Teaching Opinion

Who Are the ‘Deserving Rich’?

By Deborah Meier — October 15, 2013 6 min read
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Dear Mike,

I have just come from the Progressive Education Network conference. In such settings, with like-minded folks, I find it fun to look for disagreements. That’s a problem we don’t have. You and I have no trouble finding things we disagree on. More than I expected. Finding a place where we agree is proving more difficult for both of us.

I have been pondering what to pick out of your last piece to focus on. I’ve been listening to Dickens on my car CD player lately, and it made me realize that you and I live in different “worlds” when it comes to our responses to poverty, social class, and what we mean by equity and equality. Maybe democracy, too?

A few respondents reminded me that America actually wasn’t founded as a democracy, but as a republic (no inherited monarchies). Having grown up in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, I took it for granted that we were rooted in a “secular” allegiance to democracy—the true defenders of the democratic faith. Do we agree or disagree?

Some of our disagreements are about matters of fact, others matters of interpretation, and finally value judgments that rest on belief/faith/unable to be deterred by facts!

We agree that upward social mobility is a promising idea. That’s worth noting. But how to make it a reality is what we disagree about—and perhaps even what we mean by mobility. At present most agree that we are far behind most of the developed modern world in terms of social mobility. Note: Social mobility is not the same as annual salary, although there’s a connection. I disagree with your claim that we currently lift “roughly half of all poor children into the working or middle class by the age of 25.” Two teachers earning the same salary may or may not belong to the same social class—one may be a millionaire and another struggling to keep her head above water.

I’d find your willingness to back away from “a pure boot strap” approach comforting, but remind you that many children born to parents (or great-grandparents) in the top fifth never have to lift themselves up at all to remain in the top fifth. That seems unfair, and perhaps even damaging to the motivation, character, and grit of such well-born children? If so ...

If it is good for the poor to struggle to overcome obstacles—to be part of the deserving poor—then it suggests to me that a far more draconian inheritance tax structure and limitations on what money alone can buy needs some serious and revolutionary rethinking. Who are the deserving rich?

I see no evidence however that this same “ethos"—of overcoming obstacles—applies equally from the top to bottom of our social structure. In fact, one reason why my father “overcame” those obstacles was so my brother and I would have it easier than he did. He wanted his children to have advantages that could in turn be passed on to our “deserving” children. I was, in short, just plain luckier, and, as a result, considerably more powerful than many of my contemporaries—by chance.

Your statement intimating that things were better for blacks in the 1930s with schools like Dunbar than schools are for blacks are today, I find astounding. No, Mike, for most African-Americans life was not downhill when the end of Jim Crow ended Dunbar’s elitism. The dream of many black leaders of that time was creating a “talented tenth” who could lead the fight on behalf of all their brethren.

The normal curve—with its pyramid view of life—was however dominant when it came to educational policy. From the 1920s on, the underlying assumption upon which we designed IQ, achievement, and SAT tests was both pyramidal and classist. (Read Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man.) Am I misreading that argument?

In response to the six prescriptions for reform that you cited from a review of Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School:

1. More selectivity (ala Dunbar). The only time in history that we closed the gap between rich/poor, White/Black was in precisely the period you most object to—when we got rid of tracking, etc. The obstacles facing those who start behind are not made easier by tracking. No evidence exists to support such a contention. Segregation by school or by track along lines of race and class increases the impact of race and class on students. The exceptions among the top 10 percent rarely pay a price for their deviance—given the number of second chances they get, the depth of the network surrounding them, etc.

2. An unbelievably strict discipline system. Very, very few kids of the rich and famous find these demeaning “no excuses” schools suit their children—Why? How could you write with fond nostalgia at the humiliating suggestion inherent in policies that assumed that the families of the poor were dirtier, had more careless habit,s and thus should be shunned by their striving peers? Again, I cringe, hoping I am misreading your words.

3. Many more hours of homework. Given that the quality of academic support that home (or paid tutors) can offer differs by class, not to mention the disparity between what rich versus poor adolescents face in terms of other distracting and essential family chores, homework itself places poorer children on an uneven playing field with their peers. You want to make that worse?

4. Making how many kids “flunk out” a virtue. This seems inconsistent with how rich people judge their children’s schools, or Time magazine ranks them.

5., and 6. Viewing “lack of finance” as a personal weakness or tracking students out of a strong liberal and intellectually sound education earlier is fundamentally at odds with my view—as a historian and an educator—of what a democracy requires.

Democracy was a term that always suggested a relatively equal peer base. The Greeks limited it to those who didn’t need to engage in physical work and thus had the leisure and the independence needed to rule. This was also true, my conservative friends remind me, at the time that our Constitution was signed. As we aspired to widen our ideal, we gradually included more and more excluded groups from citizenship without changing their access to the independence and leisure needed to rule. The change in our definition of full citizenship between 1787 and 2013 has been vast. But it takes other vast changes if we expect everyone to not only see themselves as members of the ruling class, but actually to be in a position to act like one. We all need an upbringing that makes such a claim imaginable. We need to rethink the value of leisure, our definition of “hard work,” and our capacity to imagine ourselves born into very different circumstances and skins.

Are you really able to back the claim that you will “clear the path” into the middle class for every student who engages in “hard work”? I might take you up on that. (And can you also promise to expel from the upper class all those who rest their status on the hard work of others—not their own?)

Our differences may be so deep and unbridgeable that we genuinely cannot even imagine taking each other’s arguments seriously. But if we are to create schools and communities that take on the essential task of educating for democracy we have to demonstrate the possibility of discourses like this, acknowledging the difficulty we all have in imagining the world from a very different perspective. As humans we have the capacity to do this, maybe, but the kind of education that expands our ability to talk across such divisions of class, faith, race, and ethnicity will have to be different than the one we have. One that puts all its chips on each child’s energies focused on “getting ahead” of others, racing to the top without looking back at the damage below is in conflict with this. It might even be that it requires us to make real what we were famous for, but never truly had: common schools for everyone.


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