Elite schools “teach young people to hide their advantages from themselves and others.” — Professor Shamus Khan
Sameer A. Khan h’21
Shamus Khan’s research unveils the effects of culture, gender, and advantage

Almost 20 years ago, Professor Shamus Khan spent a year living at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire to conduct a sociological study that he hoped would shed light on the dynamics of inequality. “To look at inequality, we almost exclusively write about the poor,” he says. “We almost never write about the other side of the relationship.” 

Khan’s year as a teacher and squash coach marked his return to the campus where he spent three years as a student. With the approval of the school’s administration, he analyzed the boarding school through the lenses of race, class, and gender and published his findings in Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, which was reissued this year by Princeton University Press. “The central argument of this book is that elite schools are not meritocracies,” he writes in a new preface. “Instead, they teach young people to hide their advantages from themselves and others.” Today, he writes, most elites view their successes as the merited results of hard work and skill — not as the results of family advantage. He uses his own life story as an example: His parents invested everything they could in their children’s education and activities to develop the “social and cultural capacity” that would allow the children to succeed as professionals. 

Khan has spent his academic career on elite campuses, spending 13 years at Columbia University, where he received its highest teaching honor, before joining the Princeton faculty in January.

The St. Paul’s book examines an uncomfortable dilemma: “American institutions have made progress, they are way more open than in the 1960s, yet at the same time there has been a massive rise in inequality,” Khan tells PAW. “Opening up institutions, acknowledging racism and sexism, has not been enough.”

Another of his books, Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, addresses why sexual assault is so prevalent at colleges. It was co-authored by Jennifer Hirsch ’88, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia. Based on interviews with undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard College, focus-group discussions, and direct observations of students’ lives, it looks at how physical spaces, peer groups, and power dynamics may create conditions that make sexual assault more likely. Older students, for example, usually get the best dorm rooms, such as single rooms. 

“The consequence is that you may be funneling younger students to spaces controlled by older students, who have more experience with drinking and sex, creating a context that makes assaults more likely to happen,” Khan says. The book’s findings have led several institutions to change their approach to the issue, he says. 

Khan’s interest in elite institutions also led him to study the archives of the New York Philharmonic, a project funded by the Mellon Foundation. At the turn of the 20th century, when more people from professional backgrounds — such as teachers and artists — began attending concerts, Khan and co-author Fabien Accominotti found that the wealthy changed their seats to be closer to each other, a phenomenon they call segregated inclusion. “You include people, but you do it in a way that protects your own advantages,” says Khan, who plays the violin and is himself a Philharmonic subscriber. 

Much of his work, Khan says, reflects a dynamic articulated in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville, who described in Democracy in America how “the privileges of birth and fortune” provide many advantages, even when it appears that opportunities are equal to all. “The barrier,” wrote de Tocqueville, “has changed shape rather than place.” 

“We think of inequality as moats and fences,” Khan says. “A lot of the moats and fences have been taken down, but some have just changed their shape.”