Thursday, September 23, 2010
Book Review: The Best of the Best
The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School (2009) Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez
Inside Jacket: For two years, Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez shared the life of what he calls the "Weston School," an elite New England boarding school. He sat in on classes, ate meals in the dining halls, cheered at sporting events, hung out in dorms while students baked cookies or celebrated birthdays. And through it all, observing the experience of a diverse group of students, conducting interviews and focus groups, he developed a nuanced portrait of how these students make sense of their extraordinary good fortune in attending the school....This book gives us a rare perspective on the creation of social inequality. It shows how students at an elite school come to envision an elite future for themselves, and be confident that they deserve it.
Review: This book is nonfiction, but its content undeniably informs and parallels the same issues in contemporary YA fiction. There are three reasons I picked this book up: 1) It's interesting. 2) I'm doing research on boarding schools. 3) Gaztambide-Fernandez writes about the ways in which race, class, and gender intersect and inform the boarding school experience. He also takes it one step further; not only does he identify the fact that some people have more privilege than others, he examines how that privilege becomes part of one's identity. In other words, this book is about all the things I care about anyway!
The Best of the Best is a really nuanced look at the lives of students at Weston. Gaztambide-Fernandez examines many different aspects of the school experience, and includes interviews and discussions with real students, but also diagrams that they drew for him that explain the way they see the school hierarchy, or social landscapes. One review describes his approach as "both generous and skeptical," which I think really captures the tone. He is not judgmental of the students, but he does critically analyze what they say and how they interact.
Conclusion: 4/5. Gaztambide-Fernandez's writing is curious, compassionate, and thorough, making the book imminently readable. He has friendly rapport with many of the students he interviews, and it's clear that he genuinely likes and respects them, which I think is extremely important when writing about teenagers (or anyone you are studying, for that matter). I would recommend this book for others who are interested in the dynamics of power, gender, race, and class in institutional settings like schools. Also, I am a shallow being, and it doesn't hurt that he's good-looking. And has an earring. And a tattoo.