Re: [xmca] article on social class

From: Richard Beach (
Date: Sat May 06 2006 - 09:36:46 PDT

        Some texts I¹ve found useful in thinking about issues of class and
identity construction include Julie Bettie¹s (2003) study of 12th grade
working-and middle-class Mexican-American and white females in a Central
Valley California high school; Bettie found that students were more likely
to define themselves and others in terms of racial or gender rather than
class differences; working-class Mexican-American and white students
therefore did not acknowledge certain economic issues they shared as
working-class people.

        Another study is Julie Lindquist¹s (2002) analysis of rhetorical
arguments in a working-class bar in which she identified a tension between
her own ³what-if² speculative argumentative mode and the
³what-is²‹this-is-the-way-the-world-is mode of her ³working-class²
customers‹a distinction related to the challenge of creating political
change through encouraging working-class people to envision alternative
futures and political agendas.

        Then, Sadowski (2003) identifies how upper-middle class adolescents
face enormous pressures from their achievement-oriented parents to engage in
practices leading to admissions to the ³right school.² This echoes some of
the current research on ³middle-class² families at the UCLA Center on
Everyday Lives of Families <> that finds that
middle-class families are highly scheduled in a need to keep busy‹also
leading to stress.

            References/other texts:
Bernstein, B. (1996). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity. London:
Taylor Francis.
Bettie, J. (2003). Women without class. Berkeley: University of California
Bottero W., & Irwin S. (2003). Locating difference: Class, Œrace¹ and
gender, and the shaping of social inequalities. The Sociological Review,
51(4), 463-483.
Eckert, P. (1989). Jocks & Burnouts: Social categories and identity in the
high school. New York: Teachers College Press.
Eckert. P. (2000). Linguistic variation as social practice: The lingustic
construction of identity in Belten High. New York: Blackwell.
Hicks, D. (2001). Literacies and masculinities in the life of a young
working-class boy. Language Arts, 78(3), 217-226.
Hicks, D. (2002). Reading lives: Working-class children and literacy
learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hicks, D. (2005). Cultural hauntings: Girlhood fictions from working-poor
America. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(2), 170-190.
Gibson-Graham, J. K., Resnick, S., & Wolff, R. D. (Eds.). (2000). Class and
its others. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
LeCourt, D. (2004). Identity matters: Schooling the student body in
academic discourse. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Leeds-Hurtwitz, W. (Ed.). (2005). From generation to generation:
Maintaining cultural identity over time. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Lindquist, J. (2002). A place to stand: Politics and persuasion in a
working-class bar. New York: Oxford University Press.
Linkon, S. L. (Ed.), Teaching working class. Amherst, MA: University of
Massachusetts Press.
Linkon, S. L., Peckham, I., & Lanier-Nabors, B. G. (2004). Struggling with
class in English studies. College English, 67(2), 149-152.
Oakes, J. (2005). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Rex, L. (2002). Exploring orientation in remaking high school readers'
literacies and identities. Linguistics and Education, 13(3), 271-302.
Sadowski, M. (Ed.). (2003). Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth,
Identity, and Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Publishing.
Seitz, D. (2004). Making work visible. College English, 67(2), 210-221.
Weis, L., & Fine, M. (Eds.). (2000). Construction sites: Excavating race,
class, and gender among urban youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

On 5/6/06 10:18 AM, "Peter Smagorinsky" <> wrote:

> for school-based people, I think that Eckert's Jocks and Burnouts is
> terrific, even if my students sometimes find it dated. p
> At 07:29 AM 5/6/2006 -0700, you wrote:
>> Thank you for putting the issue of class back before us, Steve.
>> Contemporary confusions over the concept of class are sure evident in
>> the review which I assume reflect the fuziness or unclarity in the books
>> reviewed.
>> Suppose you had one, accessible, book to recommend to xmca'ites about
>> how to think about social class in the contemporary world, perhaps one that
>> included people's relations to the means of production. What would you
>> recommend?
>> mike
>> On 5/5/06, Steve Gabosch <> wrote:
>>> I thought this review of books on class might be
>>> of interest to some. The first book reviewed is
>>> a compilation of articles on social class
>>> published in the New York Times last year.
>>> I don't happen to agree with the reviewers
>>> conclusions about class, but I find some of his
>>> observations and criticisms stimulating for further thought and research.
>>> - Steve
>>> Final paragraph of the review:
>>> "Does it enhance our understanding to look for
>>> classes in America? As has been seen, any group
>>> we choose to call the "middle class" is so large
>>> as to be of little analytical help. Nor do the
>>> huge majority who are not rich qualify as a
>>> class. Moreover, there remains a very well-paid
>>> tier of corporate executives between them and the
>>> truly rich. Yet, along with the increased
>>> concentration of wealth, we are seeing millions
>>> of Americans being laid off, settling for lower
>>> paying jobs, losing health coverage, and watching
>>> pensions evaporate. Economic inequality is
>>> increasing, just as the millions who are born and
>>> stay poor are not getting anything like a fair
>>> chance to improve their situation. Victims of
>>> outsourcing don't fit into a single class, nor do
>>> the people who suffer most from living in a
>>> society that is increasingly unequal and unjust.
>>> To see these trends as matters of class does not
>>> explain them. What is clear is that we have yet
>>> to see any convincing ways of reversing them."
>>> The New York Review of Books
>>> Volume 53, Number 9 · May 25, 2006
>>> Review
>>> The Rich and Everyone Else
>>> By Andrew Hacker
>>> Class Matters
>>> by correspondents of The New York Times, with an introduction by Bill
>>> Keller
>>> Times Books, 268 pp., $14.00 (paper)
>>> Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide
>>> in America and Its Poisonous Consequences
>>> edited by James Lardner and David A. Smith
>>> Demos/New Press, 328 pp., $25.95
>>> The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and
>>> Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
>>> by Jerome Karabel
>>> Houghton Mifflin, 711 pp., $28.00
>>> Forbes 400: The Richest People in America
>>> 2005 Edition, 344 pp., $5.99
>>> Individual Income Tax Returns
>>> Internal Revenue Service, Publication 1304; available at
>>> In their own ways, three of the books under
>>> review­Class Matters, Inequality Matters, and The
>>> Chosen­warn that social barriers in the US are
>>> higher and economic inequality is more pronounced
>>> than at any time in recent memory. All three
>>> books also frame this issue by asserting or
>>> implying that lines between classes are
>>> hardening. While the term is widely used, class
>>> has always resisted clear definition. We may talk
>>> of the rich and poor, of people in the middle, of
>>> blue- and white-collar workers, of haves and
>>> have-nots, yet attempts to place most people in
>>> an appropriate class have never been successful.
>>> There is no clear agreement on the number of
>>> classes, and how they should be defined. Indeed,
>>> attempts at precision inevitably create problems.
>>> For example, a 2004 study by the Annenberg Center
>>> at the University of Pennsylvania defined the
>>> middle class as everyone with incomes between
>>> $25,000 and $75,000.[1] They make up half of all
>>> households, and include all families on both
>>> sides of the median family income of
>>> approximately $50,000. But has a family making,
>>> say, $28,000 really reached the middle class? One
>>> with $95,000 might be called upper middle class;
>>> but that would still seem to locate it in the
>>> middle. Any attempt to set a floor or ceiling is
>>> bound to raise questions like these.
>>> In Inequality Matters, James Lardner speaks of
>>> America's "growing class divide." Yet he never
>>> identifies the classes that are being divided. If
>>> he means, as I think he does, those who are
>>> well-to-do and those who are not, then who and
>>> how many are in each group? The IRS reports, for
>>> example, that 356,140 taxpayers declared incomes
>>> of between $500,000 and $999,999 on their 2003
>>> returns. Where should someone receiving, say, a
>>> $650,000 salary be assigned? Earning $12,500 a
>>> week before taxes should provide a lawyer a
>>> comfortable living, but does it place her with
>>> the rich? Then what about her nonworking cousin,
>>> who happens to have exactly the same income, but
>>> in his case it consists of the proceeds from a $12 million inheritance?
>>> Problems like these are evident very early in
>>> Class Matters, which republishes a series of
>>> fourteen articles that appeared in The New York
>>> Times last year. They report on a broad range of
>>> men and women who were willing to talk candidly
>>> about themselves. We meet old and new
>>> millionaires on Nantucket, a laid-off manager and
>>> another who fears he may be fired, and a Chicago
>>> mother of five pulling herself out of poverty. No
>>> claims are made that they are a cross-section or
>>> random sample of Americans. Still, we are
>>> introduced to people most Times readers would
>>> probably never meet. Apart from the few at the
>>> top and the bottom, the reporters do not try to
>>> identify their subjects by class. Even so, the
>>> book shows how the lives they lead are shaped by where they stand in
>>> society.
>>> The opening chapter skirts the issue by saying
>>> "class is rank, it is tribe, it is culture and
>>> taste." Class is said to be expressed in varying
>>> "attitudes and assumptions," and there are
>>> "dozens of microclasses, defined by occupations
>>> or lifestyles." America's class system, insofar
>>> as it has one, is a "ladder with lots and lots of
>>> rungs." Here alone, I count nine words that
>>> supposedly define class, and we haven't even got
>>> to income, wealth, or power. Elsewhere, we hear
>>> that class produces "different views of gift
>>> giving, vacations, food, child rearing." Yet
>>> another chapter observes that we can no longer
>>> use dress to tell where people stand, since nearly everyone wears jeans.
>>> While I find that assigning Americans to classes
>>> occasionally makes sense, other classifications
>>> often are more informative. For example, the gap
>>> between the rich and everyone else isn't
>>> necessarily a class divide. And while we may talk
>>> about a middle class, or a working class, these
>>> strike me more as phrases people use casually in
>>> conversation then as rigorous categories. Thus we
>>> may hear debates over whether a truckdriver and a
>>> college librarian who both earn $65,000 should be put in the same class.
>>> 1.
>>> In Inequality Matters, a collection of excellent
>>> papers from a conference held at New York
>>> University in 2004, a recurring thesis is that
>>> the welfare state has been turned on its head.
>>> Indeed, the meaning of the term "redistribution"
>>> has changed. It used to mean taxing the
>>> better-off to assist society's less fortunate.
>>> Today the flow is in the reverse direction. David
>>> Williams and James Lardner, writing on health,
>>> show how Medicare beneficiaries get better
>>> treatment than those on Medicaid, for example.
>>> Tamara Draut reveals that more subsidized
>>> financial aid now goes to suburban students who
>>> can afford expensive SAT courses. And David Cay
>>> Johnston shows how tax rates have been lowered
>>> even for families with incomes of $200 million.
>>> For Bill Moyers, the central fact of our time is
>>> "a gap between rich and poor that is greater than
>>> it has been in half a century."
>>> There is no question that the rich have been
>>> getting richer, especially in recent years. Yet
>>> what wasn't generally predicted is that the
>>> numbers of such people have been growing, with
>>> more of them better-off than in the recent past.
>>> Table A draws on several sources that highlight
>>> these changes. The most recent figures are from
>>> 2003 through 2005, and can be compared with similar data from the early
>>> 1980s.
>>> More Billionaires. Each year, Forbes magazine
>>> lists the men and women it identifies as the 400
>>> richest Americans. While no one can say for sure
>>> who has how much, Forbes has reliable informants
>>> and its estimates have a plausible ring. To get
>>> on its first list, which came out in 1982, one
>>> needed the equivalent of $200 million in current
>>> dollars. By 2005, it took $900 million to be
>>> listed, more than a fourfold increase. Thanks to
>>> this higher standard, only forty-five on the
>>> original list would have made its latest version.
>>> The late Daniel Ludwig, a shipping magnate, led
>>> in 1982 with $4 billion, again in today's
>>> dollars. Last year, Bill Gates was first, with
>>> $51 billion. Following him, there are another
>>> forty-nine men and women who surpass the wealth
>>> once amassed by Mr. Ludwig. It is easier to
>>> become a billionaire in an era of hedge funds and
>>> leveraged buyouts, while the founders of
>>> electronics industries like Oracle, Google, and
>>> Dell have become as rich as a Carnegie or a
>>> Rockefeller in a fraction of the time.
>>> More Millionaires. The Internal Revenue Service
>>> issues reports showing how much taxpayers declare
>>> as their annual income. These sums are
>>> undoubtedly on the modest side, since they show
>>> only what people choose to disclose, while much
>>> of high-bracket income may be sheltered. Even so,
>>> between 1981 and 2003, and adjusting for
>>> inflation, the annual returns exceeding $1
>>> million rose more than sevenfold as a proportion
>>> of all 1040s. In 2003, the latest IRS figures,
>>> fully 181,282 households admitted to making more
>>> than $1 million a year, averaging $2,951,369.
>>> Their share of all taxpayers' income has also
>>> increased seven times since 1981, which must mean
>>> the share going to the rest has declined. While
>>> most millionaires list some kind of business or
>>> professional income, these earnings amount to
>>> only a third of their total. Much of their money
>>> comes from inheritance and sales of property,
>>> including stocks and bonds. Almost all are safely
>>> rich, whether by their own efforts or
>>> inheritance, in that they have enough to continue
>>> to live well even without working.
>>> Six-Figure Families. Each March, the Census
>>> releases a report on the distribution of personal
>>> income. In its 1982 survey, only 3 percent of all
>>> families had incomes over $150,000, computed in
>>> today's dollars. By 2004, its latest report, 8
>>> percent of households had reached that level, and
>>> most of those households have one earner making
>>> at least $100,000. This group now absorbs 27
>>> percent of aggregate personal income, against 11
>>> percent in 1982. So as matters stand, the other
>>> 92 percent of Americans receive 73 percent of the
>>> pie. This upward flow of money is only partly the
>>> result of tax cuts bestowed on the better-off.
>>> More important is the fact that executives and
>>> professionals are being given salaries, bonuses,
>>> and other forms of compensation that are much more lavish than in the
>>> past.
>>> To return to the 400 richest Americans, perhaps
>>> the most salient feature of the Forbes list is
>>> its changing membership. At death, fortunes tend
>>> to be divided, and most descendants don't inherit
>>> enough to stay on the list. While the current 400
>>> includes members of the Pritzker, Hearst, and
>>> Walton families, they already have fifty-nine
>>> children, most of whom will end up rich but much
>>> less so than their parents. Back in 1982, the
>>> list had thirteen Rockefellers and no fewer than
>>> thirty-three du Ponts. By 2005, only two
>>> Rockefellers remained, and all the du Ponts were
>>> gone. Indeed, 1982 and 2005 come across as very
>>> different eras. The earlier year was strong on
>>> family scions; most of the places they once held
>>> are now occupied by self-made men and women,
>>> among them Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Whitman, and Martha Stewart.
>>> To call the rich an "upper class" only tells us
>>> that they have the most money, not about the
>>> power they have, or their social influence. But
>>> when it comes to the particulars, there are not
>>> many signs that they share any traits other than
>>> their money. "Rich individuals have no feelings
>>> or purposes in common, no mutual traditions or
>>> hopes," Alexis de Tocqueville observed of
>>> Jacksonian America. "Though there are rich men,
>>> the class of rich men does not exist." At this
>>> point, we lack firm information on how much the
>>> very rich are giving back to society. In overall
>>> terms, the IRS reports that the 5,955 richest
>>> taxpayers, whose annual incomes average $26.2
>>> million, gave away a deductible 6.7 percent of
>>> what they declared. Just how much more comes from
>>> the thousands of family foundations is hard to
>>> determine, since no one collates their annual
>>> reports. At the same time, such high-tech
>>> entrepreneurs as David Packard, William Hewlett,
>>> and Michael Dell have become important supporters
>>> of museums, orchestras, and a host of other
>>> causes. The fund created by Bill and Melinda
>>> Gates now gives away twice as much as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford
>>> combined.
>>> 2.
>>> Even as the relatively small group of rich people
>>> is getting richer, Class Matters asserts that
>>> social mobility in America has "flattened out,"
>>> "stagnated," or even "declined" in recent years.
>>> A chapter called "Fifteen Years on the Bottom
>>> Rung," describes an immigrant mired in a mundane
>>> job. Another, "No Degree, and No Way Back to the
>>> Middle," tells of a laid-off manager whose
>>> résumés are returned because he doesn't have a
>>> college degree. Reports like these are by no
>>> means rare. Still, we should ask if they reflect a growing trend.
>>> How many people are moving upward, compared with
>>> some periods in the past? In the decades
>>> following World War II, millions of families
>>> bought suburban homes and embarked on new lives.
>>> Between 1953 and 1973, median income in constant
>>> dollars grew by a remarkable 75 percent. For most
>>> who gained, this was not the result of intense
>>> personal struggle. It was more as if the growing
>>> economy was a giant escalator lifting everyone
>>> upward. A parallel trend in higher education came
>>> with the GI Bill after World War II and continues
>>> apace as more Americans graduate from college
>>> each year. Among men and women in their early
>>> thirties, 32 percent now have a bachelor's degree
>>> or better, compared with 25 percent in 1980 and
>>> 14 percent in 1970. These changes mean that
>>> millions of young people are moving past their
>>> par-ents, at least as measured by higher education.
>>> But other indices suggest that the postwar
>>> escalator has not been moving for quite a while.
>>> Between 1982 and 2004, median earnings of fully
>>> employed men grew by only 2.7 percent, which is
>>> about as close to stagnation as one can get for a
>>> twenty-two-year period. At the same time, women's
>>> earnings rose by 25 percent, from 63 percent to
>>> 77 percent of what men made. So if men as a group
>>> weren't moving up, a lot of women were. This had
>>> an impact on family income. Between 1982 and
>>> 2004, family median incomes increased from
>>> $43,913 to $54,061, a 23 percent increase in real
>>> dollars, and at first glance a heartening sign.
>>> But this growth was almost entirely the result of
>>> the presence of additional earners, with more
>>> wives turning to full-time work and contributing
>>> more to the family total. In contrast, the median
>>> income in families with a single breadwinner rose
>>> only 6 percent in this period. So the rise in
>>> family income of 23 percent came mainly from more
>>> work by more members, the equivalent of running faster to keep in place.
>>> True, median incomes only tell us about the
>>> persons or families who happen to fall in the
>>> exact middle. Even so, they remind us that when
>>> the median barely improves, it means that for
>>> most people who move ahead­and some plainly
>>> have­there will be someone else who is falling
>>> behind. As was noted earlier, from 1982 to 2004,
>>> the fraction of families that rose to the
>>> $150,000 tier grew almost threefold. Their
>>> progress had to be paid for. And it was, by
>>> households whose earnings declined. Among them
>>> are the growing number of single mothers, who
>>> tend to cluster at the bottom of the income
>>> pyramid (median income: $23,428), whereas earlier
>>> many of them would still be in two-spouse households (median: $50,867).
>>> Mobility may also be analyzed by examining what
>>> happens to specific men and women in the course
>>> of their lives. One method draws on a sample of
>>> parents and then keeps in touch with them until
>>> their children have become adults. The best such
>>> study I have seen was published last year by Tom
>>> Hertz, an economist at American University, who
>>> draws on a database that has tracked 6,273
>>> families over thirty-two years.[2] As can be seen
>>> in Table B, he compares the parents' economic
>>> standing when the children were growing up with
>>> how those offspring have fared on their own.
>>> Hertz found, as might be expected, that many of
>>> the children raised in the top fifth­some 38
>>> percent­are still up there as adults, and the
>>> same holds for many raised at the bottom. Yet of
>>> those who began at the bottom, 58 percent climbed
>>> up at least one tier and 34 percent moved up two
>>> or more tiers. Since we know that few from the
>>> bottom fifth get college degrees, it is striking
>>> that as many as 18 percent of them end up in the
>>> top two fifths. As for the children of the
>>> best-off households: fully 62 percent of them
>>> moved down, despite the advantages they had in their formative years.
>>> A story in Class Matters hints at a downward
>>> future. In a socially mixed marriage, the mother
>>> has a sizable trust fund and her new husband was
>>> selling cars when they met. One of her own sons,
>>> who has dropped in and out of college,
>>> "fantasizes about opening a
>>> brewery-cum-performance-space, traveling through
>>> South America, or operating a sunset massage
>>> cruise." However, he won't have an independent
>>> income until his mother dies, and then there's a
>>> brother to split the bequests in the will. Unless
>>> he has talents that aren't now apparent, it seems
>>> likely he will have a lower living standard as an adult than he did as a
>>> child.
>>> Using quintiles to track mobility also means, as
>>> we have seen, that if someone new moves into the
>>> top fifth, another person has to go down.
>>> Therefore, Hertz is not only telling us how many
>>> offspring have surpassed or fallen behind their
>>> parents. In his overall analysis, for every
>>> winner there is another loser. This also holds
>>> for the Forbes list, since no more than 400 can
>>> make the grade. Last year, there were forty-one
>>> newcomers, displacing thirty-three whose net
>>> worth didn't keep up, plus another eight who
>>> died. By other measures, the increasing income of
>>> one family doesn't mean the decline of another.
>>> Still, as was seen, the $1 million tier is
>>> getting rather crowded. In some circles now,
>>> you're not really up there if you can't declare
>>> $10 million a year (as 6,126 households did in 2003).
>>> 3.
>>> "In today's United States," Tamara Draut writes
>>> in Inequality Matters, "a four-year degree has
>>> become the all-but-official ticket to
>>> middle-class security." As the four medians in
>>> Table C show, each academic rung brings higher
>>> pay. But medians (and averages) often mix
>>> together people with varied characteristics. For
>>> this reason, the table, by focusing on a more
>>> homogeneous group­in this case white men who are
>>> currently between the ages of forty-five and
>>> fifty-four­ avoids disparities resulting from sex
>>> and race and age. This group was also chosen
>>> because most of them have been employed for
>>> twenty to thirty years, so that we can compare
>>> their current status with the educational level
>>> they attained a generation earlier.
>>> If college graduates are more apt to get better
>>> first jobs, it is because established businesses
>>> and professions have grown accustomed to asking
>>> for degrees, which is also a convenient culling
>>> device. (The dot-com world has shown that such
>>> rules can profitably be broken, especially for
>>> first-rate programmers.) But a first job, while
>>> often important, is only a step in a career.
>>> According to all the evidence I have seen,
>>> promotions will soon be tied to performance, not
>>> on whether the candidate once took Anthropology
>>> 101. Still, the table confirms that many men who
>>> are only high school graduates end up in the
>>> bottom income third, which is probably where they started.
>>> But I find it even more significant that more
>>> than half of them have moved into the top two
>>> thirds, with 17 percent now in the tier where
>>> college graduates are expected to end up. On the
>>> other hand, of these men in their forties and
>>> fifties, 46 percent with bachelors' degrees and
>>> 31 percent with graduate degrees haven't made it
>>> to the top third. Table B, which traced how
>>> children ended up, showed considerable downward
>>> mobility. Table C tells a similar story, since it
>>> says that while education generally correlates
>>> with earnings, these benefits accrue far less
>>> evenly than is generally believed.
>>> One result is that many college graduates now
>>> hold jobs that once required only a high school
>>> diploma. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports
>>> that 37 percent of flight attendants have
>>> completed college, as have 35 percent of tour
>>> escorts, 21 percent of embalmers, and 13 percent
>>> of both security guards and casino dealers.[3]
>>> All signs suggest that the number of graduates
>>> will continue to grow, and many will end in
>>> well-paying professions. There still seems to be
>>> a strong demand for MBAs, of which 120,277 were
>>> awarded last year, as well as 105,668 degrees in
>>> engineering, and 151,690 in health-related
>>> fields. But we cannot expect the economy will
>>> automatically create better-paid positions to
>>> match the cohort acquiring higher education. And
>>> of course employers do not perceive all degrees
>>> as equal. When résumés are read, it's thought
>>> important not just whether the candidate attended college, but which one.
>>> 4.
>>> Jerome Karabel, a University of California
>>> sociologist, has written an intriguing study of
>>> how Harvard, Yale, and Princeton decided whom
>>> they would admit throughout the twentieth
>>> century. He describes the change from an emphasis
>>> on family background and "manly character" to
>>> academic excellence as shown by high grades and
>>> test scores. Undoubtedly the biggest break with
>>> the past is that The Three (as I will call them)
>>> now have fewer white and male students than they
>>> once did, as well as fewer Protestants and
>>> products of boarding schools. Of Groton's
>>> seventy-six graduating seniors last year, only
>>> eleven made it to The Three. There was a time,
>>> Karabel notes, when almost all would walk in. The
>>> Three have also embraced affirmative action, and
>>> now reserve about 15 percent of their places for
>>> black and Hispanic undergraduates, even if their
>>> academic records are somewhat below the norm.
>>> Instead, credit is given for traits like
>>> perseverance and commitment. Karabel doesn't say
>>> if he feels this is akin to the way "manly
>>> character" was used to favor earlier groups.
>>> In recent years, The Three have admitted fewer
>>> than 12 percent of their applicants, odds below
>>> those at even honest casinos. This popularity is
>>> readily explained. As Karabel puts it, a degree
>>> from one of them is seen as a "ticket to
>>> success." It's certainly true, as he says, that
>>> their graduates "have always been heavily
>>> overrepresented in the American elite," providing
>>> seven of the last century's seventeen presidents.
>>> Karabel's use of the phrase "American elite" is
>>> telling, since he uses that term rather than,
>>> say, "ruling class." Nor is this merely a
>>> semantic matter. One can sensibly say that
>>> America has rulers, whether political, economic,
>>> or cultural, with power concentrated in large
>>> organizations and institutions. But it need not
>>> follow that those who hold this power constitute
>>> a class. An important feature of an "elite" is
>>> that it consists of individuals who hold
>>> specified positions. The CEO of ExxonMobil
>>> belongs, as do the secretary of state and the
>>> president of Yale. How they perform may make a
>>> difference, but they still owe their power to the chairs they occupy.
>>> It's worth asking to what extent The Three are
>>> supplying candidates for the positions that
>>> count. A place where their degrees carry weight
>>> is the legal profession. Among last year's
>>> entering class at Harvard Law School, 395 were
>>> from The Three, while their 1,267 classmates came
>>> from 235 other colleges. Moreover, their
>>> undergraduate degrees continue to make a
>>> difference. In powerful firms, like New York's
>>> Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Washington's
>>> Covington & Burling, more than a third of those
>>> picked as partners began at one of The Three.
>>> But in other branches of work, The Three have
>>> less cachet. Their graduates account for only
>>> thirty-three CEOs of the top five hundred
>>> corporations on Standard & Poor's list. So it may
>>> be that four sheltered years are not the best
>>> preparation for a corporate climb. Wall Street
>>> now also draws from a broader pool, as do leading
>>> medical and research centers. Most of The Three's
>>> graduates on Forbes's richest list inherited
>>> their wealth. By way of contrast, many who
>>> amassed their own fortunes never attended or
>>> didn't finish college, among them Steven Jobs,
>>> Michael Dell, and Lawrence Ellison.
>>> The Chosen closes with a brief coda entitled "The
>>> Dark Side of Meritocracy." Today, The Three admit
>>> students largely on their academic records, with
>>> their SAT scores among the highest in the nation.
>>> But Karabel cites the work of Michael Young, who
>>> a half-century ago in The Rise of the Meritocracy
>>> worried that a stratum based on merit was already
>>> "on the way to becoming hereditary." Karabel has
>>> the same concern, adding that The Three and a few
>>> other colleges are creating "a 'new class' of
>>> privileged credential holders possessing the
>>> means to reproduce itself." I'm not so sure this
>>> is happening. Harvard still admits about 40
>>> percent of alumni offspring who apply, compared
>>> with 11 percent from the general applicant pool.
>>> Statistics like these have been used to argue
>>> that inherited privilege is still strong.
>>> However, even at Harvard, half of the applicants
>>> with legacies are turned down. The University of
>>> Pennsylvania rejects 59 percent, while Swarthmore
>>> rejects 64 percent, and Princeton 65 percent.[4]
>>> We all know that the children of accomplished
>>> parents often don't inherit their talents. They
>>> can be sent to expensive schools and receive
>>> extra tutoring, but these investments don't
>>> always bring the wished-for results. Among
>>> students whose parents make over $100,000 a year,
>>> fully 59 percent scored less than 600 in the
>>> mathematics section of the SAT and 65 percent
>>> scored under that figure on the verbal part. Yet
>>> Yale admits fewer than 4 percent who have scores
>>> at this level. Since facts like these are widely
>>> known, many offspring of successful families
>>> don't even bother to apply, and students with
>>> more modest social origins are admitted.
>>> Would changed admissions policies alter the
>>> makeup of America's elite? Karabel shows how The
>>> Three during much of the last century curtailed
>>> Jewish enrollment, and he explains why the
>>> policies had to be changed, as Jews became more
>>> established in American life, including the
>>> academic world, and their exclusion was damaging
>>> both to the quality of scholarship and to the
>>> universities' economic future. Curiously, he says
>>> relatively little about the upsurge in Asian
>>> enrollments, which provide strong evidence that
>>> high school grades and test scores are more decisive than ever.
>>> And the advent of coeducation at Yale and
>>> Princeton, as well as Harvard's admission of more
>>> women, means that The Three admit 1,168 fewer men
>>> now than they did in 1970. Thus 1,168 men will go
>>> through life without a credential they might have
>>> had in an earlier generation.[5] Indeed, The
>>> Three now enroll 1,581 more women than in 1970.
>>> If their degrees will also become Karabel's
>>> "ticket to success," as he calls them, then the
>>> topmost reaches of America's elite should show
>>> more women and fewer men. (In fact, two leading
>>> American CEOs who went to Princeton are Margaret
>>> Whitman of eBay and Avon's Andrea Jung.) Still,
>>> to reach the heights in practically any field
>>> today calls for a round-the-clock commitment. So
>>> we will have to see what women from The Three are
>>> doing when they reach, say, their late thirties.
>>> If more than a few decide to give up demanding
>>> careers, the men they once displaced as
>>> undergraduates, and who had to go to less
>>> celebrated colleges, may find they have a second
>>> chance to reach these top rungs.
>>> Does it enhance our understanding to look for
>>> classes in America? As has been seen, any group
>>> we choose to call the "middle class" is so large
>>> as to be of little analytical help. Nor do the
>>> huge majority who are not rich qualify as a
>>> class. Moreover, there remains a very well-paid
>>> tier of corporate executives between them and the
>>> truly rich. Yet, along with the increased
>>> concentration of wealth, we are seeing millions
>>> of Americans being laid off, settling for lower
>>> paying jobs, losing health coverage, and watching
>>> pensions evaporate. Economic inequality is
>>> increasing, just as the millions who are born and
>>> stay poor are not getting anything like a fair
>>> chance to improve their situation. Victims of
>>> outsourcing don't fit into a single class, nor do
>>> the people who suffer most from living in a
>>> society that is increasingly unequal and unjust.
>>> To see these trends as matters of class does not
>>> explain them. What is clear is that we have yet
>>> to see any convincing ways of reversing them.
>>> Notes
>>> [1] See
>>> [2] Tom Hertz, "Rags, Riches, and Race: The
>>> Intergenerational Economic Mobility of Black and
>>> White Families in the United States," in Unequal
>>> Chances: Family Background and Economic Success,
>>> edited by Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, and
>>> Melissa Osborne Groves(Russell Sage
>>> Foundation/Princeton University Press, 2005).
>>> [3] Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational
>>> Outlook Quarterly (Winter 2004­2005), p. 4.
>>> [4] "Entrenched Affirmative Action for Whites in
>>> College Admissions," The Journal of Blacks in
>>> Higher Education,No. 40 (Summer 2003), p. 27.
>>> [5] True, these men can go to Dartmouth or
>>> Williams. But taken together, the twelve most
>>> selective schools have approximately 7,500 fewer
>>> male students compared with 1970.
>>> Copyright (c) 1963-2006 NYREV, Inc. All rights
>>> reserved. Nothing in this publication may be
>>> reproduced without the permission of the
>>> publisher. Illustrations copyright (c) David Levine
>>> unless otherwise noted; unauthorized use is
>>> strictly prohibited. Please contact
>>> with any questions about this
>>> site. The cover date of the next issue of The New
>>> York Review of Books will be June 8, 2006.
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Richard Beach
Professor of English Education
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
359 Peik Hall, 159 Pillsbury Dr., S. E.
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455
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