February 9, 2012 · 4 Comments
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.
Warning: 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 RealityChex.com