Thursday, May 29, 2008

USA as 'classless society', part ∞: education.

The assumption that American society is classless is to mainstream/bourgeois media as hydrogen is to water. But every now and again, while reading a publication such as the online magazine Slate, I'll stumble upon a manifestation of this assumption's embeddedness that I find particularly cloying. Discussions of education that ignore or reflect an author's ignorance of the profound impact of class, racial politics and other historical and current forms of social stratification tend to make me sick to my stomach.

Tell me that Anne Applebaum's recent mouth-breathing rumination All Work and No Play Still Might Not Get Jack Into Harvard doesn't induce nausea in the pit of your tummy. An excerpt:
...[T]he parents of many driven children
Gee, I hate to interrupt so soon, but if "driven children" means anything at all, it refers to children whose means of ordering and comprehending their relationship to the world around them provides for a realizable measure of mastery, competence or autonomy, however construed. Each of these children grow up with either the conviction or the guarantee that there's a piece of the pie with his or her name on it, and it is their task to learn to slice it. So already Applebaum is speaking only of children born into families with a significant social and cultural foothold, a status a child attains only through the good fortune of having been born into the right family in the right place at the right time, and that almost always coincides with preexisting economic wealth.

In other words, Applebaum's "driven children" consists of a tiny, privileged minority. Anyway, she continues, the parents of "many" of these "driven children," who apparently were
raised on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little House on the Prairie, retain a kind of nostalgia for a pre-industrial America, one in which childhood involved breaking horses and building rafts, in which "schooling" was optional, and in which dropping out was a romantic option....
Uh, right. And the thing about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Little House on the Prairie is that they're, uh, works of fiction. They are entertainments. They're also myths -- a perfectly fine thing for them to be, by the way -- that are to a lesser or greater extent themselves constructed from the raw materials of previous myths. The pioneer families of the Great Plains. The provincial Southern Town that may have its troubles, but deep down, there's a Heart of Gold. Applebaum knows that life wasn't really like that, right?

So why is it then that she lets this small minority of privileged parents of privileged children off the hook for -- apparently -- mistaking its own privileged yet workaday childhood for a mythical one that existed only in classic fiction and shitty television series? Could it be because this group is engaged in the same act of self-delusion as Applebaum: failure to see the concept of meritocracy for the myth that it is?
It's notable, this nostalgia, because it isn't necessarily shared by other countries. Certainly not by the British, some of whose children start taking serious, life-changing exams at age 11, nor by the Koreans whose children declare they can't let themselves "waste even a second" during their 15-hours-a-day, seven-days-a week quest to get into college, preferably Harvard. In fact, any country committed to meritocracy has to impose exams on its high-school seniors. Otherwise, university admissions will necessarily depend upon wealth, access, and parental connections.
Applebaum is missing the point. University admissions already depend upon "wealth, access, and parental connections." University admissions have always depended upon these things. What changed was that the myth of the United States as a "country committed to meritocracy" gained popularity, prominence and the support of Social Darwinist intellectuals during the American Gilded Age. It's more than mere coincidence that meritocracy's rise to prominence occurred during the fucking Gilded Age. There was a brief moment in the wake of World War II, driven by public spending on social services like the G.I. Bill, during which the playing field did even out the tiniest bit, but those days are long gone, Applebaum.
More strangely, our nostalgia also clashes oddly with the other important American education narrative, the one that focuses on the 46 percent of high-school seniors who test below the "basic" level in science (only 2 percent qualify as "advanced"), the "Dumbest Generation" of semi-literates glued to their cell phones, and the enormous number of teenagers—a stunning one-third of the total—who fail to graduate from high school on time. Since 38 percent of these teenagers recently told one survey that they dropped out because "I had too much freedom and not enough rules in my life," it's no surprise that solutions to the drop-out crisis often involve the imposition of stricter school regimes, with more organized hours of teaching, more pressure, and, yes, more testing.
This is the part that just makes me want to fucking wretch. Tell me, Anne Applebaum, do you suppose that the "46 percent of high-school seniors who test below the 'basic' level in science" are on a level playing field with your precious "driven children," vying for spots at Harvard?
Thus are our kids both stupider than we were and harder working
Well, let's give Applebaum the benefit of the doubt and suppose that she's describing our shared American narrative of classlessness. She doesn't, of course, take a moment to point out that classlessness itself is the most pernicious myth of all. So, instead of calling her stupid or deluded, let's just call her evil.
—though perhaps this makes sense.
Ermmm, Anne, let's not get ahead of ourselves...

Evoking at once the myopia of a county club mom burdened with arranging schedules for her children's tennis lessons and the self-undermining pro-atomized individualism of a fat, exurban AM radio-listener, Applebaum's self-deception -- be it rhetorical or real -- that we Americans are all on a level playing field is just about the most laughable and disgusting thing I can recall having read in Slate. And considering that the magazine includes contributions from Christopher Hitchens, that's no small thing.

1 comment:

Paddy the Zimmer said...

"Snarkily Satisfying!"

Keep up the great work.