Facebook can be a weird place on Martin Luther King Day. Some of my friends post famous passages from MLK’s speeches. Others post statistics on racial inequality. Still others, mostly white parents, post photographs of their children assembled in auditoriums and schoolyards. These are always hopeful images, the next generation stirring toward interracial harmony. Except for one thing: nearly everyone in the photos is … white.And thus begins another attempt to guilt-trip gentry liberals. It becomes with a laudable enough objective, to lift up the poor, but then comes the carping about self-selection.
Instead of confronting social inequality with mass political action and state redistribution, we prefer to educate poor children to wealth. Education can involve some redistribution: making sure, for example, that black, Latino and working-class students have comparable resources, facilities and teachers as white or wealthy students. But one need only compare the facilities at the Park Slope school my daughter attends with those of an elementary school in East New York—or take a walk around James Hall at Brooklyn College, where I teach political science, and then take a walk around the halls at Yale, where I studied political science—to see we’re a long way from even that minimal redistribution.Yes, and long before assortative mating manifests itself in New York Times wedding announcements that can be cut-and-pasted out of the Social Register and Ivy League yearbooks, the well-off socialize their spawn to associate with like (even if there are no longer any camp trains.)
You’d think that if the parents and teachers of these masters of the universe were truly concerned about racial and class privilege they’d simply abolish private schools. Or lobby for better state and federal laws, and more liberal courts, to reintegrate the public schools.A lot of good that will do. Freedom to associate implies freedom not to associate, and, happy talk about inclusiveness or no, ambitious and responsible people do not want to associate with indolent or irresponsible people. Too many advocates of expanded educational "access" miss that.
Education is the quintessential American hustle. Schoolmen and con men have one thing in common: They both believe they can talk their way out of anything. But the reason our schools are unequal is that our society is unequal. And no amount of privilege talk is going to change that.If we see the end of mau-mauing people for unearned privilege, or content-free maundering about intersectionality, or deluded affirmations of difference, or the pernicious appreciation of authenticity, perhaps we will see progress.
Consider these observations by a teacher of an egalitarian bent confronts the seamy side of access. This teacher has had the opportunity to observe the behavior of students in a selective, yet public academy, and contrast that with conditions in a common school.
I know most of the kids in this public school: They're not hurtful or malicious, and most of them aren't even consciously rude. They’re just "cool" by default, the opposite of being intrinsically "stoked" or "pumped" (to borrow a few words from their vocabulary) about learning. It’s not a classroom-management issue in this case. The teacher could outlaw food and cellphones, but there would still be jokes, fidgeting, students with passes to or from another place—something to distract them. No matter how diligently he teaches them about the appropriate time to sharpen a pencil, there will still be this culture of coolness, the norm of disengagement.Yes, Horatio Alger is a square, and when neither parents nor kindergarten through middle school have inculcated the life-management skills of the upper middle class, by the time such kids hit high school, they're sunk.
I am, however, concerned about the general culture at public schools—at least at the ones I’ve seen—of disengagement and compulsory learning. So when it comes to my daughter, I opt to invest a little more—to ensure she’s immersed in a community where it’s acceptable, and even admirable, to show natural enthusiasm for knowledge. I trust this particular private school, one that was created by like-minded parents, will best set her up for success.Thus, for her daughter, some of that common-school salary goes to private-school tuitions. Expand that by orders of magnitude, and you have urban parents nationwide. Or, the money goes for higher property taxes, granite counter-tops, and car-centric schedules.
But the kids get to interact with similarly motivated kids (we'll leave aside for now the creation of academically weak suburban sports ghettos.)
Unfortunately, the critical mass of engaged students and parents that’s integral to creating this environment seems to be lacking at many of today’s public schools. And it may be impossible to attain when everything is both free and compulsory."Impossible" might be too strong an expression, and yet, we might be observing an evolutionary stable strategy at work. In this instance, it is people who adhere to bourgeois values choosing to live among and interact with other adherents of bourgeois values. There's a Walter Hudson column making the case for moral systems that is stronger on evolutionary stability than it is on faith-based morality. Repeat with me: evolutionary stable strategy.
Having discovered this objective standard of value, we have our reference point for further unveiling an objective morality. From the fact of our own existence as living beings with a particular nature, we can rationally ascertain what we ought to do.Bourgeois interacts with bourgeois: agreements are made, agreements are kept, mutually beneficial interactions emerge, living conditions improve.
Generally speaking, we ought to work to provide for our needs. We ought to act to obtain or keep that which furthers our survival and makes us happy.
This happiness, the sort referenced by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, is not a hedonistic whim. It’s not chocolate for a diabetic. It’s not an affair for a married man. Rather, true happiness is gauged in the context of how life works and what we can reasonably expect to follow from our actions. The diabetic who eats lots of chocolate may gain short-term pleasure, but at the expense of his long-term well-being. The same can be said of the adulterer.
Underclass interacts with underclass: lives are made worse, or lives are ended.
Underclass interacts with bourgeois: someone gets swindled, or the gentry intellectuals seek the sanction of the victim to get the bourgeois to kick in for the maintenance of the underclass. And thus the model of evolutionary stability is incomplete: can a bourgeois society sustain an underclass population, or is an underclass population a mutation that can be driven out?
(The religious argument is more difficult to make. Jesus asked, "Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?" Matt. 9:5 but he also urged, "Rise, take up thy bed, and walk." John 5:8 and, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" Matt. 25:40 -- that last being perhaps the only passage Social Justice Warriors know.)
And thus the charge to policymakers becomes to socialize the young to follow the bourgeois path.
Many of the problems that lower-class kids face stem from economics: "In the upper, college-educated third of American society, most kids today live with two parents, and such families nowadays typically have two incomes," [sociologist Robert "Bowling Alone"] Putnam writes. "In the lower, high-school-educated third, however, most kids live with at most one of their biological parents, and in fact, many live in a kaleidoscopic, multi-partner, or blended family, but rarely with more than one wage earner. Scores of studies have shown that bad outcomes for kids are associated with the pattern now characteristic of the lower tier, whereas many good outcomes for kids are associated with the new pattern typical of the upper tier."Perhaps it is time to stop enabling the destructive life-mismanagement habits of the underclasses. Otherwise, the gentry liberals are likely to continue to fret about poverty and inequality in the abstract whilst living apart from it in the concrete.