Review: Transforming the Elite
Dr. Michelle Purdy’s milestone book, Transforming the Elite, tells the inside story of private schools desegregation in the South.
Transforming the Elite - Black Students and the Desegregation of Private Schools by Michelle A. Purdy
Asked by one alumnus during a meeting with a prestigious school's administration, "what does inclusivity mean at an exclusive private school?"
Under the immense pressure of the Black Lives Matter movement, predominantly white private schools below the Mason-Dixon Line are in the spotlight, showing as somewhere between being laboratories of the New South and models of the Old.
On the one hand, the track record of their African-American graduates indicates that the primary purpose of their involvement - preparation for college academic excellence - is being served. But on the other hand, the schools exist entirely at the will of their directors, who represent their legacy and its current social descendants.
In Transforming The Elite, scholar Michelle A. Purdy carefully discovers a history of desegregation's impact as an avant garde force of the New South's social reform. Desegregation's combined origins as an organic and mandated institutional change gives two stories running in parallel.
Published by the University of North Carolina Press, the book is precisely characterised as "showcasing educational changes for black southerners during the civil rights movement... and school cultures transformed during private school desegregation.”
Dr. Purdy gives the view from the inside outward through the voice of the earliest black students at Atlanta's Westminster Schools. Any reader will leave the text aware of how diversity within the group of black students associates with the range of personal loss and gain. At the same time, the unpredictable is as common as the expected.
All the while, she also gives the view from the outside inwards, through the attention of national, state and local organizations. We get visibility of the give and take of those entities navigating new cultural and political waters in implementing desegregation's objectives while pursuing the change as an integration with the status quo instead of as an intervention. It poses the question of what is actually transformed: is it expectations, norms, or goals?
Today the Atlanta school is in an energetic self-evaluation and strategic planning initiative anchored in an alumni community's very dim view of the social progress made since the 1970s. Consequently, the retrospective offered by the book echoes the famous observation from George Santanyana, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For a private school in the South in the BLM era, that is not an option.
Malcolm Ryder (West ‘72) Contributor