For years, schools have been redoubling efforts to ensure that they are diverse, equitable, and inclusive institutions. Yet we are continuously falling short. Time and time again, we promise ourselves that we will provide professional development so faculty can be culturally competent and promote cultural competence in our students; be more diverse in our admission and hiring (often this includes the hiring of diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders); and change our curricula, maybe even institute some specific anti-racist and anti-bias curriculum.
I’ve been hearing about these kinds of resolutions for nearly 20 years—30 if I count my time as a student—and long before the collective outrage that we witnessed about the murder of George Floyd. I have participated in “think tanks,” “task forces,” and other grandly named committees, the creation of which were at times the product of grassroots faculty or family initiatives, and, at other times, initiatives started by the administration. And I think we all agree that the overall experience of our students has improved. Yet we have to accept that our schools remain profoundly unequal social spaces and that only a handful of independent schools have enacted and sustained changes long enough to produce self-replicating outcomes. The small number of students, faculty, and administrators of color in our schools shows that we are profoundly unlike the rest of America.
We’re the first to call out police violence as a significant cog in the machinery of white supremacy and agree that radical measures are necessary to safeguard the lives of all our citizens. Yet, we are only willing to look at our own schools superficially and call for applying the same ideas that have produced measurable but not transformative progress over decades, such as reviewing the curriculum, forming faculty reading or discussion groups, bringing speakers to school, and so on. Indeed, a cottage industry of consultants and speakers has grown to promote these approaches. In our problem-solving, we are jumping to action without having the courage to look at ourselves realistically and ask: What role do our schools play in the system of white supremacy?
This is not to say that the solutions so often proposed are to be set aside; they are excellent ideas, and when put into practice, they have improved the student experience. But they only provide palliation, not a cure. We have fallen short because we assume the problem is cultural rather than more broadly systemic; through the cultural lens, inclusion is about winning hearts, as though racism is just about bad or ignorant people. When we, as schools, confront our own roles in systemic racism—when we take that step—we are asking first-order questions. We are asking: What is our purpose?
Hierarchy and ROITo look at ourselves honestly means to ask: Why are our schools here? The raison d’être of independent schools has been, and continues to be, that of advancing the interests of those who already have privilege—to provide a return on investment (ROI) to those who have sufficient disposable income to afford independent school. To put it differently, our main job is to preserve the social status quo or reproduce the elite; this class-bound purpose results in a hierarchical view of the world in which our students are destined for leadership. In our mission statements, the idea that we are creating leaders is almost universal. On their face, these statements provide a binary and hierarchical understanding of society, one in which there are leaders and followers, and we are teaching the leaders.
When looking at the history of our institutions, this hierarchical outlook is quite apparent. Many leading independent schools were either founded or reformed during the Progressive Era—a period characterized by competition for leadership in America by established and emerging social groups. In that era, a Darwinian outlook of society took hold, which gelled the concept of white supremacy, among other things. At that time, both Endicott Peabody and Frank Hackett, leading figures of the modern boarding school and country day school movements, promoted a kind of noblesse oblige, a worldview that accepts and perpetuates existing social hierarchies while promoting social good. This social good, however, was directed by individuals who had accumulated means and access. Andrew Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth” is one formulation of this outlook. And this outlook is no mere historical curiosity related to the founding of some independent schools. When we look at our schools’ service programs, the idea of “giving back” is ubiquitous. Yet we fail to discuss or even question how much taking is appropriate.
When we reflect on the concept of ROI in independent school education, we can glimpse how our schools reflect this thinking. Families send their kids to our schools, and we must prove that we are better than local public or other school options. In other words, we ask the majority of our families to give us financial support so that their kids can get more—not necessarily different—than what their taxes pay for; the “more” is the ROI. Following this line of reasoning, our schools provide an educational advantage to those who have sufficient resources to obtain it. Then, we ask our families and alumni to give back through philanthropic support, which allows us to give access to those unable to afford an independent school education.
Furthermore, this hierarchical worldview permeates our practices—from grading to sports, we promote hierarchies cemented on ability, access, and popularity, among other things. By viewing race problems in our schools in purely cultural terms, we are articulating our hope that we will promote some hierarchies while erasing other hierarchies based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. But as we know, hierarchies intersect and sustain each other.
We fail to be equitable, diverse, or inclusive because our brand is hierarchy, privilege, and exclusion. At best, by aggressively recruiting students of color and providing them with a culturally competent faculty, we mean to open the pathway to privilege to a larger and more demographically diverse group of people. But in doing so, we are not necessarily leading the way to a more equitable and inclusive society, and we are failing even at this task. Also, the demand that our teachers get better or different professional development, that we hire and admit more people of color, and that we collectively become culturally competent is a way to deal with the symptoms of racism, not with a system of racism.
Finding Our PurposeThe obvious question we are failing to ask is, Why would those who have privilege, and want to keep it by paying for a special pathway for their children, want to give it up? Anyone familiar with the college admission process knows the tensions that emerge around race and class. If our students and families are happy to embrace the language of inclusion, such superficial pretense often evaporates when college admission lists appear. It is then that we see the hard limits of our inclusivity.
The families in our communities are essentially good people who want to share, but they don’t want to be left out. They like the idea of “giving back” but do not want to take less. Why are we surprised that the most basic demand that our institutions be racially diverse seems so elusive? Administrators—in schools large and small; in urban, suburban, or rural environments; boarding or day—seem to always have trouble recruiting and retaining faculty of color, let alone administrators of color. Similarly, whatever the racial makeup of our local communities, students of color in our schools seem to always be a minority. The Black@ movement has painfully taught us that we may be damaging as many students of color as we are helping.
The most critical question—How do we stop being institutions of white supremacy?—is then a question of purpose. Let’s return to first principles and reformulate the answer to these questions: What are we about? What are our schools for? As the authors of “Beyond Survival: Reimagining Why Independent Schools Exist,” a recent Independent Ideas blog post, suggest, let’s ask those questions “beyond mission, beyond values, beyond traditions.”
Many of our schools are already struggling financially, and many will have to close their doors in the next few years. We still don’t know the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both because of and in spite of this, there is a great deal of opportunity at this moment. Some schools will probably continue down the same path, and many will continue to succeed; yet many others will not be so lucky. Just as our business and instructional models are showing signs of obsolescence, so is our very purpose; many of our enrollment challenges derive from the fact that millennial families are looking for meaning and value—not access. We need to stop worrying about providing an illusory ROI and ensure that we help our students develop lives of meaning and purpose; we need to stop worrying exclusively about leadership and prepare them for ethical and active citizenship. It is only when we can talk to our students about the need to take less so that others can have their fair share that we will be able to honestly talk about race.
Despite the challenges, I am very optimistic. I work in independent schools because I deeply believe that our schools are exceptional. The small size and engagement of our communities has made us nimble and has allowed us to remain independent of many forces beyond our walls that plague our public counterparts. Our communities are temperamentally prepared to ask deep questions about our values and our purpose. Asking those difficult questions will not diminish us; instead, I expect that each school in its own way will be able to leverage its values to enact institutional transformation that will pursue systemic change in our society. For many schools, this time of reckoning shows us that we are at the beginning of our work. It is by engaging honestly and confronting the hard questions that we can make the most of the opportunities.