The goings-on of elite private schools have long been a mainstay of entertainment from magazine articles to teen dramas, in the United States and beyond. This is due to many writers’ personal connections to these schools, but also to the general public’s interest in the affairs of the young and posh. But in its latest installment, American cultural conversations about prep-schools have gestured at broader societal concerns. Caitlin Flanagan’s feature on parent entitlement and political correctness at private schools is The Atlantic’s cover story. Bari Weiss’s City Journal article, republished in her newsletter, which hones in on “wokeness,” captured at least media-class attention. The jarring discrepancy between elite schools’ perpetuation of inequality, and their rhetorical and curricular commitment to abolishing it, is certainly something, but what? Is it ultimately a lifestyle story about hypocrisy, but without greater resonance, or is it a sign of a genuine threat to free speech and liberal values?

Samuel Goldman, a professor of political science at George Washington University, argues that the tensions at elite private schools have broader significance, not necessarily because of hypersensitivity run amok, but insofar as they demonstrate an elite’s attempts at justifying its own status. Goldman, the author most recently of After Nationalism: Being American in an Age of Division, contextualizes these school’s contemporary travails with their earlier self-reinventions, and explains how, paradoxically, a social justice mission can be a way for an exclusive institution to maintain its status in the world.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Why does it matter what’s happening at private schools, for those who don’t happen to be affiliated with them? The hypocrisy is compelling, but it’s not self-evident why rich families paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for their children to learn that capitalism is bad is anything other than ironic. And yet Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic cover story about private school entitlement, and Bari Weiss’s article about a “wokeness” crisis at these schools, suggest something more serious is at least imagined to be going on. Is it just that it’s harmless fun to read about rich people’s foibles? Or does what’s happening with elites, now or generally, matter for society at large?

Samuel Goldman: I think there are two reasons to be interested in the controversies, which often seem like tempests in very small teapots. One is that there is some tendency of these ideas to trickle down from the rarefied circles, elite private schools, or prestige universities, into the live the rest of us. And five or 10 years ago, it was popular to dismiss the antics of campus activists as just a few kids, at a few universities, being silly. But it’s become clear since then that what happens at Harvard and Yale and even Oberlin does matter to the institutions that wield influence over the rest of our lives, whether it’s the human resources departments that are responsible for enforcing sensitivity policies, or the news outlets that decide what stories we will hear and how they will be told. The influence of elite private schools is part of that.

But the second element, and the one that’s more interesting to me, is that these situations are reflections of an existential dilemma of the 21st century ruling class, which is how they can reconcile their commitment in principle to a form of moral egalitarianism with the fact of their overwhelming wealth and power. And I think the tension between those phenomena has become so significant and so impossible to ignore that the American ruling class is suffering a kind of freak-out, and that freak-out is on display in these private schools.

Bovy: Is it a freak-out with broader consequences, or is it just compelling to watch unfold?

The Signal

Goldman: It’s a freak-out with broader consequences, insofar as any ruling class or elite has to be able to justify itself to those who it rules. One sort of pedantic, academic way of describing it to refer to Aristotle, who says that every ruling class or regime has a distinctive conception of justice. It’s not enough just to have wealth and power, you need to have a story about why that distribution of wealth and power is fair and in the interests of those who don’t have quite as much. And when the ruling class loses its ability to justify its position even to itself, then more radical social and political shakeups become conceivable.

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