PREFACE, with a slightly red face: Little did I know (or remember) when I wrote this last night that Guybe Slangen, the organizer of the very Private Schools with Public Purpose Conference referenced below, had put this very same concept into words in a piece for Independent School magazine in 2009. I strongly urge readers to have a look at Guybe’s writing, which prefigures what I have written below and adds a great deal, I think, to the case for unpacking this knapsack.
(This post is made in awed homage to the great Peggy McIntosh, whose essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” has had a lasting influence on the dialogue on race and justice in schools and society since it exploded into our collective consciousness in 1989.)
The evolution of my thinking on independent schools and their role in the larger educational community took a turn the other day as I was preparing to present with my #PubPriBridge colleagues Chris Thinnes and Laura Robertson, along with our new friend Brad Weaver, at the recent Private Schools with Public Purpose Conference in San Francisco.
In my part of the presentation, which I delivered as a talking head via Skype, I asked session participants to consider the nature and the history of independent schools’ rather charmed status on the outside of most educational regulation and beyond the reach of much local and national tax policy. In passing, I likened this to white privilege: largely unearned (more on this below) and full of free passes and hidden and not-so-hidden advantages.
In Peggy McIntosh’s famous essay, she lists a number of ways in which the unearned privilege of whiteness conveys immunity from real troubles and even casual discordance. (Others have used the trope to create analogous lists of the privileges of heterosexuality and other socially privileged statuses.)
So, as derivative (but I hope not tired) as the concept might be, here are some of the ways in which independent schools are privileged in the educational community:
- Independent schools are free to determine their own missions and develop their own values and visions.
- Independent schools can decide to raise money when they wish to, without worrying about local approval or political attitudes on property tax hikes or bond issues.
- Independent schools can hire who they want to, regardless of special licensure or certification.
- Independent schools can promote whom they want to, regardless of administrative or other special licensure or certification.
- Independent schools’ governing bodies are not determined by general elections but by self-perpetuating groups of like-minded individuals.
- Independent schools are free to determine their own criteria for student admission, honoring only the most basic tenets of certain broad Federal regulations such as IDEA, the ADA, and various civil rights laws.
- Independent schools are free to determine their own criteria for student retention and promotion, within the broadest of Federal guidelines.
- Independent schools are free to determine their own criteria for teacher retention and assignment, within the broadest of Federal guidelines.
- Independent schools are free to determine exactly how much money they wish to spend on educating each student and how much they charge each family, subject only to the their own interpretation of regional and local market forces.
- Independent schools are free to teach what they wish, in the manner they wish, subject only to state guidelines and local regulations that do not tend to impinge heavily on curriculum and assessment.
- Independent schools may, subject to compliance with state guidelines, issue their own bonds through state-sponsored authorities on terms that are favorable rates for investors.
- Independent schools may seek and expect to receive donations, large and small, from their supporters, unimpeded by regulation and with their donors given incentive by tax relief.
- Independent schools students may, subject only to broad state or regional guidelines, participate in athletic competitions and other extracurricular activities based only on guidelines or criteria for participation set by the schools themselves.
- With rare exceptions, independent schools students may learn and have their learning assessed outside of sometimes onerous state-sponsored regimes of regular standardized testing; their teachers are relieved of the obligation to prepare students for such tests and of the possibility of having their performance being evaluated by student results on such testing.
- Independent schools can be assured that their students will be disproportionately represented in the admitted pools of the nation’s most selective and prestigious colleges and universities. (An instance of privilege granted by custom and not by policy.)
- Independent schools can assume that they have a place of primacy in local and regional (and in rare cases, national) conversations about educational prestige. (Another instance of privilege granted by custom and not by policy.)
Privileges are, however, what one makes of them, and educators’ discussions around race and sexual orientation (for example) demonstrate that the effects of unconscious privilege can be mitigated by recognition and more importantly by dialogue and even training in which the ears of the privileged are attuned to bias and inequity—the assumption is that people in general recognize the benefits of a society in which the unearned advantage of a few has been neutralized in favor of true merit.
What would a similar dialogue look like that involved schools and the recognition of their privileges, many of which are etymologically literal “private laws”? How can the pernicious effects of privilege be mitigated when so many of independent schools’ advantages are established by legislation and official regulation rather than simply by custom? If independent schools can’t shake off the effects of unearned privilege simply by being wise and informed, as with racial bias and homophobia, what can we do? If the authorities insist on reinforcing our advantage, do we really even need to see this as a problem?
Sure, on a superficial plane this privilege is hardly a problem for schools. But we live in an age when we are eagerly proclaiming our “public purpose” and where “social justice” and “civic engagement” are on the tips of many, many institutional tongues. Ought we then to at least recognize that we have such privilege? Don’t we need to acknowledge that in our efforts to express our public purpose, to become places of justice, and to engage civicly, we need at least to consider the ways in which the field on which we and our students are playing is not even close to level?
And to be sure, this un-levelness is a clear impediment to our efforts to engage, as I often urge independent schools and their people to do, in symmetrical conversations about teaching and learning with our counterparts in other sectors. We need to understand not only the nature of our privileges but also their effects—and beyond that, the way in which these effects can warp our own perspectives, with the best will in the world, on issues of common concern to all educators. We have to take responsibility for that which has been thrust upon us by lawmakers and regulators, not to reject it (which we can’t really do) but to acknowledge that it affects our perspective and must force us—if we really want to engage with our counterparts and express our “public purpose”—to consider even more carefully the perspectives of others.
Independent schools do good work, and it’s probable that some of this good work is in fact a product of the freedoms that we are afforded. But in the just society that we say we want, every school should be able to do good work and every student, in every school, should be its beneficiary.
If there are advantages to the ways in which we are allowed to operate, we should be seeking these for every school and actively leading the efforts to achieve this goal. If there are things to which our privileges blind us, we ought to be seeking ways to see these more clearly.
But just to continue on, blissfully taking advantage of our relative institutional autonomy without seeing this as carrying a certain responsibility to even things out in our relations with society as whole—to be a “social good”—is to live in exactly that place of ignorance that as educators we deplore when we encounter it as privileged bias in our students, our colleagues, or in ourselves.
Gain perspective, we say; understand how privilege distorts and limits your view of the world and of others. Good advice to students, and extremely good advice to ourselves.