Skip to content
ascd logo

Join
May 1, 2009
Vol. 66
No. 8

Unlearning the Lessons of Privilege

There's an underside to the drive to be the best and brightest. How can teachers counteract it?

With less than a minute and a half remaining in the state basketball championship, Chesterfield was down 22 points. Our school's basketball team had made it to the semifinals regularly, but it had been years since we'd made it this far. It was clear that we were going to lose.
Located in the heart of the most affluent area of a midwestern city, Chesterfield is a private high school serving mostly wealthy students. The school did not normally play teams composed of low-income students. Isolation from the realities of poverty, and from poor people themselves, was characteristic of my students' lives. That evening was an exception: We were playing a team from a public school in one of the poorest rural communities in the state.
It's hard to explain how badly my students dealt with losing. For most of their lives, these youth had participated in a succession of contests to demonstrate that they were better than others. They had learned to become competitive players. Faced with certain defeat, they refused to accept it without some sort of protest. A group of boys seated at the top of the bleachers began shaking the keys to their expensive homes and cars at the players and fans of the opposing team. When the scoreboard indicated that less than a minute remained, most Chesterfield students joined them.
"You beat us now, but you'll work for us later," a Chesterfield student shouted.
"And clean my house," another jeered.
For the rest of the game, my students continued to shake their keys to communicate their privileged status. Their actions revealed a great deal about how they understood themselves and their place in the world.

Privileged Adolescents Present a Challenge

The key-jangling debacle was a troubling indication that Chesterfield wasn't living up to the goals outlined in its mission statement: to teach students high moral character, integrity, and respect for others and to prepare students to participate responsibly in the world. Throughout the three years I taught at Chesterfield, incidents like these led me to ponder two questions: How can teachers encourage affluent students to maintain positive, respectful relationships with others? and How do we get rich students to care about social issues outside their immediate experiences for which they often feel no responsibility?
Nothing in my background prepared me to answer these questions when I began teaching affluent students—something I'd never planned on. I grew up attending public schools in poor communities in Kentucky. My interest in teaching emerged from my relationship with a teacher who provided the mentoring I needed just to graduate from high school. I wanted to have the same influence on students that he'd had on me, and I imagined I would spend my career teaching students from a class background similar to my own.
Strangely enough, my interest in working with poor students led me to a private school. Chesterfield sponsored an educational outreach program for disadvantaged middle school students; I came to the school as the director of this program. Because I taught English and history at Chesterfield part of the day and worked in urban public schools during the rest, I had the unique experience of working simultaneously with poor and wealthy students.
Although I faced many struggles in teaching urban kids, I discovered that I was less prepared for the difficulties I encountered as a private school educator. My students' assumptions about others and the world around them often represented the opposite of my own beliefs, which had been powerfully influenced by growing up poor.
For example, many students assumed that they were better than people who lived in poverty and that they deserved their life and schooling advantages. I was too inexperienced at the time—and knew too little about students' privileged world—to create an instructional setting that would push these adolescents to think critically about themselves and the broader world. I saw Chesterfield students lose opportunities to learn from moments like the debacle at the basketball game, which school officials did not follow up on in any way.

Unspoken Norms and Lessons

The frustrations I faced as a teacher of affluent students, and my desire to better understand their milieu, led me to conduct a six-year, multisite ethnographic study of the lessons students at elite schools are taught about their place in the world and their relationships with others. I examined three private high schools and one public school, looking at the behavior and attitudes of 73 students, focusing closely on eight students. Through this research, I came to new understandings about teaching privileged youth, about myself as a teacher, and about the types of relationships I wanted to form with students. This closer look helped me become more prepared—and more determined—to challenge my students' perspectives.
The four schools I studied were as different as they were similar. Their communities held different political orientations, forms of social status, and relationships with local communities. Each school had its own distinctive mission, customs, policies, and ideals. They took great pride in their distinctive qualities.
Yet these schools took similar norms for granted as natural and legitimate. These norms reflected five core values—academic excellence, ambition, trust, service, and tradition. On the one hand, these values revealed the schools' definition of "excellence." Excellence was the order of the day at these institutions: Students and educators were really good at being good. An abundance of resources contributed to this high quality, although that quality was not entirely the result of the school's wealth. The confluence of dedicated, hard-working educators and motivated students contributed significantly.
But some of the values by which these schools defined "excellence" also encouraged a win-at-all-costs attitude, unhealthy levels of stress, deception, competition, selfishness, and greed. This immoral underside had the greatest effect on what students learned about life, other people, and themselves. These life lessons embraced certain unspoken perspectives, dispositions, and behaviors that reinforced students' privileged perceptions of self and others—for example, the assumption of superiority.
These lessons prevented the schools from living up to their stated goals for students, such as teaching students respect for others, preparing them to participate responsibly in the world, and getting them to think independently. Among the covert lessons I identified, three stand out.
Do whatever it takes to win. I regularly observed students acting as if their goal was to prove they were the best through such ploys as putting other students down, dominating class discussions, getting on the good side of adults, and, at times, cheating. Students were frequently rewarded for such behavior. Teachers asked aggressive students more questions, called on them more to answer questions, allowed them to dominate class activities, and gave them attention and praise.
People outside our social class are too different to relate to. These schools' admissions policies, tuition rates, and physical locations isolated students from nonrich people. Students were encouraged to go outside their bubble by getting involved in service activities, such as serving food in a soup kitchen. But from what I observed, these activities never provided the conditions necessary for stepping outside one's privileged position to develop mutual, respectful relationships with individuals from different socioeconomic classes. Even though students crossed lines in social interactions through volunteerism, most of their experiences never went beyond the traditional charity framework in a way that helped them learn from those they served or pushed them to become sensitive to the nature and needs of other cultural groups.
There's only one right way of getting ahead, so use it. Several students described their actions to gain academic success as a game. Attempting to win the favor of their teachers and participating in the right amount of service, academic, and athletic activities were some of the rules of this game; most students had spent their school years learning to play this game right. They remained too occupied with acting the "right" way to build the capacity to imagine other ways. At times, students were unable to move forward with their schoolwork for fear that they were not getting the answer they thought teachers wanted. Anxiety paralyzed them. Playing the game stifled the independent, critical thinking the schools claimed to encourage.

Alternative Lessons

Fortunately, these lessons aren't the last word: We can teach affluent students alternative life lessons. Over the course of my research, I observed moments in which teachers offered students educational experiences that challenged their privileged perspectives of life.
In instructional settings that prodded students to think about living justly and meaningfully, teachers modeled particular qualities for students. These teachers' methods don't translate into easy prescriptions for getting affluent students interested in social issues. But they show how educators can offer alternatives to privileged ways of thinking and behaving. In offering these alternative lessons, teachers began a process through which students might imagine the world beyond their immediate life experiences and broaden their understandings. Settings promoting such lessons shared the following characteristics:
Teachers modeled honesty and acceptance of failure. Teachers offered hypercompetitive students a different viewpoint simply by showing them ways to handle failure in a healthy fashion. They gave students safe spaces to make mistakes and learn from them. Teachers served as important models by being honest about what they knew and didn't know—and about times when they'd made decisions they later regretted. Thus, they upheld natural human qualities—even imperfect ones—as legitimate.
For example, to introduce a novel with the theme of making bad decisions in life, an English teacher asked students to share some of their own bad decisions. She openly shared some of her own faulty decisions and explained what she'd learned from these life mistakes.
Teachers encouraged openness to diverse perspectives. We can challenge the lessons of privilege simply by expanding the scope of what is considered worth knowing. Curriculums are not simply a collection of facts. Curriculums tell a story, from which students learn lessons about how to interact with others. In settings that encouraged openness, teachers presented different, conflicting stories, such as using Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (Harper and Row, 1980) in a U.S. history class to provide nontraditional interpretations. Teachers helped students learn from people outside their own cultural group through readings, movies, guest speakers, and trips.
A social studies teacher at a private school I observed worked with a social studies teacher at a public school serving mostly black students living in poverty. For two weeks, the two classes collaborated on a narrative history project about their city. They had to work through differing perspectives of their community.
Students engaged in hands-on learning connected to personal enthusiasms. When students spent time at school in pursuits they loved—painting, publishing a monthly 'zine of creative writing, or devoting hours to designing a virtual reality game—they weren't thinking about how these activities would help them get into a good college, nor were they focused on accumulating anything material. Instead, they were passionately committed to doing their best. Even though they experienced their deeply engaged moments mostly outside the classroom, on several occasions students struggled for understanding and strove to learn from others during class discussions or projects.
Teachers encouraged collaboration and emphasized community. In moments when students worked together—such as on the school newspaper, play rehearsals, or collaborative writing assignments—they countered the competitive nature of their schools. Certain teachers encouraged students to engage with one another meaningfully and recognize the value of cooperative learning through class projects, discussion seminars, or community service. In such projects, students built their capacity to imagine someone else's point of view and to establish and maintain supportive relationships.
Instruction encouraged students to develop the habit of critical awareness of the world. Teachers used such practices as journal writing; reflection; and deftly chosen readings, research, and observation to broaden students' awareness. They taught students to question versions of truth that teach people to accept unfairness and encouraged them to envision ways they could work toward a more humane society.
For example, an educator in a sophomore social studies class used a simulation game to teach students what it's like to struggle to pay bills, stay healthy, and pursue education while living in poverty. Other teachers used or adapted similar games to teach about globalization, factors that cause and perpetuate poverty in developing countries, and how people perceive cultural differences (for example, the game Star Power, available atwww.stsintl.com). Such simulations direct students to make decisions as if the lives of others mattered.

Confronting Resistance

As my experiences at Chesterfield taught me, sharing alternative perspectives and pushing students toward new ways of looking at the broader world doesn't always bring change. Students often enter school with a well-established sense of self. That sense of self influences how they think, how they understand, and what they know or decide not to know even when teachers present them with new information. Many students from privileged groups are socialized to accept (and defend) particular ways of perceiving the world—ways that protect their advantage.
Teachers can expect resistance to the kind of alternative lessons I'm recommending. Such defensiveness, however, can help teachers working with privileged students deepen our knowledge of these students. The better we understand our students' perspectives, the firmer footing we will have for transforming or unlearning the lessons of privilege.
End Notes

1 "Chesterfield" is a pseudonym. I began my study of four high schools while working at Chesterfield, but it was not one of the sites.

2 Howard, A. (2008). Learning privilege: Lessons of power and identity in affluent schooling. New York: Routledge.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 109027.jpg
Teaching Social Responsibility
Go To Publication