Meet the Sociologist Studying the Brett Kavanaughs of the World

"These are formative years, and these students are learning how to interact with others and are developing incredibly powerful understandings of themselves and the world around them that they carry with them for their entire lives."

M. Adam Howard has had a variety of educational experiences in his life — and the juxtaposition between them sparked his interest in studying elite education. Howard grew up in a low-income household in rural eastern Kentucky and attended Berea College, before receiving a graduate degree at Harvard and teaching at a private school in Cincinnati, Ohio. Now, Howard is a professor of education at Colby College, and one of his specialities is elite schooling and affluent youth. During the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Howard wrote an article for Vox about the culture of private schools like Georgetown Preparatory School. FM sat down with Howard last week to learn more about his research and how it applies to both Harvard and contemporary politics.

FM: Can you tell me a bit about how you got started researching the connection between hypermasculinity, privilege, and elite institutions?

MAH: I grew up in rural eastern Kentucky in a very poor family, and I went to an undergraduate institution called Berea College. Berea is a school only for poor Appalachians; you actually have to come from poverty to be admitted there. So I spent the first twenty-three years of my life mostly surrounded by peers who came from poverty like me, and so my worldview and my experiences were profoundly shaped by that. But to make a very long story short, I went to graduate school at Harvard—certainly not a school for poor people, as I'm sure you know. That was the first experience I had being around peers who weren’t from the same background as me. After I got my Master's at Harvard I taught at an elite school in Cincinnati, Ohio, and once again I found myself in an incredibly unfamiliar context. I felt like I didn't know what was going on, and because it was so unfamiliar, I wasn't able to be the teacher that I wanted to be, a teacher who was committed to issues of social justice and helping my students think critically about the world. I had discovered that their worldviews were drastically different from my own, and I needed to understand their worlds much better than I did. So I started researching. I turned to research as a private school teacher in order to understand that world… and that led me to focus on the culture of these types of schools and the lessons that students learned from their education through these institutions.

FM: I know a lot of your research has used ethnography as a tool. Given your experience coming from a background very different from many of the places that you ended up researching, how did you gain access to these hypermale, seemingly exclusive spaces?

MAH: (laughs) It remains a mystery to me, and I haven’t always been successful. My first research site was an elite school in the Northeast. I had full access, in part because I was connected to another elite institution at that time, so the people there had certain assumptions about my background and why I was there. But one day the headmaster was having a casual conversation with me to check in about my research, and he asked me what high school I had attended. I told him the truth: Bardstown High School. “Is that a public school?” he asked in reply. In that moment, I had no choice but to reveal a bit about my background coming from poverty, and there was this look on his face that said ‘“Oh no; we’ve let someone in who never should have been able to have this much access.” They didn’t kick me out formally, but after that day literally no one would talk to me to the point where I had to leave that research site. I realized then that access meant two things: first, getting into the place physically, but then once you're there, having access to the information that they don't typically tell people, the information that outsiders don't know. I learned a lot from that experience about how to frame my own educational background and present my experiences in ways that wouldn't make me seem like a threat but not in ways where I'm dishonest. But the other part is that I’m genuinely interested in using my research to help people, using my research to change and improve these institutions. A lot of people who study these schools argue that they shouldn't exist. That has not been my position. I believe that there's a lot of good in what these schools are trying to accomplish, and so I look for ways that my research can contribute to helping them realize their goals more fully.

FM: Following up on that, I think when you look at a lot of these elite institutions today, whether via affirmative action on the college and university level or A Better Chance programs in a lot of boarding schools, it seems like a lot of them are trying to diversify their student base. From your perspective, how effective has that been at changing the culture of privilege?

MAH: I don't think it's been effective at all. This has been one of the areas that I have focused on in my research. Though these institutions are seemingly more diverse, the overall culture has not changed. We need to question what diversity means in this context: what do the schools mean when they claim that they’ve become more diverse? They’ve become more diverse with respect to gender—many all male schools have begun to accept women—and some have become more diverse with respect to race. But they certainly haven't become more diverse as far as social class is concerned. In most cases, even though they look different demographically, they haven't changed beneath the surface. Cookson and Persell published a book called “Preparing for Power,” and it’s generally considered one of the most important studies of elite schools in the United States. And in 2010 they did a research follow up and came to the conclusion that what was true in 1985 when they first published their work remains true in 2010, which is quite remarkable—even with all the changes occuring in the wider world, these institutions haven’t changed. For that reason, a lot of us believe that part of the reason why they’ve become more more diverse is because it’s necessary for them to maintain their elite status. I firmly believe that diversity is another way that elite institutions have legitimized their elite status and legitimized remaining the same in fundamental ways despite a changing world.

AWDA: I suppose related to that, some of your research posits that there's a connection between the exclusivity and the prestige of these elite institutions and the pressure to keep negative incidents, sexual assault for example, hidden from view. Can you explain how that connection functions and how it developed?

MAH: For these institutions, remaining elite means remaining exclusive. They have to remain a closed community, since the threat of public scrutiny is a threat to their institution’s exclusivity. so that's one part of it. But the other part of this is that in order for them to remain elite and all that goes along with that, they have to uphold a positive image and project that positive image. In many ways they have to have permission from everyone else in order to maintain their power and status, so they work very hard to constantly legitimize themselves. When anything negative comes to the surface, it threatens that image.

FM: Turning now to Thursday's testimony, from your research, what do you make of Judge Kavanaugh's characterization of his high school years—his fixation with being number one in his class, lifting weights, sports, beer—what does that tell you about what he was like while in high school?

MAH: There are a couple of things that we can draw from what he said. First, this emphasis on perfection in and outside the classroom is common among elite schools. Not only do you have to be a good student, you also have to be a good athlete too, so you spend a lot of time practicing and working out. You also need to be the best at whatever club you’re involved in. One of the things I’ve examined is the way in which hierarchies are imposed within these elite environments, meaning that in every situation, in every context, there is a winner and therefore there is a loser. These elite schools teach their students to be winners, and a lot of their lives become focused on training to be a winner—and there are consequences to that. For one, there’s a widespread culture of working hard and partying hard. Due to the amount of pressure placed on students to be perfect, we see the emergence of excessive behaviors. And when they’re partying, we see the lessons they’ve learned in school applied: this win at all costs mentality bleeds into the ways they interact with their peers, even in informal contexts.

FM: Thinking about the way that this culture shapes someone who's part of those institutions, many of the people who jump to judge Kavanaugh's defense argue that the Kavanaugh of today differs completely from the Brett Kavanaugh of Georgetown Prep or Yale. From your research and the schools that you've studied, do the hyper-masculine, elite spaces where you see this work hard/party hard dynamic continue to shape one's outlook even after they graduate and move on?

MAH:Absolutely! These lessons that they've been learning about hypermasculinity, about hyper competitiveness, are lifelong lessons. These are formative years, and these students are learning how to interact with others and are developing incredibly powerful understandings of themselves and the world around them that they carry with them for their entire lives. Many of these students are a part of an elite circuit: they attend elite prep schools, move on to elite universities, and then take up elite, powerful jobs. Which lessons are reinforced at each of those stages as they go through life?

FM: What are those lessons, and how are they reinforced?

MAH: One of the most profound and most important lessons is that hierarchies are not only natural, they're necessary. That organizes one's life in one particular way and makes it so that they go into every situation as if it were a competition. Because of that, their success and everything that goes along with their success comes at the expense of others. This win-at-all-costs attitude encourages people to be successful by whatever means necessary, which can lead to things like deception, dishonesty.

FM: Harvard obviously participates in that circuit of elite institutions that you've mentioned. Is there any change to the culture of those places that could do away with that win-at-all-costs mentality?

MAH: If you look at just about any elite institution—let’s take Kavanaugh’s Georgetown Prep as an example—the mission of the school tends to be all about preparing the students to be compassionate, caring. There’s an emphasis on service to others and community. On the surface, there’s a very official commitment to these positive qualities. Part of what I've tried to do is to say “Okay, let's focus on these positives and figure out how we can do what you say you want to do.” Take for example the emphasis on community. If you're really focused on building a healthy, strong sense of community within your institution, how can you at the same time emphasize competition? That goes against the very basis of a healthy and strong community. I'm hopeful because these places have a stated commitment to these more positive ideas, but they have to sort out the contradictions. They have to realize that they can't say that they want to teach students one thing while other parts of the educational experience emphasize drastically different and entirely contradictory lessons. We also have to recognize that identities are neither constant nor stable. Even when a student arrives at a place like Harvard having been taught lessons about competitiveness for years, they will constantly be shaped and reshaped by their everyday experiences and realities, which means that they can form new understandings, they can be offered new tools that teach them new ways of knowing and doing, ways that don't reinforce privilege. They can be taught alternative lessons about themselves, their place in the world, and their relationship with others, and those lessons can be more aligned with what the schools claim to be teaching. I have faith in that.

FM: In recent years, the Harvard administration has been attempting to curtail unrecognized single-gender social organizations, and beneath the surface, issues of hypermasculinity and the concentration of privilege seem to play a large role in motivating their efforts. What with #metoo having pushed issues of gender-based harassment into the public consciousness and the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh widening that conversation to include the effects of these privileged or single-gender spaces, what do you see as the future of the spaces that you study and these elite institutions?

MAH: All of these moments, all of these movements, represent some of the greatest threats to privilege ever seen. Privilege works because it’s kept invisible, kept hidden. The more that we shine the spotlight on how privilege is reinforced by institutions, the more we can challenge it. We can't challenge privilege unless we talk about it, unless we break the silence. We don't typically do that as a society—we don't talk about privilege often, and the ways in which we do are not very useful, and they don't reveal a complex understanding of how privilege works. If you don't talk about something, there isn't an opportunity for you to develop an understanding of it.