Earlier this month Princeton University Press published a book called “Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence,” by a sociologist, Rachel Sherman, who researched the spending habits of 50 well-to-do parents in New York City, and diagnosed a pervasive problem of reticence around wealth. Ms. Sherman uses her encounters with people who agreed to speak with her, in many cases about their fears of seeming showy, to conclude that there is too much silence around money and that all of this alleged hush and professed shame ultimately slow our efforts to mitigate inequality.
Given that we have segued from the era of the Rich Kids of Instagram to a moment in which the rich wives of cabinet secretaries use social media to tell us that they are wearing Hermès and that they are better, it is a difficult time to argue that modesty is really what is complicating things, or that a greater degree of honesty about renovation costs on Central Park West will lead us to a more just tax code. And yet Ms. Sherman’s book does take absorbing measure of what has become a corrosive reality in New York: the tendency among well-off people to regard their circumstances as entirely ordinary — “Manhattan poor’’ as others have put it — given that everywhere they chose to look they find someone who has a lot more money. Private schools emerge as dangerous incubators of this dynamic because they are the places in which the affluent receive the most intimate exposure to the obscenely rich — where your week in a rented condo in Sun Valley is a deprivation compared with the schoolmates flying from Teterboro to third houses in Vail.
In recent years, and most obviously since the rise of Black Lives Matter, private schools around the city have taken concerted care to recruit minority students, to introduce curriculums and conversation about racial understanding in lower grades, to seek diversity consultants and to promote inclusion around gender. At the same time, ostentatious displays of wealth and entitlement that can dominate a school’s ecosystem have gone too often unchallenged. At the end of last month, however, John Allman, head of school at Trinity, wrote a letter to the parent body meant to shake up the existing order.
Invoking the country’s current state of chaos, he wrote of a sense of alienation among students at the school — regardless of race, class and privilege — that stood apart from the larger political and social crises besieging us. He blamed, in large part, “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interest.” He called for a dismantling of “this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory,” warning that without it, students would merely ascend to “a comfortable perch atop a cognitive elite that is self-serving, callous and spiritually barren.” Without a shift in ethos toward greater commitments to the common good, toward social justice and activism, he said in the letter, “I am afraid we are, for a majority of our students, just a very, very expensive finishing school.”
Even outside the bubble of Manhattan private schools, it’s a fairly blunt critique of privilege. That the statement came from Trinity, founded in 1709 and one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in the country, made it all the more powerful. Board members at other Manhattan schools noted how astonishing the document was, given its potential to turn off donors who might have been completely at peace with the way the school had been doing business.
We’ve been talking about this for a long time, about infusing our program with a greater sense of redeeming purpose,’’ Mr. Allman told me, “and approaching it from a perspective of student well-being with a better sense of why students are going about this work.’’ Mr. Allman came to Trinity several years ago from prep schools in Texas and Georgia — he ran St. John’s in Houston when Elizabeth Holmes, the fallen Silicon Valley billionaire was a student — environments in which the parent bodies were no less intensely focused on ambition and achievement. Mr. Allman’s letter also explained the way that Trinity would go about transforming its approach to community service, integrating what students would do outside the classroom with what they were learning inside. Trinity is on the Upper West Side near several social service agencies and adjacent to a public housing complex, whose playground the school’s children have used over the years.
Radically rethinking a school’s culture involves not only getting parents and children to alter a deeply ingrained mind-set and executing pedagogical changes, huge projects in themselves, but also ensuring that the families admitted are in tune with these values. This requires an ability to determine what sort of parents seek admission to your school solely so that their children can sit atop a cognitive elite and suggest to them that they might be happier elsewhere. This is not easy, but it is important work for institutions that continue to groom the people who seem to keep running the world.
I asked Mr. Allman how he thought his letter had been received by parents in the school, some of whom I had spoken with who said they found it inspiring and soulful. “Parents get to see people up close who use us for purely instrumentalist purposes, and they are happy to see the school push back,’’ he said, “and give it to them.’’