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Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling

reviewed by Jane Van Galen - October 17, 2008

coverTitle: Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling
Author(s): Adam Howard
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415960827, Pages: 296, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

In recent decades, we have learned a great deal about the complicated relationships between schooling and social class.  

Anyon’s (1980) classic study casts light on the very different forms of school knowledge available to children from different social class backgrounds. Scholars such as Willis (1977) and Weis (1990) have illuminated ways in which young people are not simply socialized to ascribed roles in school but instead, with some measure of agency and resistance, contextualize school within the broader circumstances of their lives. Lareau (2003) and Brantlinger (2003) have documented the place of out-of-school experiences in maintaining class advantage.

More recently, we have learned about social identities formed at the complicated intersections of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality (e.g., Bettie, 2003; Hill Collins, 1990; hooks, 2000; Skeggs, 1997; Walkerdine, 2003). Many scholars now understand class less as a categorical construct based on occupation than as a relational position, embodied through thousands of social negotiations in everyday life (Reay, 2005), negotiations typified, according to Sayer (2005, p. 1) by “condescension, deference, shame, guilt, envy, resentment, arrogance, contempt, fear and mistrust, or simply mutual incomprehension and avoidance” as we cross class boundaries.

Understanding the formation of class identities via school is further complicated by recent economic and cultural shifts. Schools now prepare young people for labor markets far more volatile, more technologically complex, and more stratified than the relatively clean occupational categories within which Anyon framed her analysis a generation ago. Few of those fifth graders likely ever did eventually don hard hats as adults; fewer still are experiencing the relatively stable career trajectories of their parents.

And while the cultural markers within which Willis’ “Lads” grew up were local and grounded in class, their children are growing up within multifaceted global consumer and media cultures in which identity is, essentially, “up for grabs” (Willis, 2004, p. 185).

Within these shifting conceptualizations of class, identity and schooling, Adam Howard sets out to study identity construction among privileged young people, through research reported in Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling. Howard’s goals for his study are timely:

Privilege comprises more than the school and life advantages that individuals have; it is a crucial part of individuals and the self-understanding that they both inherit and recreate. This critical approach allows us to elaborate and extend our understanding of the available cultural processes and meanings individuals use to construct a privileged identity. We can extend, in other words, beyond commodified notions that divert attention from, and protect, the concealed and sophisticated processes involved in the cultural protection of privilege. (p. 31)

The book is based primarily on data collected between 1997 and 2001 in three high schools in the Midwest: two private and one public. In each school, Howard conducted multiple observations within a single classroom, attended school events, and conducted the usual range of interviews. He references informal contacts with other private schools and their constituents.

While Howard’s research questions are about sophisticated cultural processes of identity construction, his literature review draws primarily on studies of how schools contribute to the reproduction of inequality (citing even an early work of Bourdieu to establish that schools are the primary site for socialization to unequal social positions). Essentially, then, Learning Privilege is a book about school. Included are several detailed transcriptions of individual classroom sessions and lengthy analyses of these class meetings, grounded in his considerable knowledge of the critical literature on schooling. Yet we hear surprisingly little from the students themselves about how they interpret the school traditions, policies and practices that Howard meticulously details as central to the formation of privileged identities.

Consequently, this book seems less a study of the cultural processes involved in the construction of a privileged identity as a meticulous account of how schools are structured for young people occupying a (commodified) privileged status.

Readers will not find a nuanced analysis here of class stratification within these schools. He draws no distinctions between heirs to multi-generational fortunes, the children of newly rich dot-com workers (many of whom, given the years during which data was collected, were about to experience precipitous falls), and the offspring of humanities professors. All the white students are presumed to be speaking in one voice. All are rendered here within a single dimension: they are “privileged.” Indeed, relative to the students in the urban education literature that Howard cites extensively, they are privileged. But that is not his question. The construction of privileged identities involves far more than sustaining collective advantage over distant “others.” It also involves, for some, “cultivating differences” (Lamont & Fournier, 1992) from aspirants to one’s exclusive social status; for others, identity is constructed within experiences of persistent exclusion from circles of wealth and power just beyond one’s reach (Bourdieu, 1984). As the wealthy grow ever wealthier, for example, even the materially comfortable middle class grows more anxious as they now must compete, with fewer resources, for jobs and other social goods (Frank, 2007). In Learning Privilege, privilege is binary: you are or are not. Some of the analysis, then, is a bit simplistic. We don’t learn, for example, about how students use their different levels of social capital to negotiate status among peers. We read, instead, that “parents have transmitted social capital [to their children] by informing them of the value of college” (p. 60). These schools are explicitly designed to prepare students for limited positions within exclusive social worlds. Readers may wish for richer analysis of the full range of social negotiations within which these young people – who may have little in common beyond the ability to pay private school tuition - navigate status relative to one another.

Such binaries also limit his discussions of the students of color in these schools. From his literature review to his analyses of student interviews, Howard persistently conflates race and class. He concedes no measure of privilege within the emerging social identities of the sons and daughters of wealthy African Americans enrolled in affluent private schools. While there can be no question that racism shapes the daily existence of even the most affluent students of color, these schools could also potentially be rich sites for exploring how upper-middle class people of color make sense of their distinctive power and affluence, how class and gender play out within emerging racial identities, how wealthy students of color make sense of the presence of the low-income white scholarship students in these schools (Moss, 2003) who are mentioned as comprising approximately half the scholarship students, but who are never introduced. The potential for exploring nuanced and possibly contradictory formations of identity at the intersections of race, class, and gender is unfortunately not realized.

Similarly, the book’s analysis of gender dynamics in these schools is curiously devoid of talk about class privilege. The main discussion of gender is framed around a single class session in which a chatty young woman is dared by male peers to stop talking for a whole period. Perhaps too obviously, Howard interprets this incident within the literature on the “silencing” of girls in school. Yet we need not deny sexism to acknowledge the relative power of the women in the lives of many of these students  – women who, unlike their poor and working-class sisters, sit on the boards of foundations, manage businesses, organize complex charitable events, and insist upon deference from their children’s teachers. Classroom gender dynamics would seem to hold different consequences across class borders. From the lengthy analysis of this single class session, we learn little of the trajectories from the high school to the social role of self-possessed, “affluent” white woman.

Most curiously of all, perhaps, we learn very little about how these young people make sense of their social status outside of school. Instead, in an unusual chapter, two students from a private school and one from a working-class public school talk at some length about one another.   Oddly, these students have never met. Howard has told the students about one another and then recounts, at length, the meaning that they give to what they know of one another only through him. We learn little about the meaning that they bring to their routine encounters with service workers, youth from other schools, or even less well-off relatives, but certainly, such actual encounters are part of the fabric of coming to understand their own status.

Learning Privilege solidly confirms that middle and upper-middle class students attend schools that envelop them in rich social and cultural capital. We have far too little such research on those occupying the upper rungs of social stratification. We still have much to learn, however, about how these young people, with their own measure of agency and resistance, then contextualize school within the broader circumstances of their lives, at the intersections of multiple social identities.


Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162, 67-92.

Bettie, J. (2003). Women without class: Girls, race and identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. (Translation by Richard Nice). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brantinger, E. (2003). Dividing class: How the middle class negotiates and rationalizes school advantage. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Frank, R.H. (2007). Falling behind: How rising inequality harms the middle class. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Hill-Collins, P. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness and the politics of empowerment. London: Harper Collins.

hooks, b. (2000). Where we stand: Class matters. New York: Routledge.

Lamont, M., & Fournier, M. (1992). (Eds.). Cultivating differences: Symbolic boundaries and the making of inequality. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lareau, A. (2003).  Unequal childhoods: Class, race and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moss, K. (2003).  The color of class. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Reay, D. (2005). Beyond consciousness? The psychic landscape of social class. Sociology, 39, 911-928.

Sayer, A. (2005). The moral significance of class. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class and gender. London: Sage.

Walkerdine, V. (2003). Reclassifying upward mobility: Femininity and the neo-liberal subject. Gender and Education 15(3), 237-248.

Weis, L. (1990). Working class without work: High school students in a de-industrializing economy. New York: Routledge.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to labor. New York: Columbia University Press.

Willis, P. (2004). Twenty five years on: Old books, new times. In N. Dolby & G. Dimitriadis (Eds.), Learning to labor in new times (pp. 167-196). New York: Routledge Farmer.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 17, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15421, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:52:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Jane Van Galen
    University of Washington, Bothell
    E-mail Author
    JANE VAN GALEN is Professor of Education at the University of Washington, Bothell. Her recent publications include, as editor, Late to Class: Social Class and Schooling in the New Economy (SUNY Press, 2007) and Trajectories: The Social and Educational Mobility of Education Schools from Poor and Working Class Backgrounds (Sense Publishers, In Press). She is the Series Editor for Sense Publishers' new Mobility Studies and Education book series.
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