches something far more powerful: a broad orientation towards the world. Art, music, and culture are theirs for the taking. Nothing is beyond their grasp.

Omnivorousness also means dispensing with old notions of what separates the elite from the rest of us. The adolescents featured in Privilege don’t necessarily appreciate going to the opera or eating an expensive meal; instead, they learn to see such experiences as a normal, even mundane, part of daily life. Yes, students learn which fork is the salad fork at fancy dinners. More importantly, they learn to be comfortable in situations where there are different courses and different forks in the first place. But these students also learn, Khan writes, “to converse with janitors and CEOs alike.” It’s all part of their life of ascension through the ranks of power and privilege. They will have to talk to working-class folks throughout their lives, and so they learn to do it. With ease.

While the students at St. Paul’s learn to converse with janitors and CEOs, they don’t learn to see class as a factor that determines life chances. They don’t see their extraordinary opportunities at the school as anything special because believe that they’ve earned their place there. Elite students may come from wealth, but they are convinced that they work harder than others. People who don’t enjoy their privileges don’t deserve to. “Here,” Khan explains, “the new elite seem to think much like optimistic Americans of all classes: though hierarchy may be a structure that marks the world, it is not the one that makes it. Rather, inequality is a result of the characteristics of individuals–their hard work, their choices, and even their luck.”

This mythology of merit also structures a grad student’s relationship to the institution and to the people there. Despite my discomfort around my grad school friend, he was not more successful than me (so far–he hasn’t finished yet.) I have all A’s on my transcript, and I passed my Orals exam with Honors. Believe me, I’m not saying this to brag because it all feels rather dirty to me now. Furthermore, those accomplishments have not resulted in gainful employment. I am pointing out that no matter how much success I seemed to have, or how many times I was sent the message that I was good enough and smart enough, I never believed it. And I still don’t.

Khan suggests that this belief does not indicate any deficit on my part or any authentic superiority on the part of others. It’s just that getting into grad school doesn’t mean you have the kind of ease that increases your chances of success there–or in any other place that is supposed to certify members of the professional class. Who will succeed and who won’t is already largely worked out beforehand. “When privilege is successfully embodied,” Khan writes, “the gap between them and us just seems natural, an almost inevitable result of ‘who they are.'” People get into elite institutions, graduate, and go on to get jobs because they seem like the right candidate.

So go ahead and enroll in grad school. Get that shiny PhD. Go present yourself to the academy as the smart, capable person that you are. The question is not whether anyone else will believe it. The question is: will you?


*Update: Commenter Ben of Young Urban Amateur said it better, and pithier, than I could in a bazillion word post: “sometimes it’s too late to become somebody else, and . . . the lifestyles that are sold to us can’t actually be bought.” Here here.

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3 Responses to Belonging In Grad School?

  1. Ben says:

    This post was very interesting. I stopped having conversations about this topic with people because it seems to bring out the worst in everyone (blame, self-pity, etc.) So it’s always good to see a post that deals with it reasonably. It’s a fact that some are luckier than others. It’s also a fact that most university programs were originally made by-the-elite-for-the-elite and are better understood in that context (ie sitting around and defending points about nothing all day has always been intended for people who can afford the luxury of defending points about nothing all day). If we don’t keep things like this in mind, people will end up aspiring to be part of that culture, as if it’s not something you’re reared into.

    I don’t think my post compares to yours, but I did try to deal with some of the same issues here:

    For me it wasn’t anything to do with academia, though… it was more just the realization that sometimes it’s too late to become somebody else, and that the lifestyles that are sold to us can’t actually be bought.

  2. I’m having flashbacks of meeting similar people in graduate school, and they are doing very well now. They were different from garden-variety snobs or one-uppers in that they could mingle with everyone, and professors were putty in their hands. I was envious of them because they could treat professors as equals, something I couldn’t pull off to save my life. Most people (myself included) are raised to “know their place,” but the gift of being an elite is that you can be in any social place you want.

  3. Caitlin says:

    As the spouse of a union organizer, I normally love it when someone is brave enough to say the word “class” in America. In my own postacademic journey, I am unashamed to think of my current career goals as Project Middle Class!
    But I do think it’s possible that one’s discomfort in grad school might not be a broader discomfort with all things elite. I loved being an undergrad at an Ivy (ah–to be a bud of pure potential again!) but always wanted to jump out of my skin in gatherings of academics.
    And I’m a little skeptical of Khan’s suggestion that St. Paul’s can teach you to talk to janitors. Talk *to* them, maybe, as subordinates–but definitely not talk *with* them, to the extent that you can earn their trust. My husband organizes unskilled hospital labor, mostly welfare-to-work single moms of color, and his formidable skills at winning trust and putting powerless people at ease were years in the making.
    Love the blog! Fight the good fight!

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