12.11.07

THAT MERIT TRAP, AGAIN. An essay in Chronicle Careers addresses some of the same issues as a post I noted here, a bit more coherently but no more persuasively.

Many of my childhood friends have struggled to find stable, full-time work. The police and fire departments aren't hiring; nursing and education have shifted to part-time, no-benefits operations; manufacturing is long gone; and the union jobs that lifted many of their fathers into the lower-middle class have disappeared.

So, in the place where I grew up, there are men and women in their 30's who live with their parents and can't start families because there are so few real jobs, even for the ones who put in a couple years at community college, transferred to a state school, and were the first in their families to get degrees that were sold as certain tickets to the middle class.

The essay doesn't spell out which state schools. Is he referring to a flagship campus, a comprehensive, or a Division III party school? I keep claiming there is excess capacity in the institutions last named. Evidence to the contrary might prompt me to tone it down.
A lot of those people end up delivering pizzas, mowing lawns, waiting tables, or working the checkout lane at Wal-Mart for $7.15 an hour, and the message spreads that education doesn't matter.
College Lite? No. Warmed-over high school? Surely not.
But that is old knowledge in a lot of subcultures -- the world of their great-grandparents -- and it is being relearned in our new Gilded Age. As Anya Kamenetz has observed in her book, Generation Debt (2006), education is, more and more, not a ticket to anything but financial ruin. You have to know somebody who knows how the system works, who will help you. Or you have to start your own business, if you can get some money. But you probably can't. For some, mostly the men, the military seems like the only reliable way out. It's no accident that military advertising emphasizes earning marketable skills; you'll see the world, and you'll come back able to look your dad in the eye.
That is, as Veterans Day observances remind, if you do come back, and as speakers at the observances remind, if you come back whole. (And even people who come back unhurt physically do come back changed intellectually.) But let's back up ... there's this reference to a "system" to which some people seem to hold mysterious keys.
To a great extent, my life's course was set by the determination of my parents to give me chances that they never had and to foster a conviction that I would not live as they did: to have only one child, to send that child to parochial schools, to emphasize study, and to enforce strict rules.
No mystery there: that's the Habits of Highly Effective People. The mystery, and there are still plenty of social science books to write on aspects of it, is why that determination hasn't yet emerged as an evolutionarily stable strategy, and why one can observe variations in its observance among siblings raised according to the same rules.
But, even as a child, I can remember feeling that school was training me to be a subordinate in a culture -- nearly a caste system -- where the people who have money and power were different from us in personal style, language, and values. The suited professionals in their BMWs looked like members of some kind of alien occupation army; there was no possibility of communicating with them on equal terms. And they seemed to wield almost absolute power -- over rent, jobs, health care, schools, prices -- from inaccessible conference rooms in downtown office buildings. We never met their children because they lived in faraway suburbs.
Some vast conspiracy that. I'll concede that there's more to joining those ranks than buying the right suit and driving the right car, all the John T. Molloy self-help advice notwithstanding. That's not the source of the problem, as the essayist goes on to note.
In the context of working-class schools, I saw that a few students -- compliant, ambitious, individualistic, and possessing an aptitude for mimicry -- were eventually singled out for advancement. They passed by using test scores, recommendations, and loyalty oaths in the form of application essays. And if one of those students succeeded in a decade -- usually by joining the lower class of suit-wearers -- they were brought back to reinforce the myth of unfettered meritocracy: "See kids, you just have to work hard."
Let's pause for a moment and reflect on the implicit inequality of outcome in that "lower class of suit-wearers" and "myth of unfettered meritocracy." Grant for the sake of discussion that the highest-paying jobs earn larger salaries compared to the mean and to the lower-paying jobs today than they did 20 or 50 years ago. That suggests the value of the marginal product of those higher-paying jobs is rising proportionately faster than the supply. If there is in fact some conspiracy among those BMW-driving bespoke-suit wearing elites to keep the individualistic mimics (really?) down, there is also a powerful incentive for some conspirator to defect (hire the mimic for half the price of the holder of the prestige degree, get more than half the effort for it.)
I was a believer, but most working-class kids only half-trust what they are told. They see what happens to their parents and older siblings. And they know that trying too hard at school will cost them friends and make them targets for violence, particularly in the earlier phases of education, before the weeding process and tracking systems produce cohorts who cling to a sense of being exceptional and deserving, unlike their lesser peers. And they pay a price for spending time studying instead of building alliances in the neighborhood.
There's a rather blunt book, Resentment Against Achievement, that calls for more careful work on why the greatest resistance against individual effort comes from the very communities that would appear to benefit most by a greater exertion of such efforts. Rather than engage those ideas, the essayist chooses to throw a pity-party.
Some students, like me, can rise into the middle class that way, putting the dangers of the early grades farther into the past, but, at some point -- maybe decades later -- the ability to mimic elites must become so refined, so subtle and nuanced, that one cannot succeed anymore. There are five forks, and you don't know what to do with three of them. You've never been to Martha's Vineyard. You are reluctant to speak anyway because you can't remember the rules for "who" and "whom." People are laughing, and you don't know why. You feel like a lead pipe on a lace napkin. You have risen to your level of incompetence, and what is there to do but admit you don't belong and rely on the charity of your hosts?
Please. That social capital is relatively easily acquired. I also suspect that the circles of high achievers would welcome genuinely productive additions to their ranks: it's no accident that "income inequality" and "time crunch" coexist in the Popular Perspective. The author's closing remarks raise the possibility that the people remaining in the old neighborhood might have problems themselves with their neighborhood's verities.
I don't belong in the old neighborhood either. I made my choices long ago; or perhaps others made them for me. No one is awaiting my return. I think I can hear what they'd say: "You seem to like playing the working-class hero for rich people. Whatever. Do it if it works for you. You never belonged here anyway, even when you were a kid. If I could get out of here, I would. So get on with your life. We'll be fine without you."
What that imaginary friend is suggesting is "Are we making our own lives more miserable by making the lives of our ambitious acquaintances miserable?" So, again, why the persistence of resentment of the strivers by the non-strivers?

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