The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School

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The Best of the Best: Becoming Elite at an American Boarding School
By Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández
Harvard University Press, 2009
312 pp. $29.95
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This account, by a young Harvard-trained anthropologist, of two years of field study at an elite New England boarding school (code-named "Weston" in the book) vividly demonstrates how an anthropologist's assumptions largely determine what he or she sees in the field. Gaztambide-Fernández went to Weston believing that attendance at such a school conferred a kind of permanent elite status on its students. As any of his subjects could have told him, this is wrong. These days, admission to an elite boarding school is simply one of the first steps in a long and uncertain process, and status anxiety -- mostly centered on the quest for admission to an elite college -- haunts both the students and their parents. Unfortunately, Gaztambide-Fernández's status obsession prevents him from examining more interesting questions. The reader learns nothing about what these students are taught, how they respond to it, or what ideas and values catch their imaginations. The author has wasted an immense opportunity, but perhaps in the end one should turn to novelists rather than anthropologists to explain the devious and complex processes that shape social life.