Inequality on the escalator
Inequality on the escalator

Following the implementation of school choice in Michigan, some parents declined to move their children from failing to successful schools, and the scheme’s opponents claimed that the consequent demographic change represented racial segregation. One could arm chair psychologist his way into speculating that the decision to remain in a losing situation was based on class sentiment, rather than the more likely parental indifference, but it would not negate the fact that staying represented intentional cultivation of knowledge and access gaps. Consequently, the question is do knowledge and access gaps equal morally culpable inequality for society on the whole?

There is an American organization called Classism that is dedicated to raising awareness of class-bias. Their fundamental premise is that class identity is a form of exclusionary ideology, much like racism, and that everyone is affected by it. Among their key talking points is the idea that the country needs higher taxes to pay for outreach programs designed to spread opportunity in the form of better education to the lower classes, which are intimidated and persecuted by the rich into not fulfilling their potential.

Yet their own testimony is against them. The blog of the website is filled with posts and comments from people who say that their family, friends, and communities turned against them once they began to pursue opportunity outside their perceived social group. One of Classism’s writers mentioned that she dropped out of college because her parents threatened to kick her out of the house if she insisted on finishing. As barbaric as this reverse-snobbery may seem to anyone from the middle-class and up, there is no logical connection between incidents such as these and the tenets of Classism’s social stance, predicated as it is on the notion that anti-working class bias and capitalist mentality are the biggest obstacles to upward mobility. The reality described by the Classism writers suggests the falsity of the trope of “the rich oppose the poor,” as the accounts of the Classism writers suggestion rather that the “the poor oppose the poor.”

In contrast, the rich appear to be very far from hating the poor. Most of the Ivy-League Plus Consortium – an informal group of universities that includes the eight original Ivies and institutions, such as University of Chicago and Stanford University, which are not in the “league” due to geographic location or date of founding, that shares resources, faculty, and alumni networks – offer private benefit packages to low-income students who wish to attend. While obtaining such a package requires reporting the parents’ income, they would also release the student from any parental dependency in the pursuit of education. The difficulty is that these institutions, symbolic of the rich capitalist class hated by Classism, have made their best effort to enable upward mobility; they have moved to the half-way point and must be met there as they can’t move any further. Institutions can’t give aid to people who don’t apply. The situation is the equivalent of someone swatting away a helping hand and then complaining that no one is helping.

It is also worth noting that none of the “rich capitalist incubator” universities use merit, as in grades, to determine financial aid. The only metric is financial need. The principle behind this that everyone admitted is meritorious, and therefore that as a measurement is negated. It is a literal bubble of private communism – to each according to his needs – in a sea of capitalism. And it works for those who take advantage of the opportunity, such as the current Housing and Urban Development secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, who received a full funding package to attend Yale.

Additionally, Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack of Harvard University, himself a man of color who rose from dire poverty and who studies the social and psychological factors which contribute to academic and professional success, found that at his home institution, those of color from deprived backgrounds and limited secondary schooling actively refused to seek assistance and responded negatively to those who offered it. Not only that, he also discovered that these people were likely to believe that those who took advantage of available interpersonal and professional resources were sycophants, an attitude that affected all interactions and future opportunities. Dr. Jack established that no class-bias or racism played a role in the failure of the sample group to thrive since he compared them to other students of color, also from impoverished backgrounds, who had attended selective secondary schools. He found that these individuals always accepted offered of assistance and excelled academically and professionally. Dr. Jack also noticed that in the mental model, the successful group understood effort to lead to product creation that in turn led to merit, while the struggling group believed hard work, generally understood to be time spent and effort expended, ought to be the final arbiter of merit. This model created another divide. 

On the Classism blog, many contributors and commenters express frustration that they “work harder” than the other students, yet these are the ones who receive better grades, good internships, and post-graduation job interviews. In response, they decided that the system was based on class-bias since these students were also the better dressed and more polished. There is some truth to this; in his memoir Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance told in agonizing detail some of the more serious faux pas he committed that resulted in his being cut from consideration – one of the more memorable anecdotes being about wearing combat boots to an interview.

But aside from modes of dress and etiquette, the real sticking point for the Classism people appears to be that they must put in more hours into a project to obtain the same marks as their “rich” peers. This complaint is also probably true, but it is neither the fault of the capitalist peers nor the “classist” instructors. It’s to do with educational frontloading.

Take for example the two American university entrance examinations, the American College Test (ACT: or as a friend of mine used to call it, “Actual Confusion Test.”) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Generally speaking, all secondary school students must take both exams sometime during years 3 and 4 (12 and 13 I think in Europe; the counter resets at the secondary level in America). As one can tell with the names, they serve two separate purposes: the first simply assesses how much the student has retained from the past eleven years of schooling, and the second establishes whether the student can do university level work. Because the latter examination specifically assesses critical thinking, grammar and vocabulary usage, reading analysis, and logical reasoning, it is the preferred test for private universities; public ones favor the ACT. Critics of the SAT, though, claim that it is weighted toward the wealthy as these students are assumed to have a non-academic background (cultural capital) that provides sufficient frames of reference to score well on more obscure components like vocabulary and grammar. While the validity of the wealth claim is debatable, the point remains true. The SAT is an example of frontloading: at the age of 18, the student is proven to have the necessary tools to do well at university.

Logically, those with an adequate mental toolkit not only excel in their studies, they also do not have to dedicate as much time to doing well as someone who is less familiar with the necessary tools. Just as it is easier to do a chin-up the thousandth time, it is also easier to write a paper the thousandth time. This is not to deny that it might be easier to write professionally if one comes from a household where formal English is spoken – a first-generation student at Harvard wrote of being in a seminar and marveling that her peers organically used words she had only learned during test prep, and many of the Classism posts concern stories of inappropriately using dialect words and phrases  – but this is hardly an issue of “work.” If one person can quickly dissect an argument from a philosophical treatise because he has a strong foundation in reading and critical thinking, it does not mean he worked any less hard than someone who must spend hours on the same text due to unfamiliarity with the writing style or struggle with forming an adequate response. Dr. Jack’s research also proved that the success and failure of two subsets within the same broad category correlated to frontloading in their early development, not to their race or class.

There is a Facebook phenomenon called First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP), a group that has networks at most of the prominent private American universities. They run a feed titled “Class Confessions” in which people anonymously tell their experiences of discrimination. While some of the stories have validity, some are risible, such as the story, posted October 30, 2017, where a student was “triggered” by classmates taking cabs to an off-campus meeting. The primary theme with the Class Confessions group is that the educational grants provided to low-income people brings with them frightening exposure to other ways of life.

It is the mystery of the other way of life that is the problem. One of the most common gripes on the Class Confessions feed is that FLIPs have to watch their classmates go on expensive weekend trips, hold study groups in cafes, or eat healthful food, while they stay on campus and eat fast, or canteen, food. In his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1920 – 2010, sociologist Charles Murray stated,

                The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them.

This sentence opened the conclusion of a book dedicated to cataloguing the ways that the bottom eighty percent of Americans has diverged in lifestyle practice from both their fathers and the top twenty. According to Murray’s presentation, the number of 18-year-olds with important life-skills, like budgeting and money and time management, is now concentrated in the top twenty percent, where they are taught by their parents.

 J.D. Vance supported Murray’s point when he stated that until joining the Marine Corps, where a dour sergeant forced him to organize his finances, he didn’t know how balance a checkbook, much less negotiate bank loans, but learning how things are done kept him from feeling bewildered and resentful, at least where money was concerned, when he matriculated at Yale. Vance’s story further supports Murray’s additional argument that the traditional middle-class virtues of fortitude, silence, discretion, and quiet frugality accompanied by conscious spending have further caused the “inequality” divide through inadvertent alienation.  The basic assumption is that since pre- “coming apart” – a hypothetical time in American history when all social classes lived in village-like circumstances and there was no privacy – people like the FLIPs can’t see the machinery behind their classmates having money to eat out or go on trips and consequently feel resentment.  

Is there a solution to bridging the savoir-faire gap? Perhaps. At Harvard, the FLIPs lobbied for the university to establish incubator and exit help programs (cradle to grave, anyone?) to assist FLIP students in adjusting to both school and the professional world. In March 2017, the dean of students rejected the idea as unnecessary for the broader institution and added that such efforts were the responsibility of individual academic departments, which he believed were already running adequate programs tailored for the needs of their own pupils. From a historical point of view, he was absolutely correct in that since Harvard’s founding in 1636, thousands of students from all strata have successfully graduated and entered professions; the millennial FLIPs were the only generation asking for special consideration. Eventually, though, he capitulated and instituted an eight-week specialized training period for FLIPs.

Should we all move back into 1950s-style American villages and engage in communal learning as Murray idealized? I’m reasonably certain that I’m not the only person who would find that revolting. Somehow, this concept denies humanity as anyone who has ever introduced two different house pets knows that the first step is to place them in contained situations where they can see, but not touch, each other. The village ideal resembles the solution for animals just a little too much.

The only concrete solution is really to let the classists and the FLIPs grumble and ignore them. Speech is free. And, by extension, so is prejudice. To some extent we can protect ourselves by recognizing that this prejudice is an -ism, with all an -ism’s dogma and rigidity. Classists claim that capitalists hate the “other,” i.e. them, but in reality we are the hated other. All our empathy for their plight and desire to better their lives through capitalism is haughtily rejected. In that way, just as classists and FLIPs view the capitalist as the eternal enemy, we must rest content to accept that there can be no assistance or friendship as they are unwanted. Not everyone can be helped.  


Mary Lucia Darst
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