Charles Murray is the famous, or perhaps infamous, author of several political science books including Coming Apart, a book that explores the growing divide between wealthy and poor Americans, the topic of which was the main focus of his speech at the Athenaeum.
Murray opened his speech at the Athenaeum this Wednesday by announcing that he would choose to focus on the upper class specifically because of the audience – that is, the students and faculty of Claremont McKenna College.
I noticed as he made the statement that a number of students were shaking their heads, clearly disapproving of the generalization. And yet, as Murray continued his speech, I realized that his generalization was not intended to offend but rather to raise awareness.
He noted his tendency to generalize as he presented his “quiz” to audience members, to help them determine their place in this new social spectrum. Questions included, “Have you ever seen a factory floor?” or “Have you ever lived for at least a year in the United States at a family income that was close to or below the poverty line?”
Immediately following Murray’s speech, I decided to take the “How Thick is Your Bubble?” quiz myself. I scored a 28, which places me somewhere in between a first-generation and second-generation (or more) upper-middle class person. This makes sense considering that my father was raised in the same upper-middle class suburb that I now reside in and that my mother was raised by two teachers on teacher salaries in small town Indiana.
The bottom line is that I live in a bubble. Murray described the life of the average upper class individual, living in an upper class suburb and attending either private school or a very good public school. From there, he notes, the individual moves on to an elite college or university, spending his or her summers interning at elite institutions, and then seamlessly transitioning into graduate school and the upper echelons of the workforce.
This description, one that I myself fit, leaves no room for interaction with the rest of America that does not live inside the bubble.
Murray holds that the ideal means for individuals to break out of this bubble are via joining the military or working in some sort of service job that will expose them to lower-class America.
Why is this so important? Murray cites journalists and regulators as key figures of influence. These individuals have the potential to influence a significant amount of people, and yet they have often lived inside the bubble and so are oblivious to the preferences and beliefs of lower-class America. This same principle could be applied to policymakers, although Murray noted that politicians are a much more complicated subject to discuss.
So how, in practical measures, is someone like myself supposed to break out of the bubble?
I think the first step is acknowledging its existence. Even at the elite institution that is Claremont McKenna, I have been exposed to individuals who come from very different and far less insulated backgrounds than my own. Yet despite this exposure, Murray’s blunt statements about the reality of the upper class struck me.
What now? My initial reaction was to rethink my summer plans to intern for a non-profit in New York City on Claremont funding, as this is clearly a continuation of the insulation that I have experienced during my entire life.
I am not going to do that, though, as I think Murray’s greater message is to find a time, at some point, to take a step back and to see the reality of the country. I want to be exposed to the rest of America, if not now then before I enter the workforce and have the potential to impact people that I do not fully understand.
My hope is that my fellow CMC-ers, of all walks of life, will also see this talk and its implications as an opportunity to rethink the way they view the world, and their plans for the future, in terms of the voices that they themselves may never hear.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors or other employees of the Forum.