I’m not a huge fiction reader, but I’ve recently gotten back on the wagon and read, among other things, John le Carré’s short novel “A Murder of Quality.”
The story is set in postwar England against the backdrop of one of the country’s elite private (or, as they say, “public”) boarding schools, the fictional Carne. It’s about the murder of the wife of one of Carne’s faculty members. The victim, Stella Rode, is a Baptist from a prosperous provincial family, and her husband Stanley is a rare public school (“grammar school”) graduate teaching at Carne. He was also raised as a Baptist in the same town as his wife, but came from a family of more modest means. One of the themes of the story is the trajectory of his upward mobility: marrying the daughter of a rich local man, going to university, getting a job at Carne, and then deciding he wants to join the Church of England. He aspires to be fully assimilated into the English upper class, which is in part a question of money but also a question of manners and personal choices.
A minor character in the book, Tim Perkins, is a student whose father is an Army officer for whom the Carne tuition is a burden, but not an impossible one. Most people of his father’s means would not send their child to an expensive school, but the family has a tradition of attending the right sort of schools, so he wants his son to attend Carne and then Sandhurst, where he can follow in the family tradition of gentlemanly military service.
And this is one of the central contrasts of the book. A rich Baptist family is still Baptist, while the Perkins family can remain in the upper class despite not being particularly rich. Though if the Perkins’ financial fortunes fall further, they won’t be able to attend schools like Carne and will fall out — money and class are not completely disentangled.
Stella’s father isn’t in the upper class, despite being rich, because he’s committed to his non-conformist church. But her husband is attempting to assimilate into upper-class ways, even though nobody will forget his origins. You can imagine a world, though, in which Stella joins Stanley in the Church of England and inherits her father’s money after he dies. Then her kids would grow up with money and a Carne education in the right church and the right social circles. This is to say the class boundaries, though real, are also somewhat permeable. The tension with her husband is that Stella doesn’t really try.
Though the education provided by Carne is doubtless excellent, the real point of attending the school is to learn the expected modes of behavior of the English upper class, the manners and vocabulary that mark one as a suitable kind of person. A school is an excellent environment for inculcating that sort of thing. And what’s so striking about this to me, an American in 2022, is that while on some level it’s all very familiar, on another level it’s wildly different — Carne’s education in manners is self-consciously conservative, whereas most of elite education in the contemporary United States professes to be left-wing.
American prep schools are surprisingly woke
I went to a private high school called Dalton in New York which, at the time I attended, was known as a “progressive” school in the sense of its pedagogical philosophy. That was in contrast to a more “conservative” place like Grace Church School where I went for K-8.
That meant at the time that GCS emphasized a lot of memorization and things like cursive writing, whereas Dalton believed in a lot of independent study projects and art classes.
But these days, both institutions have become progressive in a political sense. On its website, Dalton has an extensive statement about the school’s commitment to “equity and inclusion” that seems on its face at odds with the basic reality of being a school that charges $57,970 per year in tuition. Grace Church has an even longer set of stated anti-racism principles. Both of these schools ended up facing some pushback from parents and even faculty members over some of the most far-reaching DEI initiatives that were pushed on them by consultants during the long hot summer of 2020. But things seem to have settled down somewhat since then, with the most-annoyed families leaving and most institutions toning down their investment in programs like Robin DiAngelo’s after the past two years.
To be clear about something that the discourse tends to get wrong, most private schools are traditionalist religious schools that religious parents send their kids to because they want them to get a religious education. The Fancy-Pants Prep School is a distinct kind of institution that, whether or not it has religious roots, primarily serves an elite demographic that is trying to bestow some educational advantage on its students.
And yet not only the schools I attended in New York, but Georgetown Day and Sidwell Friends here in D.C., BBN in Boston, Harvard Westlake in LA, and other major Fancy-Pants Prep Schools that I’m familiar with have gone all-in on DEI rhetoric.
The obvious question about this is why would exclusive institutions, the primary purpose of which is to provide additional advantages in life to academically talented students with rich parents, be so invested in an ostensibly egalitarian ideology?
A lot of things haven’t changed
One of the things I learned at Harvard was how to tie a bow tie. The university, as a deliberately retro move, hosted a lot of black-tie events. Kirkland House had an annual formal dance, and I believe the other houses did, too. But there were many other black-tie events linked to the arts — if you had a friend who was in a play, you might get invited to a black-tie premiere. This was after my time, but I found this article about Denzel Washington hosting a campus screening of “The Great Debaters”:
Without the small red carpet spread on the ground outside, a passerby could easily have mistaken the black-tie event at the Carpenter Center on Tuesday night for one of the House formals.
But this wasn't just another Yule Ball. Inside the center's screening room, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington premiered his latest film, "The Great Debaters," portraying the success of a black college's debate team over Harvard amid the segregation of the 1930s.
I think contemporary university administrators would struggle a little bit to explain why there are black-tie events on campus. But I can tell you that I went to more than one per year, every year, for the four years that I was a student and exactly one since graduating.
But I think le Carré could explain it just fine.
Here he’s describing the breach between Stella and Stanley Rode over whether to imitate the arbitrary norms of the upscale school:
Fielding swept his white hair from his eyes and went on, with something like the old panache: “I’ve watched her, too, at meals. Not just here, but at dinner parties elsewhere, when we’ve both been invited. I’ve watcher her do the simplest things—like eating an apple. She’d peel it in one piece, round and round till the whole peel fell off. Then she’d cut the apple and dice the quarters, getting it all ready before she ate it. She might have been a miner’s wife preparing it for her husband. She must have seen how people do things here, but it never occurred to her that she ought to copy them. I admire that. So do you, I expect. But Carne doesn’t — and Rode didn’t; above all, Rode didn’t. He’d watch her, and I think he grew to hate her for not conforming.
I have no idea what the “right” way to eat an apple is. But as Fielding is saying, whatever the right way is, it’s not difficult to observe and master it. Part of the point of a school like Carne or Harvard is that students have the opportunity to become acculturated to the arbitrary folkways of the local elite — all communities have folkways, and the British elite of this time had some kind of notion about the proper way to eat an apple.
Residential educational institutions like British public schools or American Ivy League universities are especially powerful tools for creating elite communities because they draw from an arbitrary geography. A normal community is rooted in a particular place. But Carne or Harvard can gather people from across the country, acculturate them to a specific manner of doing things, and then send them out to govern a nation.
Peeling the apple of race relations
Reading about the apples, I was reminded of a specific line from philosopher Liam Kofi Bright’s essay on culture wars as white psychodrama where he describes a certain kind of white person who “invests in lessons re sophisticated etiquette around inter-racial interactions.”
He characterizes the work of bestselling authors Robin DiAngelo and Saira Rao as dedicated to offering these kinds of lessons in etiquette, and he critiques this etiquette work as not aiming at achieving real change in material conditions, at times deliberately and explicitly so:
For white women who wish to continue the work begun at Race2Dinner (and for those who might not wish to attend), they have launched a new program called Race2-Community. An eight-week seminar led by Bond, it costs $750 and focuses on whiteness specifically. “The actual work is for you to deconstruct the things within you: whiteness,” Rao said. “Whiteness harms people of color, but worry about yourself. Stop worrying about us — that’s paternalistic, too.” Bond echoed this sentiment. “This idea that we, as white people, need to go out and make these big external actions — that’s just white supremacy,” she said. “This internal work is the hard work; it’s the work that never ends.”
Bright writes that real material change “cannot be achieved by mere change in people’s attitudes or shifting interpersonal etiquette norms.”
That’s, of course, true. And Carne and other institutions of elite reproduction that existed in the not-too-distant past didn’t claim to be advancing an egalitarian agenda. Le Carre paints a portrait of a school engaged in a self-consciously inegalitarian elitist project:
“Tell me — this fellow Rode. He’s a grammar school chap, isn’t he?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Damned odd business. Experiments never pay, do they? You can’t experiment with tradition.”
“No. No, indeed.”
“That’s the trouble today. Like Africa. Nobody seems to understand you can’t build society overnight. It takes centuries to make a gentleman.” Havelock frowned to himself and fiddled with the paper-knife on his desk.
Today things are different, and one thing you’d learn in a fancy American school is why you shouldn’t talk about the economic underdevelopment of Africa like this. You’d learn better etiquette. Or at least different etiquette — etiquette that will differentiate you from less sophisticated people who might run around saying offensive things about poverty in the Global South. For instance, a person without a proper education might refer to the countries in question as “the third world” without having read Marc Silver’s January 2021 NPR piece about why this is offensive. But to Bright’s point, speaking differently doesn’t actually change anything.
And that, perhaps, is a big part of the appeal.
The shifting code of manners
This is, I think, the best way to understand the heavy emphasis on getting people to use different words in a lot of elite educational institutions.
There was a flap recently over a memo from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work about how they aren’t going to use the word “field” anymore, which they described as part of an effort to be more inclusive:
As we enter 2023, we would like to share a change we are making at the Suzanne-Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to ensure our use of inclusive language and practice. Specifically, we have decided to remove the term “field” from our curriculum and practice and replace it with “practicum.” This change supports anti-racist social work practice by replacing language that could be considered anti-Black or anti-immigrant in favor of inclusive language. Language can be powerful, and phrases such as “going into the field” or “field work” may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers that are not benign.”
This was predictably mocked in right-wing circles, and then not-quite-as-predictably the School of Social Work got thrown under the bus by higher-level USC administrators who say it’s still okay to say “field.”
Language is arbitrary and always changing, so personally I find “getting mad at language change” to be one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics. At the same time, it’s worth just applying a little bit of common sense to the question of who is and isn’t included by saying “practicum” instead of “field.” Highly educated people and white-collar workers who spend a lot of time bored at the office staring at computer screens and reading articles are well positioned to have large and flexible vocabularies. We are used to learning new words and learning how to use them.
I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness. I know what it means to “center” something. I know that URM stands for under-represented minorities, and that we tend not to spell it out because “minorities” is out of favor. I also know what URM means (not Asians) and how URM is distinguished from BIPOC. I don’t talk about third-world countries.
I know these things in large part for the same reason I know how to tie a bow tie. And while everyone knows about Skull & Bones, I also know about Scroll & Key and can tell you which school has eating clubs. But while there may be merit to cultivating a set of esoteric practices for the sake of maintaining a national (or these days, increasingly, global) elite class that can recognize its fellow members, that’s like saying (à la John Rawls) that there may be reasons for even egalitarians to support a certain amount of inequality.
These elite institutions and codes of manners are not egalitarian, not just because manners are insufficient but because their purpose is to be inegalitarian. Changing “field” into “practicum” doesn’t include more people — it’s a new means of excluding people whose information is out of date.
> I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness.
This is just my two cents and I am aware that many or even most people at elite institutions may feel the opposite but I pretty strongly think this whole business about “POC” vs. “non-white” or “minority” is completely backwards.
First off almost nobody who is actually a racial minority describes themselves as a person of color. When someone asks me my ethnicity I don’t say “oh I’m a person of color” because that’s a) obvious at first glance and b) not an actual identity that means anything. I say “I’m Indian” or “I’m desi” depending on whether or not the person I’m talking to is also brown.
I think the whole “person of color” thing is actually what elevates whiteness by making it into the default. If some people are “of color” then it implies that other (white) people have no color. The connotation is that being not of color is normal and the default whereas being of color makes you ~different~ (this is probably not phrased in the most eloquent way but it’s 7AM).
I also think that “person of color” as a term for all nonwhites implies a certain sense of shared culture or values that doesn’t really exist. The thing I have in common with a Hispanic guy from El Paso or a Korean woman from San Francisco or an Ethiopian immigrant is that we are all not white, so why not just say that? It also just seems kind of forced to say (again, almost nobody self-describes as a “POC”) and sounds too similar to “colored person” with the words switched for my liking (though I am aware some older black people still use that term as a neutral descriptor because it was the norm when they grew up).
Hence I much prefer the terms “nonwhite” and “minority” when discussing those of us of the darker hue. (Yes I am aware than it principle “minority” could refer to many different types of minority group — racial, religious, sexual orientation — but in practice in America it clearly denotes “racial minority” most of the time.)
Re: apples, upper-class people could rely on the skins of their apples being clean (because they bought better-quality ones and because their houses had maids who kept them clean and didn't have manual workers arriving home covered in filth from their work), so they just bit into the apple.
Middle-class people, who had reliable clean water, washed their apples and then bit into them.
Working-class people peeled them because that was a sure way of removing the (potentially dirty) skin.
By LeCarré's time, the working-class had had clean running water long enough that they were starting to move to washing rather than peeling apples, but that took a long time.
My parents were born in 1944, and my (raised working-class) father peeled apples while my (raised middle-class) mother did not, though my father changed over in the 1980s.