When it was time for my oldest son to apply to college ten years or so ago, our family went into overdrive. We persuaded him—maybe actually we bribed him—to take an SAT preparation class. And so, we wrote a significant check to Mr. Kaplan and his minions. We also retained a private college counselor, to whom I issued more than a few payments. The Kaplan people enhanced my son’s vocabulary, which was already substantial, and honed his test taking skills. The college counselor read and re-read my son’s personal statement and also drew up a wall chart that let us know what was due for each application and when. These services helped to maintain peace in our family. They also, no doubt, helped my son get into college.
Looking back on this simple and now common process gives me some clues about the current state of education in America—and also about our politics. Multiply this college admissions tale by a few million—and millions are doing much as we did—and, odd as it may sound, you can see some of the roots of our currently raging social and political discord. I was ambivalent about the admissions process as it unfolded. I knew that I was affording my son advantages that other kids didn’t have. It wasn’t easy to write those checks to Mr. Kaplan and Ms. College Advisor, but it was in our financial range. For many of my son’s contemporaries these services would have been too pricey. It was unfair, and I knew it. My son now had something a little like the edge that the kids at Andover and Exeter Academy had over me, a half century ago, when I was a student at raucous Medford High School, twenty or so miles and a world away from them.
Yet my son had superior academic talent—he had excellent aptitude in the humanities as I did when I was a boy, but he had promise in science and math, which I’d never possessed. He didn’t care for the academic side of his high school, and the more I learned about it the more I saw his point. So why shouldn’t he have his shot? Why shouldn’t he make it into college? And besides, dammit, he was my son and as a father I was bound to do all I could to help him thrive. He went off to college and he did brilliantly, more than brilliantly, really. And yet I was left with a feeling of unease. Do the right thing! We tell ourselves that, but it’s not always so easy.
My unease about my son’s college admissions process would have been better defined if I’d had access to Richard Reeves’s book, The Dream Hoarders , which wasn’t published until last year. The book focuses on wealthy Americans—but not the top one percent, generally the target of political hostility. Reeves’s focus is on the top twenty percent, the college educated members of the upper middle class. Reeves argues, quite rightly, I think, that they are becoming more and more adept at passing on their status to their children. They do it through education.
They do it by using their wealth to pay taxes that maintain top-flight public schools. Or they send their kids off to private academies. They live in gated retreats to make sure their children face fewer dangers than other kids. They drive their kids from one resumé building activity to the next. They make sure that the members of their brood don’t need after-school jobs to keep them in pocket-money, so they have the time to play sports and join clubs and study. They supervise their kids to keep them out of trouble and make sure the homework gets done. Over the summer, they help their kids to take on internships that make them alluring to college admissions officers. And when college application time comes, they pay for private tutoring and for college advisors. They do what I did, and often more of it.
Does one have to add that this kind of activity not only enhances opportunities for the top twenty percent but also reduces them for those who have less dough? You can’t be on the tennis team, or be hyper-active in student government if you have to work afternoons and weekends. If your mom and dad don’t monitor you most days and most nights, the chances of you getting into future-disabling trouble rise. And no summer internships for you. If you work very hard and have real gifts, you’re still probably not going to look as good to the admissions board as the kids who come replete with all the bells and whistles applied and soldered into place by bourgeois child-rearing.
College admissions offices often say that they engage in need-blind admission. But then, they go and look for qualities and accomplishments that only the more prosperous kids are likely to have—all those clubs, the sports teams, the cool internships. Funny how the best qualified students are also the ones in the best position to pay the tuition bill. And admissions offices also give serious credence to the SATs. Now we know what almost no one knew in the past (those kids at Andover and Exeter in 1970 excepted): test scores can be enhanced markedly through preparation—usually paid-for preparation.
I’m not saying that the upper middle-class kids who go off to top-rate colleges didn’t work hard, nor that their parents didn’t sacrifice to get them where they are. I am saying that the college game is at least part-way rigged. The upper middle class has hit on the ultimate means to maintain what Marx would call its hegemony. Its members have fixed the college admissions system. And right now, nothing predicts your level of future prosperity better than your level of education. When you hold the keys to the best education, the possibilities for you and your children grow. Your kids have a genuine chance to flourish. The kids on the other side of the tracks do not. I’ll put it crudely: your kids (and mine) took that chance away from them.
I think that every one of us in the top twenty percent feels this truth and it does not make anyone happy. For what do human beings want? To modify Lewis Carroll, I think that we virtually all want jam today and jam tomorrow. We want prosperity. We want to be secure. We want jam, and all that goes with it, for ourselves and also for our kids. Some socio-biologists tell us that the desire for our progeny to thrive is deep enough to be called instinctive, and maybe they are right.
We want prosperity today and tomorrow, but we apparently want something else, too. We want to eat our tasty meals and live beneath our non-leaking roof with a clean conscience. To have this, we need to have some stories to tell about why we deserve the jam and why those who do not possess it in acceptable-sized servings do not. We need those stories to be persuasive and comprehensive, because we want (darn it) to eat our victuals in peace. Marxists of course call these stories manifestations of ideology.
And that brings us to the broadly troubling part of my tale. Now we come to politics.
As Thomas Byrne Edsall has shown, a shift in the disposition of wealth has recently taken place in America. To put it in basic terms: the rich people, the college educated people, are no longer mainly republicans. Now they are democrats. As he says, “The well-educated leadership of the left is thriving under the status quo.” The economic gains for those with college degrees, most of whom are democrats, are significant. “From 1988 to 2012, the inflation adjusted income of college graduates increased by 16 percent and those with advanced degrees by 42 percent.” In other words, the so-called progressives got a lot richer.Now the people who want to think of themselves as progressive have more dough and almost all the cultural capital. They’re in charge of what right-wingers call the mainstream culture and the mainstream media. And they are often richer than the conservatives. That puts them in a complex position: they want to keep what they have, sure; but they also want to feel good about having it. On some level, I suspect they all know what became so evident to me ten years ago: it looks unfair for our group to have the keys to the middle-class kingdom while other people languish at the gates—or don’t even quite know where the gates are to be found. This perception is potentially so uncomfortable that it has to be replaced by some other perceptions, some other stories. And here, troubles arise.
To be a good person , you have to be an egalitarian. You have to care about the poor and the disadvantaged. You have to care about all those people who can’t go to college, or can’t go to a decent college because you (well) rigged the game on them.
When the rich were preponderantly republicans, the question of ideology was not all that complex. You simply said that wealth and position were a matter of merit. You said that life was hard and competitive. You had competed and won. Good for you. In your pocket, you had an invisible scroll whereon was written no end of tales about people who, through hard work and competitive urgency, had risen to the top. Horatio Alger was your author of choice. When people said it was harder for blacks, harder for women, harder for those whose dads had neglected to go to Harvard and whose moms unaccountably skipped Barnard, you pulled out the scroll and began to read. You went to bed full of steak, potatoes and wine, and woke up the next morning with a marching band playing in your heart.
The rich progressive doesn’t have it so easy. His song is harder to compose. For to qualify as a progressive you have to care about other people and about the poor in particular. Or if you do not, you have to have a good reason why. How do you claim to be a progressive and not feel strong obligation to the others: the others who have not gone to college, who can no longer find a union job, who are committing suicide in unprecedented numbers, who are succumbing to opiate addiction, and who are often depressed and hopeless beyond measure?
Marxists define ideology as the stories that the top tier people tell to justify their positions in the endless class struggle. Members of the dominant class like to buy books and see movies and watch shows on TV and, perhaps most of all, like to read newspapers and watch news broadcasts that justify their positions in the world. You need an ideology. You need a jam song. And when the contradictions are pronounced—a progressive who turns away from solidarity with the downtrodden: that’s quite a contradiction—your song had best be a rousing one.
Well, here’s a rousing song for you: the white, non-college educated people who feel themselves slipping and slipping down, and are slipping and slipping down, do not deserve our help or our sympathy for very good reasons. They are not our sort of people at all. They are crude, unenlightened: a vast tribe of Morlocks.
They are sexists. They are racists. They are homophobes. Trans-phobes, too. That’s who and what they are. That’s why they voted for Trump. That’s why they are evil or close to being so. That’s why we can hold them in contempt–and do nothing for or with them.
But hold it. Isn’t it true? Isn’t it the case that white, non-college educated people who voted for Trump tend to be all those bad things?
The answer to that question is simple. The answer is, I don’t know. The answer is, I don’t know and neither do you.
You can measure what is susceptible to being measured, as Thomas Byrne Edsal does. You can say authoritatively that a class is making less money, is looking at fewer prospects, is sending fewer of its kids to college and arranging for them to stay there. You can say that the unions are fading and the factory jobs are disappearing. You can say that small cities all through America are falling apart. Those are external matters. You can perceive and even measure them. And you can say that Trump spoke to those issues in a way that Clinton did not. That too is a fact.
But you cannot tell, and I cannot tell, what attitudes on race and gender and the rest abide in the hearts of our fellow citizens unless they declare themselves. And even then, certainty is elusive. If someone says, a la David Duke: “Me? Racist all the way,” then matters become clear. But when they do not, when they adduce other reasons for voting for Trump, then maybe you better listen to them and take them seriously. For there are no surveys, no tests, no diagnostic techniques that can, with anything like certainty, affirm that anyone is a racist, a sexist, or what have you. When a survey claims to do so, some of my liberal buddies clap their hands with delight—they can’t hear enough of it. But as I see it, no survey known to humanity reaches the depths of the human soul.
Racism amok in America? Maybe. One certainly has one’s concerns. The avidity with which the Trump gang chants about building that wall to lock out Mexicans and Central Americans is disconcerting. Their seeming eagerness to see Mexicans as drug dealers and killers is depressing. Their enthusiasm for Trump’s long-maintained notion that Obama was not born in America, worrying. Their doubts about the challenges inherent in being black or brown in America don’t inspire confidence in their judgment. But racists? Maybe, maybe. I don’t know.
Certain signs suggest something rather different. Mixed race marriages are radically on the rise. Families of different races are combining with each other regularly. When you turn on TV, you see people in racially mixed couples appearing in ads, selling stuff. Advertisers have profits at stake—would they risk bankruptcy by affronting existing racial taboos?
But there is nothing at all clinching about such perceptions. They may be suggestive, but ultimately, they don’t really resolve anything, any more than pointing to “build the wall” chants does. Human character is tough to penetrate.
A novelist I know put it this way. Hamlet is surely one of the most complex characters in all literature. Generations of learned critics have tried to get to the depths of his psyche. Coleridge tried, Johnson tried, Hazlitt and Bradley and Bloom had at it. And they have made some progress. But understanding Hamlet is simplicity itself when you compare it to the task of comprehending the guy who works at the local gas station, or the gal who gases up there, or the brother and sister who own the place. People are not transparent. They are not amenable to quick construction.
We make them so to serve our ends. We make them so for ideological purposes.
Does the right wing have its songs of self-justification? I think so, yes. But they tend to be reactive. Call them, if you like, counter-ideological, for their function is to poke holes in the narratives of the materially dominant class. So: professors are frauds; high-priced doctors are quacks; lawyers are shysters. Global warming is bunk. Putin is our friend. Hillary belongs in jail. I’m not sure how many right-wingers believe these things out and out. The idea, I think, is to deploy them loudly and stubbornly until the rich progressives lose their tempers and reveal the angry contempt that they nurse for non-college-educated whites. In the face of, say, claims that global warming is a hoax, progressives are inclined to drop their composed manners and fume.
Progressives generally have little compassion to spare for what was once the white working class and is now the white unemployment, suicide and opium class. “They are toast,” one generally quite sensitive liberal acquaintance said to me rather gleefully once. He was looking forward to the multi-ethnic, multicultural American paradise that was, he thought, on the horizon. His compassion for poor whites may have been non-existent, but his compassion—or rather his professed compassion–for African Americans flourished constantly. He thought of himself as a defender, an ally, a protector. Perhaps he was. And maybe all of his fellow liberals who have concerned themselves with African American prospects are comparably virtuous. But one sometimes wonders if their commitment goes far beyond avoiding the dreaded “n-word”; fulminating against Confederate statues; and insisting that more “people of color” receive high-profile cultural awards. In exchange for such mild commitments, they may reap an outsized sense of their own virtue.
Malcolm X said once that there were two kinds of whites who busied themselves extensively with the affairs of black people. There were the racist reactionaries, whom Malcolm called wolves. They were obvious in their hatred for blacks and rather easily dealt with. At any rate, you knew where you stood with them. But then there were the liberals, whom Malcom called foxes. What did they want? They always wanted something—something for themselves in exchange for their purported assistance–and they were not so easy to contend with, not at all.
This need for self-justification among progressives, and the corresponding need to blast it apart, is creating fiery conflict between Americans. Red Americans and Blue now hate each other. Hate. They have no wish to see one another with sympathy and kindliness, or even with subtlety. They want to define themselves and justify themselves by turning against their brothers and sisters in democracy. For the pleasure of having a calm conscience, they are creating furious division and maybe, sometime down the line, remote though it may now be, the prospect of civil war.
It’s possible to believe that we humans are equipped with two identities. One is the identity that we associate with Darwin’s thought. The Darwinian individual wants to live and thrive and if possible dominate others. He cares mostly for himself and for his family. He cares for others to the degree that he needs to in order to assure public peace, so he can go about his business. He is self-interested, and his self-interest is circumscribed only by the law and social customs. He’s in it for himself, t hough from time to time, he needs stories to tell himself and the world that it’s not so. That side seems to be ascendant all through American culture at present.
But there’s another self, too, I think. It’s the self that Buddha and Jesus uncovered and encouraged and that Walt Whitman wrote his greatest poems to celebrate. This is the self that strives to love his neighbor as he loves himself. He puts kindness and compassion above the other virtues. He wants to live in a community, not be a mere member of what Coleridge called the “poor loveless ever-anxious crowd.” He wants peace and plenty, not just for himself, but for all.
Right now, that second self seems to be in abeyance, at least among the educated classes. They have constructed stories to evade the pressures of compassion and solidarity. But the fact that those stories need to be constructed at all tells us something. It tells us that buried beneath the current regime of selfishness and self-interest there is another way of being. That way—the way of the Gospels and of “Song of Myself”—is a quiet and modest way, but it will continue to exert its pressures until it once more gains a hearing.
MARK EDMUNDSON is University Professor at the University of Virginia and author of many works of criticism including, Why Write?, Self and Soul, Why Teach?, The Fine Wisdom and Perfect Teachings of the Kings of Rock and Roll, The Death of Sigmund Freud, Why Read?, Nightmare on Main Street, Literature Against Philosophy, Wild Orchids and Trotsky, Towards Reading Freud and, most recently, The Heart of the Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching. He writes often for Salmagundi.