Photo by Lexie Flickinger,

Who You Are and Where You Belong

[At Truman Academy] there are no losers, we’re all winners. …[Truman students] can move with confidence forward. And we hear from [other] educators that when they move to high school, our kids know who they are. They’ve had enough affirmation to believe that they can learn, that they can keep moving, that they have strengths. —Ms. Daniels, 4th/5th grade teacher, Truman Academy

Yeah, I’m sick of it where now everyone thinks they’re special. I don’t like the whole ‘everyone gets a trophy’ thing. That’s not what life is like! There are always going to be times when there are winners and losers in life, and you’ve got to be able to deal with that. —Ms. Campen, 4th grade teacher, Brighton Elementary

What do schools teach children about their place in the world? What lessons about their position and direction—or, as I call it, their social station —do students absorb? And how do these different lessons relate to existing class, race, and gender inequalities?

The teachers’ statements above illustrate broader differences in what teachers at Truman Academy and Brighton Elementary sought to teach children about their social station. In my study, recently published in the American Sociological Review, I found that students at Truman, a racially-diverse private upper-middle-class school, learn that they are always-already special based upon their internal qualities. Meanwhile, students at Brighton, also diverse but a public and working-class school, learn that they are conditionally good provided they adhere to external rules.

Using three years of school observations, plus 101 interviews with students, teachers, and parents, I show that these lessons were constantly conveyed by school actors and practices through a variety of routines, events, relationships, and interactions. And students showed clear signs of absorbing and reproducing these lessons through their words and actions. The differences were especially apparent in three domains that I refer to as relative identity, moral worth, and situated prospects.

Relative Identity

Truman students were taught to see themselves as unique and to accentuate their distinctiveness. Reflecting this emphasis on individual identities, students in a combined 4th/5th grade History class created “Timelines of Me,” positioning their birth as year zero and using their own initials to demarcate events that were, for example, “BLW” (Before Lucy Worthing’s birth) and “ALW” (After Lucy Worthing’s birth).

Conversely, at Brighton, students were taught to fit their individuality around collective obligations. Students were not homogenized, but schoolwide duties (such as the daily Pledge of Allegiance and food can collections for the poor) trumped individual priorities. History lessons centered on facts relevant for tests rather than students’ individual identities.

Moral Worth

Truman students were taught that their moral worth was inherent. Illustrating this principle, discipline at Truman typically involved students being “asked” to take a break at the back of the room. Students were allowed to decide for themselves how much time they needed to refocus (usually returning immediately). Even when a student was being rude or refusing to collaborate (behaviors I observed more frequently at Truman than at Brighton), Truman teachers refrained from labeling the student as “bad.” Instead, they would say, “You’re not being your best self.” Thus, Truman discipline sought to correct behavioral blips while affirming—never questioning—children’s inherent internal moral worth.

By contrast, Brighton students were taught that their worth was contingent and maintained through following the rules. When disciplining, Brighton teachers regularly told students they were being “bad” and used charts hung on the classroom walls to track and display students’ current behavioral standing. Though generally less rude and more collaborative than their counterparts at Truman, Brighton students were only ever deemed as good as their last behavior.

Situated Prospects

Finally, there were striking differences in the degree of agency and the kinds of futures children were taught to envision for themselves—what I term situated prospects. At Truman, students were trained to see themselves as agents in a pliable world, with bright but distant futures. They were taught that they could influence the world, such as when “interviewing” passing adults on a school trip to Chinatown or “stewarding” the health of a local nature reserve. These students displayed a confident serenity about their futures; college was a given, and they would choose a meaningful job when they were ready.

Meanwhile, Brighton students were taught to see themselves as participants in an unyielding world—a world which does not cater to their individual needs and preferences. They were primed about math lessons being difficult but warned not to whine. When given treats, such as popsicles, they were reminded “You get what you get, and you don’t complain.” As for the future, students’ mildly optimistic job preferences—nurse, cop, teacher—were influenced by a sense of impending challenges. One teacher reminded a group of nine-year-old girls, “What if you get divorced? You need an income.”

Within these overarching patterns, sub-variations were visible at each school. For example, Truman teachers were more likely to describe girls—especially Asian girls—as too shy or quiet, implying that they had insufficiently recognized their own “specialness” and thus required additional lessons in being forthright. At Brighton, Black students and poor students faced additional hurdles to being judged as “good.” They typically experienced harsher scrutiny from teachers, who believed these students needed heavy-handed discipline to be kept in line.

From achieving to being

Recent studies—in both elite private and under-resourced public schools—have emphasized the meritocratic flavor of schools’ messaging around students’ position and direction in the world.  But this was not the case at Truman and Brighton. Being “special” was not dependent on what Truman students achieved, but who they were. Being “good” relied not on Brighton kids’ grades, but their behavior.

Do these childhood patterns matter? Well, the findings resonate with troubling cultural trends stretching past the schoolyard. For example, from kindergarten through college, there is strong evidence of growing entitlement amongst middle-class students, who demand—and often receiveunfair academic advantages. Beyond education, there is evidence of an emerging middle-class skepticism toward vaccinations, motivated by a mindset of  “knowing better” and wanting to “have it your own way.” Hence, Truman students taught they are always-already special may not simply be absorbing confidence, as the opening quote suggests, but learning an individualism with wide-ranging consequences. Meanwhile, Brighton students, taught to accept teachers’ rulings and downplay their identities, may be set to lose out in educational and employment markets that are increasingly responsive to entitled behavior and identity claims.

Peter Francis Harvey is a postdoctoral fellow at the Inequality in America Initiative at Harvard University. He studies culture, inequality, and education.


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