Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Modern Abbey

I’ve been watching Downton Abbey, and it seems to give key insight into how Americans are able to buy into the fantasy that we live in a classless society. For, as it is said, individuals can succeed by merit, as opposed to inherited wealth and social status, and no one begrudges them for it. Yet while there may no longer be social stigma to upward class mobility, it is largely as determined as it has always been, even if there now exist many facilitating institutions and structures in society that encourage the leveraging of oneself upwards.

Let me give an example. My daughter’s public (charter!) school, in a relatively posh neighborhood, your average parent is highly educated, well to do or both. At a recent gathering, I learned that one of my daughter’s playmates parents were both ophthalmologists. There are college professors, business owners, lawyers, etc. At a poor school down the street, the average parent might be a gardener, housecleaner, or cashier. The two worlds rarely meet. And why would they? Culturally, they have little in common. Their life experiences, interests, activities, etc. are likely very different. While it is in theory possible for one to rise or fall out of these class-oriented circles, it is the exception, often owing more to chance than anything else. Because these orientations are not static, but highly self-reinforcing.

Starting at the earliest age (in utero, really, studies have shown), the children of these groups are groomed by their environment, through exposure to different varieties of parenting, cognitive activities, language skills, environmental stressors, expectations, norms, etc. My 4 year old daughter is just now really beginning to read, about nine months before her first day of kindergarten. She’s at about a first grade reading level. Her parents are not well-to do (one teacher’s salary!), but we both have graduate degrees, have traveled the world, are interested in world culture, philosophy, the arts, and generally things that will translate directly into highly leveragable human capital for our children. Furthermore, they are now being introduced into a peer community that has similar levels of capital.

Our children have not inherited noble blood, nor vast land claims, nor social honoraries that entitle them to understood social privilege. Not literally. But if your look at the way reality actually plays out, if you draw the causal lines between what environmental grooming delivers to human development, there might as well be little difference.
Children play a game called King of the Hill, in which those at the top fight to keep others down, while staying there themselves. In the rigid class systems of Downton Abbey, the business of actually fighting for one’s place was unnecessary: place was assumed. Yet while today place is not necessarily assumed, the systems of leverage upon which one reaches and stays on top are still almost as effective. Humans vary widely in their innate cognitive capacity. The lazy, the striving, the introverted, the sociable are born to rich and poor alike.

Yet even if we were to assume that fairness might lie in some innate meritocratic value – “each according to his ability” – even if we were to admire such a system, it would bear little resemblance to that which we enjoy today. The well-born lazy tend to land on their feet, cushioned in their deficit to the degree that their inherited social and financial capital has been able to provide its own kind inertia. Likewise, the poor-born striver faces a million slings and arrows all conspiring to direct his inclinations toward more dubious opportunity. In my work with poor teens, I’ve come across more than a few young minds no doubt possessing some special spark, yet which rather than alighting a road to success, has instead lit a fuse of personal tragedy or ruinous disarray. (Of course, teasing out the origins of this mystical “spark” more often than not leads not to any special innate talent, but rather to some other secret cache of social capital, in the form of a supportive parent, a family tradition of determination, or good old fashion fortuitous circumstance that resulted in the child being able to grow that particularly fruitful set of neural connections.)

“Capitalism: better than the rest”, may provide sufficient comfort to the more credulous and self-deceiving. Yet despite the objective truth of the phrase, capitalism remains an ugly facilitator of class entrenchment. We do our best to take off the rough edges (at least those of us with enough with enough skeptical inquiry and critical faculty to empathize with the plight of those pressed by position to the grinding wheel). And hindered as we are by those who would pretend the ugliness away, the problem seems to have no easy solution. At the end of the day the hill still exists, and it will always be in the interest of those of us who have been either born to scale it, or who have been born at its peak, to do whatever we can to say at the top. Be that as it may, we possess faculties sufficient to recognize our hypocrisy (oh, what good little boys and girls we have been, such hard workers we!), and at least attempt to not only attempt to smash down any extant barriers to class transcendence, but – and this now seems our most difficult challenge – to erect systems that empower those born into circumstances devoid of the requisite social capital to nourish their development.

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