The Power of Privilege

 

Students become collaborators in Professor Adam Howard's study of affluence and education

By Stephen Collins '74
Photography by Jeff Pouland
 

In his course on the role of social class in education, Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard asked students to become coauthors for a book about how privilege works in schooling.
In his course on the role of social class in education, Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard asked students to become coauthors for a book about how privilege works in schooling.

Last February, at the first meeting of the course Social Class and Schooling, Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard unveiled his plan. All 23 students were going to be his collaborators on a book about privilege and educational achievement. Publication all but guaranteed.

The opportunity? Each student would get coauthor credit on a research-based social science book. The cost? A boatload more work than anyone signed up for when they registered for Education 322.

Howard made his expectations clear and suggested that those not up to the challenge should drop the course then and there. Nobody bailed.

Four months later, with results of the semester’s work in hand, Howard was getting up early to work on the book, more excited about the project than ever. Students said they worked harder, learned more, and got far more out of the course than they had anticipated.

Howard, who studies the role of social class in education, has taken a different tack than most scholars in that field. Instead of focusing on the challenges faced by underprivileged students, he researches and writes about affluent youth. He goes beyond the dominant narrative—that privilege is only about the advantages that one group has over another—to research privilege as a part of someone’s identity.

Privilege isn’t a commodity, it’s a way of understanding oneself and others and it affects how we act, he maintains. Howard’s previous books are Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling, which he published in 2008, and Educating Elites: Class Privilege and Educational Advantage, published in 2010, which he coedited.

This year he got his class to help research the next book by conducting interviews with high school students from affluent families around the country. Their goal was to tease out how social inequalities are created and maintained—how a privileged teenager’s identity development results in advantages in school and in life.

In the education course Social Class and Schooling, Annie Chen ’12, Hillary Rowse ’12, and Andrew Rhoads ’14 (left to right) consult as they review transcripts and prepare to write up findings from their interviews with a secondary school student from an affluent background.
In the education course Social Class and Schooling, Annie Chen ’12, Hillary Rowse ’12, and Andrew Rhoads ’14 (left to right) consult as they review transcripts and prepare to write up findings from their interviews with a secondary school student from an affluent background.


One of the themes the student researchers found is a correlation between the subjects’ economic status and their confidence, and Howard says that link may become the focus of the book.
Along the way, Colby students learned how high the standards are for social science research, how hard an editor (Howard, in this case) will push a writer, and how important it is to get it right when what you’re writing is going to end up in a book.

“It gave you a different sort of motivation because it was no longer just for a grade,” said Anna Caron ’13. “It was for distributing research in the real educational literature stream.”

As he planned the research, Howard recognized that his students at Colby could play a critical role in helping to formulate and ask questions. Unlike their professor, who grew up poor in rural Kentucky, many of his students came from privileged circumstances. They had the social and cultural capital to know the world they were about to study, how to frame the questions and interpret the results.

The Colby students’ understanding of the topic and the literature on social class and educational achievement was the primary goal of the course. “We spend a significant amount of time trying to wrap our minds around this notion of social class, because you want to make it about more than just money,” Howard said.

But the goal of turning the research into a book raised the stakes and the standards. “They were traumatized,” Howard said, recalling when he outright rejected first drafts that were 22 pages long. “They got over it. ... They produced good work.”

The work continues. Howard will interview an affluent high school student in Malaysia this summer, and two of the students who graduated in May are listed in the catalogue as research associates so they do additional interviews. Howard, the lead author, will also write about the experience of the Colby students “negotiating privilege” (a working title for their book)—seeing their own circumstances in a different light as they gained insights into how social class works in society.

Howard noted the Colby students saying things like, “Wow. When I was interviewing these people, I was thinking about myself.” Just the type of epiphanies he hoped for. “It connected. Better and more so than I expected.”

Which isn’t to say all the Colby students came from privilege. Caron, a rising senior, talked about her experience growing up in an underprivileged, single-parent family in New Hampshire and later Houlton, Maine. Her mother struggled, working three jobs to support four children, all of whom are now in college, “All four on financial aid,” she said. “I’m on the fullest financial aid you can get at Colby.”

“One of the themes we found in all five of the subjects [the high school students they interviewed]” Caron said, “was, ‘If you work hard you will succeed.’” The privileged students consistently said that people have what they deserve based on how hard they have worked, ignoring all evidence of how affluence provides access to elite preparatory education, which leads to the best colleges, which leads to privilege in subsequent generations.

She was struck by the uniformity of that view among privileged people—the research subjects and her fellow Colby students as well. “It was like it was rehearsed almost. The same answers. And everyone had a certain confidence in how they talked about privilege.”

Enthusiasm for the project didn’t abate with the end of classes. Howard said nine students, many of them 2012 graduates, want to present their research at national conferences with him.
And he was not only confident of getting a prestigious publisher, he looked forward to the impact of the research. “Private-school teachers—they’re going to use this book,” he said. “What we hope for is that it influences practices.”

 
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