I reread David Brook’s horrible column, How we are ruining America, now that the red hot scales of rage over my eyes have cooled a bit, and realized it wasn’t quite as bad as I thought. It’s still oblivious and stupid, but the real issue is who he is talking about when he says “we”. Who is “we”?
It’s got a photo of a college grad up top, and he keeps talking about the “educated class”, but he seems to have confused that with the “upper middle class”, which is what he’s really talking about. I am a member of the “educated class” — you can’t get much more imbedded in that group than a professor at a liberal arts college — but his descriptions of those people look nothing like my experience.
I come out of a working class background. My colleagues come from a range of backgrounds. My students are similarly diverse; sure, there are some who come in with a free ride from their parents and drive fancy cars (and that’s fine), but others are scraping by on financial aid and are working long hours outside of the classroom to keep afloat. Universities are generally not elitist, but especially at the community college and state college levels are all about reaching all strata of society.
They can be a path to upward mobility — you generally will make more money with a college degree than without — but they’re more of a way to do what you want with your life. You do not become a sociologist to get rich. You do not become a college professor because you dream of owning a yacht someday.
That’s the lie behind his column, the part where he’s detached from reality. He uses “educated class” and “wealthy” interchangeably, and he just doesn’t get it. Extremely over-educated Ph.D.s with science degrees are more likely to be scruffy and dressed in jeans and hang out at the brew pub than to demand incessant frou-frou dining experiences (although we’re also likely to be more open to novelty, and aren’t averse to trying anything).
Nothing in his column speaks to the experience of educated Americans. It’s all about the bubble the rich live in.
The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.
Status rules are partly about collusion, about attracting educated people to your circle, tightening the bonds between you and erecting shields against everybody else. We in the educated class have created barriers to mobility that are more devastating for being invisible. The rest of America can’t name them, can’t understand them. They just know they’re there.
It begins to sink in: the “we” who are ruining American is not the students who better themselves with an education — it’s pampered spoiled rich people who have more money than they deserve. The “we” is you, David Brooks. You are ruining America, along with all the other undeservedly wealthy people who contribute nothing to our culture. They’ve managed to substitute greed and a superficial desire for the trappings of the rich for real knowledge and a more human awareness.
The real targets of his complaints are people represented by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, product of a private girls’ school education, but a college dropout — someone who isn’t really well-educated, but has been groomed to fit into the parasitic class so well populated with people like David Brooks, who get well-paid columns in the NY Times while not being particularly bright or insightful or even interesting.
His column reads much better if you interpret it as a confession that he deserves to be lined up against the wall in the Revolution.