Last year, I took a one-year position at a private preparatory day school in the West Coast city where I live. I loved it. After a quarter-century working to repair broken urban public (i.e. state-run) schools and systems, it was refreshing to work with one that was fine-tuned and humming. But I couldn’t help seeing the place through the lens of my urban school experience and the social justice work it has involved me in. From that perspective, what stood out most vividly (besides the dazzling awesomeness of the place) was a certain perversity in how the school approached diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and social justice, in light of the students and families it served. In fact, following the conventional DEI scripts seemed to be undermining its efforts to promote social justice by failing to leverage its most abundant asset: its privilege.
Like most schools working to diversify, this one launched a DEI initiative and hired a full-time DEI director to lead it. They put a lot of effort into making students of color and gay and gender non-conforming students feel safe and welcome while equipping them with the critical vocabulary they need to remain vigilant against the intersectional identitarian threats they confront. They put equal effort into teaching white, male, cishetero students and staff how to check their privilege, identify their blind spots and ally with their marginal peers against white supremacy, patriarchy and homo- and transphobia. The faculty handbook’s chapter on gender inclusion runs to nearly four pages: it’s the longest chapter in the 30-page guide. Faculty and staff name tags include preferred pronouns. In summer 2019, the teachers were reading Margaret Hagerman’s White Kids, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s Blind Spot and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. We participated in school-sponsored DEI and anti-bias trainings. When the COVID pandemic forced the school to go virtual in spring, the DEI director issued guidelines on how to proactively mitigate any psychological harm students might suffer in an online environment, from anti-Asian cyber-bullying to the embarrassment less wealthy students might feel over peers catching glimpses of their homes via webcams. The school, in short, takes DEI seriously and pursues it scrupulously.
The school also espouses a corresponding commitment to social justice. In 2019, it completed a two-year overhaul of upper school humanities and social science curricula that aligned courses with antiracist precepts. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, the school’s diversity task force organized a day-long symposium on systemic oppression and strategies for resistance. The elective curriculum included courses examining public policy through the lenses of race, class and gender. A planned virtual ceremony for graduating seniors was rescheduled to accommodate families who wanted to participate in a march to protest the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.
Meanwhile, the students were stressed. They faced intense competitive pressure for college and a fraught future characterized by economic uncertainty, civil unrest and environmental degradation—all portending a very real risk of downward social mobility. I was brought in to help develop strategies to mitigate students’ angst and help them graduate feeling competent, confident and resilient. I came to see the school’s use of conventional social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion approaches as part of the problem.
Any serious application of social justice or diversity, equity and inclusion theory ought to challenge private schools’ right to exist, because they are inherently segregative and exacerbate social stratification. They charge tuition, can select students based on academic performance and cultural fit, and can expel students who struggle or misbehave. These features inevitably favor students from wealthy families who enjoy significant parental support and whose parents have high expectations of them, and who also benefit from the cognitive advantages and social capital that come of being born and raised in such families. By sending their children to private schools, families also deprive state-run schools of social and intellectual capital, thereby further disadvantaging the students who attend them. If private school leaders truly adhered to the principles of social justice as understood by those of us in state-funded education, they would voluntarily and permanently shut down en masse, forcing families to take their children and social capital back into government-run schools.
DEI initiatives don’t cut it as a response. Private prep schools enroll a tiny fraction of the US school population. Swapping out a portion of the white technocratic elite for a black and brown technocratic elite may change the complexion of the technocratic elite, but does nothing to integrate society or equalize educational opportunity at a larger scale.
All private school students—irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or family income—are privileged by virtue of whatever circumstances got them into such schools. Yet the school—nearly 50 percent of whose pupils were people of color (many of them immigrants or children of immigrants) and which enrolled a sizable number of LGBT students—had internalized conventional social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion lenses and language, thereby conditioning half or more of its students to see themselves as victims of systemic oppression and the other half to view themselves as their oppressors. If there was an equally intentional and sustained effort to help all students recognize and reckon constructively with their common privilege as the children of parents with the resources to send them to a private school, I did not notice it.
The conventional SJ/DEI approach seemed to be adding to the angst the school’s leadership was trying to ameliorate. SJ/DEI provides students with some useful heuristics for critically examining their world and their places within it. But the relentless application of those heuristics over time tends to provoke negative emotions, such as anger, guilt, self-righteousness and defensiveness; a dystopian gloom that tends alternately toward symbolic gesturing and impotent despair; and a therapeutic mindset that sees us all—both oppressors and oppressed—as warped or broken by the dystopian systems we’re trapped in. The school’s SJ/DEI ethos was by no means the sole cause of student angst, but it certainly wasn’t helping.
Thus the conventional language of oppression and privilege blinded students to their own privilege, while a critical discourse that’s supposed to lead to empowerment was fueling feelings of helplessness. There has to be a less self-defeating way to encourage privileged children to recognize and reckon with their good fortune amid the world’s injustices.
Better Social Justice Frameworks
Whatever skeletons may be buried in the closets of individual private schools, despite their well-earned popular reputation as bastions of moneyed white privilege, many of the old private boarding schools were founded out of parental anxiety about their children’s privilege and its potential effects on their physical and moral development. Hence, the barrack-like sleeping quarters, cold showers, vigorous exercise regimens and stern discipline characteristic of boarding schools like Groton and Choate in the nineteenth century, with their biblically based moral codes that emphasized selfless service. The old boarding school ethos was bound up with the ideology of muscular Christianity and its commitment to patriotic duty, discipline, self-sacrifice and physical vigor. School cultures were also informed by a civic republican ethos of public virtue in service to the common good. We blush today at the mention of these ideologies, accustomed as we’ve become to associating them with slaveholders, imperialists and brawny white men with bushy sideburns. Those ideologies nonetheless shaped private school cultures that promoted public-spirited ideals. Like its peers, Phillips Andover no doubt had more blind spots in the nineteenth century than an advanced glaucoma patient. But one hears unmistakable echoes of contemporary SJ/DEI values in its founding aspiration to take in “youth from every quarter” and teach them “goodness” along with knowledge, under the motto non sibi—“not for self.”
So, outré historical associations notwithstanding, there is a usable past for private schools to draw on. This history reminds us that today’s private school SJ/DEI aspirations reflect an evolution rather than a revolution in how such schools define and implement their social and educational missions. Whatever revulsion they feel when they look back at themselves 50 or 150 years ago reflects progress that deserves to be highlighted and celebrated. Self-criticism helps drive that progress, but such criticism shouldn’t occlude recognition of what has been achieved.
This history also reminds us that back in the day private schools exuded confidence, which they sought to instill in their students. Sure, confidence can slide all too easily into arrogance. But ceaseless self-denigration or self-pity (depending on which side of the SJ/DEI villain–victim dichotomy you fall) can just as easily lead to impotence. There’s something to be said for acknowledging one’s privilege with gratitude rather than guilt, owning it and pledging to put it to good use. “To whom much is given, much is required,” wrote the evangelist, and there’s much to be said for the maxim. Making students feel guilty about the status they were born into or, conversely, teaching them to deny their privilege and see themselves as oppressed, hardly seems like the most effective way to prepare them to face the world resolutely and use their talents to improve it.
Private schools would do well to tap into contemporary liberal and civic republican traditions that handle questions of identity, inequality and basic justice with less pessimism and more pragmatism than one finds in the critical theories that inform conventional SJ/DEI. No credible theory of political economy, for example, denies that inequality is a fact of life—and even a good thing as long as it serves the goal of productivity, innovation and improved standards of living for everyone. The question for political philosophy then is how to order society so that the efforts and advantages of the talented and privileged promote the well-being of the less talented and underprivileged. Basic stuff, and deftly addressed by thinkers representing North Atlantic intellectual traditions that evolved outside the dour confines of critical theory. These justice frameworks demand self-examination and socio-historical critique. But they start with an unflinching acknowledgement that students have been born into a world with many injustices and that those born into privilege bear a disproportionate obligation to devote a share of their talent, time and treasure to mitigating or solving them.
These alternative frameworks would enable private schools to send students a more affirming and inspiring social justice message:
Congratulations. You were born wealthy, smart and/or uniquely talented. Celebrate and cherish your good fortune. Strive to develop it to its fullest potential and enjoy its benefits. But always remember that you were born lucky. Your luck has been nurtured within political, social, economic and physical systems that pre-exist you and have been built and sustained by millions of others who preceded you, most of whom weren’t born so lucky. That means you have a special obligation to sustain and improve those systems so that they work to ensure that others can develop their fullest potential and live dignified lives. This isn’t charity, and it’s not discretionary. It’s your responsibility. What progress has been made toward creating a fairer, healthier and more prosperous world was made by people like you. Live up to that legacy. Do your share.
This approach would address private schools’ social justice goals in a way that leverages and justifies their status as elite institutions.
Affirming Institutional Identity and Mission
What of schools’ DEI goals? Some conventional DEI scripts can remain more or less intact. Teach kids to avoid microaggressions; eschew whatever words, costumes or cultural borrowings might reasonably offend other kids; respect each other, irrespective of race, religion, sex, gender or sexual preference. But replace DEI’s trauma-based, condemnatory approach with this affirmative one: This is what human dignity demands. It is what we value, who we are. These are our policies, and we will enforce them. If you can’t abide by them we invite you to look elsewhere. Private schools don’t have the state-run schools’ burden of having to mediate and manage the bigotries their students and families might bring with them. They can be inclusive, in part, because they’re exclusive.
The phrase “who we are” may sound imperious. While it can be used to enshrine a DEI-friendly culture without a lot of ritualized hand-wringing and finger-pointing, it can also block recognition of the ways in which this is who we are can perpetuate implicit biases that keep diverse teachers and families away. If a school has social traditions that are prohibitively costly for financial aid recipients, culturally insensitive mascots or annual homecoming rituals that include cheerleaders serving as slaves to football players on game day, those things should be reconsidered no matter how integral to the school’s identity they may seem.
But not all questions of institutional identity reflect mere bias, and private schools must recognize this in order to effectively resist SJ/DEI shaming tactics. A school that has a classical curriculum or civic republican culture may turn off potential faculty of color trained to regard such features as white supremacy, or dissuade parents who think their children would be better served in a more psychologically protective environment. But those aren’t sufficient reasons for abandoning the curriculum or changing the culture. Sometimes inclusion means inviting newcomers to become one of us. A school may choose to convert from a classical to an anti-racist curriculum, and doing so may attract more families and teachers of color. But it has no moral obligation to do so. A school just needs to be clear and articulate about why it believes the kind of education and climate it offers is relevant, vibrant and conducive to helping students live ethical, meaningful lives. SJ/DEI activists don’t have to accept that rationale as long as reasonable people and prospective families do.
Conventional SJ/DEI approaches may be inappropriate for private schools for three reasons: 1) They logically deny the very right of private schools to exist; 2) the emphasis on intersectional oppressions among students occludes recognition of the privilege inherent in being a private school student; and 3) the dystopian outlook and fatalistic therapeutic mindset that characterize SJ/DEI-based institutional cultures are not conducive to cultivating civic-minded leaders ready and willing to serve others with confidence and gratitude.
I therefore propose three alternative sources for private schools’ SJ/DEI goals: 1) their own founding traditions of inclusion and service to the public good, suitably revised and updated; 2) contemporary justice frameworks that emphasize the social obligations of those born into privilege, without demonizing or shaming them; and 3) models of inclusion that distinguish the antiquated and expendable from the distinctive, vital and integral.
Is this elitist? Maybe. This approach implies that privilege is OK and that those born to it have distinct educational needs and roles to play in society. Some of the associated school traditions—civic republicanism, muscular Christianity—have a faint whiff of noblesse oblige. But there’s no reason to be proud of having won the birth lottery. Privilege is unearned and to a large degree socially and historically constituted, which implies obligations to apply a portion of that privilege toward improving the lives of the underprivileged. We need education not in victimization but virtue, not in hubris but humility—an education that inspires students to create a better world and equips them with the resilience and generosity of spirit to do so.