Coming Together: Nicholas Kristof Reads Charles Murray

February 9, 2012   ·   4 Comments

Source: NYTX


By Marie Burns:

Last week, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a highly-favorable review of a book by conservative Charles Murray titled Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. I did not comment extensively or timely on Brooks’ column because I haven’t read Murray’s book and don’t intend to. (Please see “Warning” at the bottom of this column.) Today, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof comments on an aspect of Murray’s book with which he agrees. Neither Brooks nor Kristof, by the way, reveals the entire title of Murray’s book, perhaps because the full title reflects the implied racial prejudice of its author, whose main claim to fame was, until the publication of Coming Apart, another book he co-authored. In that book,The Bell Curve, the writers claimed white people were inherently smarter than black people, a thesis which I find both highly offensive and insupportable. So, yes, I have my own prejudice in critiquing Murray, whom I strongly suspect would, if he could, move to the State of White America. Fortunately, there is not one.

Nicholas Kristof briefly profiles his own tiny hometown of Yamhill, Oregon. In Yamhill, the “working class,” as they are throughout the U.S., “risk being calcified into an underclass, marked by drugs, despair, family decline, high incarceration rates and a diminishing role of jobs and education as escalators of upward mobility,” Kristof writes. He reflects that

Eighty percent of the people in my high school cohort dropped out or didn’t pursue college because it used to be possible to earn a solid living at the steel mill, the glove factory or sawmill. That’s what their parents had done. But the glove factory closed, working-class jobs collapsed and unskilled laborers found themselves competing with immigrants.

Kristof offers several prescriptions for reducing this “risk of calcification.” He remarks that “Murray critically examines family breakdown among working-class whites….” This is one place Kristof agrees with Murray:

Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong). One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about.

Kristof is statistically correct. “Working class” (I hate that term) married people – married men– are financially better off than unmarrieds. Kristof buys into Murray’s chicken-and-egg sleight-of-hand. In fact, Murray reverses cause and effect. As Prof. Ralph Richard Banks writes in a review of Murray’s book for the Daily Beast,

In fact, the divergence in the family patterns of the affluent and the disadvantaged is more a matter of economics than culture. Cultural attitudes toward marriage have unquestionably shifted during the past half century, but those changes encompass everyone. Premarital sex and cohabitation may have been rare half a century or more ago, but now they are common among all groups. Marriage was once a necessity; now it’s a luxury, and as with any luxury, the affluent are better able to afford it. Poor and working-class people, research has shown, view marriage similarly to their more affluent counterparts, but the disadvantaged are less likely to attain the level of economic stability that makes marriage both more likely and more enduring.

Kristof’s other suggestions are a bit smarter, but they are band-aids. Here is all he’s got:

Early childhood education can support kids being raised by struggling single parents. Treating drug offenders is far cheaper than incarcerating them. A new study finds that a jobs program for newly released prison inmates left them 22 percent less likely to be convicted of another crime.

Banks is much closer to the mark. He points to the extravagant efforts Murray’s “cognitive elite” put into ensuring that their children get the best educations, including isolating themselves into increasingly “exclusive” neighborhoods (or Zip codes) – made all the more so because the affluent bid up the prices of housing in areas that boast good schools. But, Banks, asks,

What if our nation committed itself to ensuring that every school be a good school and that every child receive a top quality education? Social mobility would increase, economic inequality would likely decrease, and there would be less pressure for ambitious parents to buy into any particular school district.

Murray rightly identifies the challenges of economic inequality and family instability. But rather than attempt to reform the culture of those who are struggling, we’d do better to reform the governmental policies that provide their children so many fewer opportunities than the children of the elite.

One of the reasons my column tomorrow may not seem “fresh” enough to some readers is that I’ll be otherwise occupied tomorrow morning. I’m having breakfast with an old friend whom I haven’t seen in nearly half a century, though we’ve had contact over the past several years. This friend and I went to high school together in what Kristof would call a “working-class” community. If I recall correctly, my friend’s parents did not have college educations nor did they have particularly high aspirations for their children. Nonetheless, our “working-class” high school was pretty good, largely because back in the day, teems of women were willing/had no choice but to subsidize public education by teaching for starvation wages. The state had good public universities, and my friend went to one of them. From there, he went on to grad school, likely supported, at least in part, by publicly-funded fellowships. I recall that he also worked when he was in school. My old high school friend is now the president of a large, urban Midwestern university.

My friend’s success is not unique among my classmates. Though few of their parents went to college and ever fewer were college graduates, at least half of us went to college and many went on to obtain post-graduate degrees. After one of our class reunions, the urban newspaper in our area carried a big feature on how “upwardly-mobile” our class’s graduates were. The story was right. In the 1960s, the United States was a country where aspirations could be realized. This is precisely the message Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren is sending. This was the nation that was. As she and Banks both note, it is a nation that could be – and should be – again.

I want to one-up them, though. Most of the emphasis on education today is jobs-oriented. Get a good education – get a good job. A lot of it is the small-bore kind of educational uplift that Kristof highlights in the jobs-for-ex-cons program. But there is – or should be – a cultural element to education, too, an element that Murray implies if he doesn’t develop. (Don’t know; didn’t read the book.) That is, schools should not just train but also enlighten. There is nothing remotely wrong with learning to be a good machinist or optician, but at the end of the day, the machinist and optician should know better than to go home and pop a brewsky and watch the fights or “The Wives of Wherever.”

To my thinking, the real cultural difference – as opposed to the economic difference – between the “underclass” and the “elite” is in their worldviews. I think people who read Cervantes and Descartes and stand in line for the cheap theater tickets are the elite, no matter how pinched their economic circumstances. If there is a class difference, I measure it in cultural differences, not in income disparity. Many of the Occupy protesters, awash in college debt, are poor by sociological and economic measures. But they are the elite, as far as I’m concerned. The Masters of the Universe – not so much. The tycoons might fund the opera house, but they can’t mouth the libretto as the fat lady sings.

There is a difference between training and education. Training may be necessary to develop specific skills required to do specialized jobs, and the government should help support programs that supply that kind of training. But it also should, as it used to do, support educational programs that expand students’ worldviews. People like my university president friend and I certainly did not go to “finishing school,” but public educational institutions used to do their best to lessen the distance between “them” and “us” by exposing “us” to some of the same iconic cultural fundamentals that came with that expensive finishing-school education.

There is a scene in the film “Working Girl,” the exact details of which I may get wrong here. The Melanie Griffith character is portrayed as an inherently savvy secretary from “working-class” Brooklyn who works for an elite, privileged, cutthroat Wall Street operator played by Sigourney Weaver. The Weaver character is not as clever as Griffith’s character, but she is not above stealing Griffith’s brilliant idea. Throughout most of the film, the characters are pretty much cardboard stereotypes, and the film’s outcome will not come as a surprise to the viewer. Weaver will get her comeuppance and Griffith will get the job and the guy. But in one scene, we see the real cultural gap between the two women, one that cannot easily be bridged. Griffith is in Weaver’s office, and the phone rings. When Griffith answers her boss’s phone, the party on the other end speaks to her in German. Griffith is out of her element. Weaver walks in, takes the receiver from Griffith, and begins chatting happily – in fluent German – with the caller. There is a one-shot of Griffith in which her facial expression tells it all: she may beat out Weaver in one sense, but she and Weaver, in another very real sense, will never be of the same “class.” The Griffith character will never speak German. She will always be a “working girl” no matter how much money she makes on Wall Street. That is the cultural gap that our public educational system has never quite closed, but at one time allowed the upwardly-mobile to narrow to a sliver which only a snob would credit.

Nicholas Kristof was born into the intellectual elite, but he went to school with the children of factory workers. He should have the sense to see that the unwashed masses need and deserve more than training for factory jobs to fully participate in – and enhance – the American cultural experience. He is deft at looking down his nose at “liberal prejudice,” but his own willingness to relegate the “working class” to a separate class of ignorant drones is a prejudice that is quintessentially unamerican. Public education can and did blur and even erase class lines. It should do a better job of it today.

: Today and tomorrow, I am or will be referring to some New York Times op-ed columns which the Times published a day or days before the day of publication of my column. If you are a reader who is “disappointed with the delay,” please read something else. It is not my desire to disappoint, but when the Times publishes opinions on two worthy topics on the same day, I cannot write two columns to accommodate the impatient. Life is all about picking and choosing. I have to pick and choose. You get to do that, too.

Marie Burns blogs at



Readers Comments (4)

  1. PD Pepe says:

    Oh, I love this column! You, Marie, have captured the essence of this cultural gap perfectly. Every banner in every school should read: “We teach you How to think, not What to think.” To short shrift the humanities, history, music, and art is to stifle and shrink potential in our educational system.Edna O’Brien once said, “Books are the Grail for what is deepest, more mysterious and least expressible within ourselves. If we were to forget that, it would prefigure how false and feelingless we could become.” Many books are written to make people read; the best are written to force them to think. Matthew Arnold saw education both as a moral activity, in an individual and a social sense, and a political one in that it served to bind together the various classes of society in a common aim of humanistic cultivation.

    Re: “Working Girl”: Although the Griffith character remains at the end of the film a working girl she has left her blue collar boy friend along with her previous milieu, shed her gold bangles, big hair
    and entered a world of potential. I see her going back to school and maybe even learning German.

    When my husband and I first went to Germany––one of our sons and his family live there–––we prepared by learning the German language and took a course online. We found that most everyone we met spoke English and when we tested our German, they’d invariably say, “Please speak English, we need to hear it often.” My German granddaughters are required to take two languages throughout their schooling––English and another (most choose French).

    What a kick it would be for the guy who fixes my car to read Keats on his lunch break. Imagine the conversations–––cam shafts and La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

  2. alphonsegaston says:

    This disdain for a liberal education has been accelerating rapidly as the economy has faltered. The class lines, however, are even more obvious, with the wealthy expecting a liberal education for their children but not the general public.

    Years ago, when my state began pushing the university to accept courses from community colleges for credit, I was on a committee comparing our course goals with those of the local community colleges. In our freshman writing courses we included a section on detection of propaganda–simple stuff like testimonial, band wagon, transfer. What the cc courses were doing was training their students in using these devices themselves. Obviously they were not being asked for critical thinking, far from it.

    My own high school class of 1952,in a small town in upstate New York, turned out three PhDs, an MD, several teachers, nurses,social workers, law enforcement officers, a professional singer. There was an emphasis on general education, even as many of us went into farming or factory work. My BFF, who also went through a women’s liberal arts college with me (not 7 sisters, but the less prestigious 14), has had a career in local politics. Of course we were “working class.” And we also worked during school. I had so many different jobs in high school and college that when I looked for a university summer job during graduate school, the office in which I applied hired me based on the astonishing variety of jobs I had done, to interview student job seekers.

    This was during the fifties, when few of our parents had college educations and expectations for us were definitely not high. I only attended college because my widowed mother, an RN, took a job as housekeeper to the college president so I could attend tuition free. After I graduated, she went back to hospital work and had a successful career. Today, in that area, there are many public colleges and universities offering many options which were never dreamed of in the early fifties. But while all of this expansion seemed so beneficial at first, somehow it has turned to the idea of job training and vocational education. As if, once the opportunity seemed to be there, the “working classes” had to be herded into lower-level jobs. One member of our state board of regents was known to be against university “branches” in our smaller cities-folks out there didn’t need college but job training. The received idea is, of course, that urban dwellers are smarter than rural bumpkins.

    In my class, we were all but one white, many of us Danes who farmed the areas which have lately become home to a thriving Amish population. Many of us worked in the vineyards in those days before mechanical grape pickers, those whose family owned vineyards and those like myself who were weekend 20 bushel a day girls–$5.00. Aspiration was perhaps fueled by Postwar optimism in the 50s and 60s, but somehow it never survived the Reagan years . Morning in America seems to me have been the prelude to booms, busts, and outsourcing.

    And now the unwise expansion of charter schools and for-profit colleges and online universities is threatening the stability of the academic marketplace.
    I have noticed that businesses expect the taxpayers to provide workers not only with a basic education but also with the specific training for their business.

  3. Ormond Otvos says:

    Marie –

    Perhaps you might skip the wallowing in the wonderful past, and write a column on the new paradigm: internet autodidact.

    Although I was blessed with a few good teachers in school, I don’t see how they could have even approximated the incredible fact and opinion matrix both YOU and I live in today.

    I have vast respect for your perception and erudition, but this seems a blank spot.

  4. marieburns says:

    @Ormond Otvos: Thank you for writing. Not sure I’m wallowing here. What I meant to say — however inartful the result — is that in the 1950s (see alphonsegaston above) and 60s, there was a general belief in all segments of society that public education was valuable and should be accessible to all. The exception to that was public education for black students in the South, which was a region-wide institutional travesty.

    Today, that respect for the value of public education is diminished. State legislatures, especially those dominated by conservative Republicans (pretty much the only kind of professional Republicans there are now, sadly) are drastically cutting back funding for higher education, and conservatives are seeking to privatize education in every nasty little way they can dream up. And of course, there are probably many people who would agree with you: who needs it? You can learn everything on the Internet for the price of a cheap computer & a high-speed connection.

    I suppose we all become autodidacts when we leave school — unless we never leave — but I am sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that accumulating facts without having and honing a core general education is pretty useless. If you don’t believe me, think of all the people who stay glued to Fox “News” when they’re not listening to Rushbo. They probably know more “facts” — a lot of them inventions, of course — than I do, but I don’t think they’re able to discriminate nearly as well as I can. Somewhere in their educational careers, the Foxbots missed the “how to think” classes that so many of us happened on.

    I’ve spent a good part of my life around educators — and learning stuff from them. That back-and-forth was essential for me. I can’t tell you how many times in my life — probably thousands — I’ve had a discussion where it dawned on me, “Oh. There’s another way to think about that.” The same is true, of course, when I’m “autodidacting”; i.e., when I’m reading. But through all of that process of learning, I knew how to analyze and weigh what I was hearing/reading because of that basic education I got in the classroom.

    I went back to school fairly late in life to get an advanced degree in a subject I already knew quite a bit about. Nevertheless, the structure of the classroom forced upon me a discipline that greatly enhanced my mastery of the subject, a (partial) mastery I would not have realized cruising the Internet or the public library. I wish everyone had the opportunity I did to continue their educations after they had some life experience behind them. (By the way, teaching a college class forces that same discipline on you, as I found out.)

    So, yeah, I use the Internet; I use it a lot. But everything I read on the Internet fits into the intellectual matrix I developed when Mrs. Watts taught me high-school English or Prof. Lovejoy taught me early American history — both at publicly-funded schools.

    I use myself here as merely an example; I think millions of Americans share my experience. The Internet is an ancillary tool; so are books. Formal education is essential to developing an ability to sift and winnow what you read or hear, whatever the source. The less we value formal education as a nation, the less we shall be as a nation.



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