In one of his more memorable essays, titled The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, William Deresiewicz describes the moment he realized that an Ivy League education had failed him. He had just bought a house and hired a plumber to fix some pipes- a man “with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent,” as Deresiewicz describes him; a guy who lived in the same locale as Deresiewicz, surely shopped at many of the same stores, and likely rooted for the same sports teams. And yet these familiarities, these communal ties, couldn’t bridge the gap between them- “so alien was his experience, so un-guessable his values, so mysterious his very language,” Deresiewicz remarks, “that I couldn’t engage him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work.”
Coming from a mixed-class background (my mom grew up in an Irish-Catholic family from Queens, NY, and was one of six children, and my dad grew up in a family where everyone graduated from Harvard and Yale), I spent a lot of time growing up, both in my suburban town and in New York City, around people similar to the man Deresiewicz described in his article, many of whom were, or became, cops and firefighters, mechanics and electricians, small-scale businessman and bureaucrats.
These were people who, for all the differences between them and me, I loved, enjoyed, and most importantly, appreciated for being real. They seemed, in spite of a lack of any greater opportunities, not to be weighed down by the same need to impress, promote and advertise constantly. They held, as Gertrude Stein once insisted is the essence of being civilized, the ability to possess themselves as they were.
I rarely see this side of the family anymore, an absence which dates back to high school, when I began attending a fancy preparatory school in Westchester County. Ever since, I’ve spent most of my time around people of privilege- of culture and of money.
Last July, I had my own “Deresiewicz moment” at the funeral of a family friend back in Queens. As I struggled to interact with family members and friends, people who spoke differently and led different lives than I did – I felt the same gap that Deresiewicz had felt. I kept getting frustrated with my use of needless big words and cliché witticisms; by my inability to straight-talk. I realized that I, in the spirit of the prestigious high school I once attended and the high-power liberal arts college that I am on the verge of graduating from, was a 24-hour advertisement, a BS artist; more a brand of a person than an actual person person.
Afterword, I was ashamed of myself for tipping the scale toward one facet of my identity while ignoring the other; for not keeping in touch with people who really mattered to me; for not realizing all this until the age of 21.
Class, as a concept, has always been treated delicately in the U.S., taking on less weight throughout our history, for good reason, than other issues of identity- race, immigration, what it means to be a “native” of America (hint: not us), even religion. Unlike more racially and ethnically homogeneous states in western and central Europe, where class looms large in the national imagination, America has often had larger demons to confront- slavery, Indian displacement, Jim Crow, alien and anti-immigration laws.
Class also plays a small, even minimal, role in our political culture, in part because of our ingrown fear of Leftist movements- like Marxism and democratic socialism- a fear that predates the Cold War and continues to play out in today’s politics (‘Obama is a socialist,’ ‘we’re becoming the next Europe’). We view any semblance of class conflict- protest movements like Occupy Wall Street- as incubators for Leftist ideology.
More abstract, and yet equally as important to grasp, is the larger, anthropological view of the U.S. as a place where class is temporary rather than permanent. Unlike countries throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East- where family, ethnic and regional identity carry deep meaning- class identity in the U.S. is far more transient. Indeed, as descendants of immigrants, we all, for the most part, (unless your ancestors came over on the Mayflower) technically have “working-class” backgrounds, whether that be current or multiple generations removed. This is a unique national legacy- that whether it’s you, or your ancestor who first laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, there exist past experiences of economic disadvantage and poverty; the other side.
There’s good and bad that come with our perceived, and in some ways real, meritocracy. We live in a country that prides itself on choice- the ability to move around from city to city, state to state; to work any job; to adopt and profess whatever beliefs; to leave a lowly situation in search of a better one; to change. These are all undoubtedly good legacies.
But we also have a larger cultural tendency to turn our backs, and leave our old identities behind in the rear view mirror in search of something we hope to be better, sometimes stumbling and even lying our ways into our new identities. The spiritual crisis we have always faced and continue to, as a class-shifting society, that great artistic masterpieces like the Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane capture so brilliantly, is perpetual displacement, limbo. We leave home and rarely ever go back (whether “home” is a foreign country, a lower-class neighborhood in a large American city or a farm in the Midwest), because home brings back bad memories and reminds us of the weakness and vulnerability of our parents, our ancestors- the same weakness and vulnerability that shines bright in us if you peer closely enough.
And yet home, we soon realize- despite the discomforting memories it may bring back- is central to understanding who we are; that without an understanding of home we are fragmented, blind, and hopelessly incomplete beings, weak and as vulnerable as we once were; that abandoning and ignoring home, as many aspiring and ambitious Americans have, is anathema to finding joy and meaning in life.
College is an interesting place to witness this essential American truth. We all come here post high school, at the ripe age of 18, and although we’re given brief glimpses of what people are like on trips like W.O.A! and in the first few weeks of classes, we are rarely left with more than surface impressions. We truly know little about each other- our class backgrounds, the finances of our parents, our loves and aspirations, our weak points and past f***-ups.
It is here in the first few weeks of college when students, especially the ones who are lower and middle class (or mixed-class like me), begin to recreate themselves- who [maybe without even fully realizing it] bask in our school’s culture of privilege, begin to talk and act like the rich, and ultimately learn to side with the powerful instead of the powerless.
What’s more, it is the kids who don’t fit into this culture of privilege, or who simply don’t buy into it (again, a lot of them lower and middle class), who suffer in their first few years; who stick to their rooms or small cohort of friends because they are convinced they don’t fit in; who bear the social consequences of not being one of the rest; and who, worst of all, often feel ashamed for it.
As income inequality on a national and [especially] global scale gets worse and worse by the year, this is, many intellectuals and social scientists would suggest, the “great issue” of our time (perhaps along with climate change). Just last month I watched a documentary by Eugene Jarecki about “The War On Drugs”; a war, as Jarecki rightfully puts it and ingeniously explains, that’s more about class than it is about drugs; where most of the people who end up behind bars are not evil wrongdoers but poor, jobless, and vulnerable blacks and whites who do excessive sentences for petty possession charges (mostly for crack and methamphetamine, drugs notorious for their socioeconomic stigmas); who are being punished less for their crime than for the simple fact that the new global economy of technology and high-skilled labor has yet to find a way to include them.
More importantly it seems- as abstract, numbers-oriented and distant issues of policy can sometimes feel- that the issue of inequality, for me as well as others, hits especially close to home. It plays out in my backyard along with the backyard of many lower and middle class students who attend this college and other colleges around the country, who struggle day-to-day to reconcile the gap between the world they have left and the one they are trying to enter. It plays out when we turn our backs on that world we were once a part of, dishonest as that may be, so that we can feel smart and capable and destined for something new and better. And it plays out when we can’t take the facade anymore; when our pasts look us straight in the eye, our recreated selves no longer hold up, and the shame kicks in.