Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Middle Class Myth

Last week, MoChassid posted a bit about Charles Murray's education critique in the context of yeshiva youth. He included a link to Murray's second article in the series, on the over-subscription to college.

The money quote (from Murray):

"a bachelor's degree in a field such as sociology, psychology, economics, history or literature certifies nothing. It is a screening device for employers. The college you got into says a lot about your ability, and that you stuck it out for four years says something about your perseverance. But the degree itself does not qualify the graduate for anything. There are better, faster and more efficient ways for young people to acquire credentials to provide to employers. "

My father's father barely completed 6th grade, and after fighting in WWII worked at a job where his health was so broken he was disabled by his early 40's. My father's mother, with some high school, was able to hold down a desk-job that supported their family into her 60's. On the other side, my mother's parents had high school diplomas and both had desk-jobs that kept them supported, if not well-off, all their lives.

My parents have Master's degrees. I (ran away screaming from a PhD program when I) was ABD.

The whole thing got me thinking about how distorted our view of society is, including this myth of the fabled Middle Class. Anyone who knows social history knows the reason for spiraling college-level education is the need to maintain a distinction between classes in the face of the overwhelming American myths of meritocracy and progress. How do we keep our underclass, our lower classes, our middle classes, when everyone has a chance to succeed? Why, we simply keep raising the bar of minimum requirement.

Once, college may have meant critical thought, reasoning, erudition. Today it is the default position for those who have no understanding of the historical basis of the "Middle Class" (originally "middle classes," plural) - those beourgeoisie who took over practical decision-making (and nation-making) from the "decadent" elites of their own societies during colonialism in part through the hegemony of their value system. (Who are the best people with the best values? Why, us, of course!) By creating and living new hegemony valuing delayed-gratification, moderation, order, rationality, and of course, tea-and-crumpets, they were able to make themselves feel better about not being Nobles, look down their noses at the lower classes, and create some extraordinary economic and political successes that solidified their place as a new power in English society. The corruption of these values into contemporary American Middle Class-ness says, "I have the right values, so my work is valuable, my children are special and gifted, I represent America, and I am therefore entitled to any material or social gain I want."

Plenty of j-bloggers have picked up on the parallels with the current yeshiva system (No Yid Left Behind). Of course the driving force there is not economic distinction, but another kind of hegemony: "I have the right (Jewish) values, so my study is valuable, my children are special and gifted (and if they're not we won't talk about it), and I am therefore justified in any wacky thing I might think or say."

Unfortunately, Murray's analysis of what this over-education means for Americans is also applicable to today's Jewry:

"They are taking away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion that they know something they do not. (A depressing research literature documents one's inability to recognize one's own incompetence.) Traditionally and properly understood, a four-year college education teaches advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people."

Or, as Mississippi Fred McDowell puts it,

"When you tantalize the masses with some of the things studied in Harvard, they become semi-learned... But this is what many people are today and they're not going to not have opinions. The boxing fan may be wrong, but 1) some boxing fans are knowledgable enough that they do have a right to an opinion and 2) they're going to have an opinion regardless of whether they're right. More arcane fields, say, the study of Punic paleography, don't come with hangers on with stupid opinions.

" have got to expect that people who learn a little will have opinions. It is not arrogant or shameful--it is human nature, and the laymen would have opinions about medicine too if every layman was encouraged to dabble in advanced medical journals, indeed, to have a seder in medicine at least once a day, which is just what we are doing in the sphere of Torah, knowing full well as we do that not all laymen will ever develop into talmidei chachamim."

The problem for me is that I WANT people to get a college education, because college is usually the first place they are exposed to ideas and people that challenge their long-held assumptions about the way the world is. I want it to live up to the expectation that every single student will have life-changing revelation about critical thinking, not so much that they will take away facts, understood or not. But I'm afraid I am deluded.

On the other hand, I WANT every Jew to get a good Jewish education, to the best of his or her abilities and inclination, EVEN THOUGH (in the wrong hands) it may reinforce a world-view that discourages critical thinking (aside from "but Rashi said/but the Rambam said" fisticuffs).

So, how can both goals produce something other than a mishmashed, misunderstood, mire of misbegotten self-righteous certainty? Good teachers, maybe. Teachers who remember, as we learn on Pesach, that each student is different and requires a different approach.

Yeah, like that's gonna happen.


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