Scrolling through the daily NYT newsletter on my way to the mini crossword du jour, my eye was caught by a shocking string of blue, hyperlinked words: Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene. In her trending article in The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan (in a fashion admittedly jumbled but with worthy intent) forms a case for the ways in which elite schools “breed entitlement, entrench inequality–and then pretend to be engines of social change.”
I grew up in the public school system and, upon arriving at Mercersburg, was shocked to discover the magnitude of the disparity that exists between the public and private educational systems. Do I think that the problems with American education exist solely because some schools run on government funds while others run on tuition dollars and generous alumni gifts? Absolutely not. Still, as one with experience in both systems, I believe that there is something to say about the ways in which private education funnels opportunity to the haves and away from the have-nots, and why this is an issue worth addressing. I believe that Caitlin Flanagan’s article demands a response from all private institutions, and I hope to begin that discussion here.
I have spoken with multiple people who have argued the article discusses only “elite” independent schools – the top .001 percent whose headmasters have whopping $700,000 salaries and whose endowments fluctuate around ten digits. However, though our school may not technically belong to this mythical group, our hefty price tag and enormous endowment per student indicates that Mercersburg much more closely resembles these schools than those in any other category. If we wish for other elite schools to address the ways in which they “entrench inequality,” then we must be willing to do so ourselves. This is not a problem solely of the .001 percent.
Much of the responsibility to address this issue falls on the students. It is our job to recognize daily how much we have been given and what obligation we have to give back. Though certainly not applicable for everyone, I consider my education a “handout” of sorts. I like this term here for the same reason that I do not like its colloquial definition and because it essentially flips the conversation about meritocracy in the United States around. The amount of merit that would have, in a perfect world, provided the key to the innumerable doors of opportunity that have been opened for me since coming to Mercersburg could not have fit in my eighth grade body. How, then, can I in good conscience argue that I deserve to be the single bearer of whatever I earn in the future?
At the same time, it is fair to say that the school as a whole is responsible for expanding our commitment to fostering inclusion and justice beyond our school walls. I am incredibly grateful for Mercersburg’s commitment to maintaining a sturdy endowment, the assurance of which has, in recent years, allowed the school to limit tuition inflation and provide financial aid to a significant portion of the student body. My ideas of actions that the school could take that would contribute to combatting the inequity outside our borders are limited, but I will offer one. Divestment. I truly appreciate Mercersburg’s commitment to providing financial aid to fifty percent of our student body. But why stop there? Why not join in a movement that has, as of this week, been declared “not only morally but also financially” profitable, and address a systemic issue with action. Divestment is action that goes further than providing opportunity to a handful of students, it allows us to have a hand in protecting opportunity on a grander scale from being further diminished.