Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Latte-drinking Liberal Hypocrites

In Middle Class, Signs of Anxiety on School Efforts - New York Times

The Bloomberg administration's efforts to invest immense attention and resources on low-income students in low-performing schools are causing growing anxiety among parents from middle-class strongholds who worry that the emphasis is coming at their children's expense...

Take Heidi Vayer, a former public school teacher and guidance counselor. She decided to remove her two daughters this year from public school in District 2 on the East Side of Manhattan and enrolled them instead in an independent school, Friends Seminary. "I didn't see things getting better," Ms. Vayer said. "The school increased class sizes, and I felt no attention was being paid to middle-class students who were there."

Here's a nice story from the NYTimes about what happens when a school system makes a serious effort to improve lower class children's academic performance: upper middle class parents, predictably, pull their kids out. Who's surprised if white working class parents who can't afford to buy their kids out of the system

When my daughter went to the local public high school, from which less than a quarter of students continued on to college, even though her performance in elementary school was mediocre, she was magically tracked to AP classes and propelled into the local elite world-ranked state university. I'm not complaining but I do wonder if had something to do with the fact that she is blonde and a native English speaker. The same thing happened to me--even though my performance in elementary school was dismal and I was, in addition, what was known as a "discipline problem." Somehow all the classes I ended up in, apart from gym, were populated by students from my elementary school and the one other "good" school in town.

Now I am pretty smart and so is my daughter. But I find it hard to believe there there weren't quite a few kids who were just as smart relegated to the academic lumpen proletariat. Of course not all lower class kids were dumped--the very good children, the hard-working, motivated kids who were not "discipline problems" probably got through the class filter. But I don't have the slightest doubt that lower class kids who, like me, were "underachievers" never got the second, and third, and nth chances that I got.

I know very well why I'm not behind that check-out counter, why don't spend my days at a terminal inputting data, why I'm not stuck doing drudge work. I detest the system that traps people in these jobs not because I feel compassion for them--I don't like people like them--but because I know how easily I could have been in their position and because I know how completely arbitrary it is that my life is good and their lives are miserable.

Maybe we'd do better pushing this line rather than trying to promote compassion. Compassion is episodic and unreliable: it kicks in when we see flood victims clinging to the roofs of their houses but evaporates when we have to deal with refugees packed into squalid shelters. Compassion is selective: it attaches to pretty children and the "deserving poor" but not to the masses of miserable people who are unattractive and unpleasant to deal with. Compassion is seasonal: after an annual Santa Claus rally, when the Salvation Army buckets come out and the NYTimes runs stories about the 100 Neediest cases, it tanks. In any case, no one really feels very much compassion most of the time--in fact the natural human tendency is to be repelled by people who are badly off.

The real, reliable motivator of social improvement is the proximity of possible worlds where one could have been very much worse off. The way to get people motivated is to repeat, incessantly "that could easily have been you"--to rub in the fact that most of us who are better off escaped drudge work and poverty by sheer dumb luck, that our children are in those AP classes that interface seamlessly with the best universities by sheer dumb luck and to remind them also that even if they have escaped for now, in a society without safety nets, they and their children are always vulnerable. We need to display the momentum mori, the skull on the desk as a meditation object--pictures of supermarket checkers, of women inputting data at terminals, of sweat shop workers, with our faces edited in.


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