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An Examination of East Coast Boarding School Culture: The Deviants
Elite East Coast boarding schools such as St. Pauls School, Phillips Academy, and Phillips Exeter are known to have steep price tags, deeply embedded institutional hierarchies, and normative rules of how to interact with one’s peers and students alike. These traditions and regulatory codes are used to groom the new generation of the privileged elite. However, certain boarding students, who come from “non-standard” racial and socio-economic backgrounds don’t come from privilege; consequently, they feel isolated from the average boarding student.According to sociologists Peter Cookson and Caroline Persell in Preparing for Power, the “standard” boarding school student is “caucasian and comes from an upper-middle class family” (Cookson and Persell, 15). In line with this definition, students who deviate from this standard are not Caucasian and stem from backgrounds that are lower than the upper-middle-class. Accordingly, this study will examine how students who don’t fit into the standard demographic background of an elite East Coast boarding school, navigate such a privileged space? Do they try to fit in? If so, what kind of adaptive tools do they utilize?
In regards to my independent and dependent variables, I generally considered the backgrounds of students as independent as they are factors the students enter the school with. Meanwhile, the dependent variables in this study are shaped by the independent backgrounds of these students. To be more precise, an independent variable would be the racial, religious, and/or socio-economic backgrounds of boarding students as such variables have already shaped their identity prior to entering their schools. In comparison, dependent variables for this study would generally include how non-standard boarding students understand and interact with East Coast boarding school culture. More specifically, these variables include: how these non-standard boarding students interact with the “standard” boarding student, if they feel socially isolated from such students, how they navigate their privileged space, and if they try to “fit” in.
As students attending a prestigious college, many of us have attended elite East Coast boarding schools. Many of us have backgrounds that either fit into this standard boarding demographic or deviate away from it. Thus, this study will resonate with certain college students who had previously navigated this boarding school space and inform high-schoolers who are currently navigating this space. It is also important for employees in higher education such as academic advisors, school administrators, and headmasters to observe and understand how certain students who come from non-standard backgrounds interact and form judgments in these spaces of privilege. This may alert such academics to the fact that the integration of students from diverse backgrounds is not as seamless as it seems.
In regards to my sociological research, I plan to draw from three differences sources of data. First, I plan to interview Georgetown students who have attended prestigious East Coast boarding schools such as St. Pauls, Phillips Academy, and Exeter. Second, I will utilize the annual reports of these boarding schools as these reports include the demographic breakdown of their student body, which would be beneficial in identifying “non-standard” minority students. Finally, I will rely on academic books such as Privilege by sociologist Shamus Khan and Preparing for Power by sociologist Peter Cookson. Khan interviews St. Paul’s students and their culture of privilege while Cookson more generally observes the elite culture present in boarding schools across the U.S
Peter Cookson also wrote an article in the Journal of Negro Education, titled “Race and Class in America’s Elite Preparatory Boarding Schools: African Americans as the “Outsiders Within”. It is a sociological study that collected samples from 55 American boarding schools to examine the African American student’s experience in American boarding schools. Cookson will ultimately argue that “African American boarding school students are trapped between two cultures and, in this sense, doubly marginalized” (Cookson and Persell, 219). Cookson relies on qualitative data of interviews with administrators, alumni, teachers, and students. He also administers anonymous questionnaires to the students of 20 of the 55 boarding schools, to analyze “respondents’ family backgrounds and their opinions on the academic climate of the school” (Cookson and Persell, 220).
Cookson’s article differs from my study in two ways: 1) he focuses solely on African American students and 2) he draws from a much larger sample of boarding schools that exist well beyond the East Coast. In comparison, my study will focus only on East Coast boarding schools and racial backgrounds that include African Americans, but also Latinos, Middle Easterns, and Asians-Americans. Nevertheless, Cookson’s theoretical findings do help inform my study, as his hypothesis, that African American boarding school students feel socially isolated from the “standard” upper-class white student, is ultimately proven correct. In other words, his study exemplifies that students who are the racial minority, in this case, African American students, feel alienated from their boarding school’s spaces of privilege. They feel an enormous pressure to “act white” and “act upper class” to try to fit into the social circle of standard boarding students. They learn “to live with and tolerate the actions of other people better… [how]to handle racial slurs and deal with very sticky questions about being Black” (Cookson and Persell, 224). Consequently, these African American students either have to artificially act in order to fit in, or otherwise feel like outsiders within this privileged space. Therefore, Cookson’s study verifies my sociological question as boarding school students who deviate from the standard (such as African American students) don’t naturally fit into their school’s culture.
- Cookson, Peter W, and Caroline H. Persell. Preparing For Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
- Cookson, Peter W., and Caroline H. Persell. “Race and Class in America’s Elite Preparatory Boarding Schools: African Americans as the “Outsiders Within”.” The Journal of Negro Education 60, no. 2 (1991), 219. doi:10.2307/2295612.
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