My brother-in-law looked on with pride and sadness as we packed my oldest daughter’s things for her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. (She’s leaving a bit early for an intensive summer class.) “I’ll go with her,” he said. Once again, Vincent offered that he would live in a frat house, work as a bartender, become a football coach, get married, have children. I smiled and listened, as I always do. Then he stopped for a moment, and just said. “She’s leaving. I stay here.”
“Here” means the local group home. He likes it there, but he knows precisely what he has lost. Every milestone—a child’s first cellphone, the high school dance—elicits from him, and therefore from us, that same aching mix of joy and mourning. Because of my job, Vincent can live a less Spartan existence than his housemates. We still rely on imperfect medical and social services in Chicago’s southland. We see close-up, more often than most people, how truly disadvantaged people struggle to get by.
When my wife became Vincent’s full-time caseworker, driver, and nurse, that ended whatever possibility we had to join the ranks of the truly affluent—a group that includes a surprising numbers of my Princeton classmates and professional peers. We’re doing fine, thank you. One can live just as happily in a $250,000 house as in a $500,000 one. Still, a de facto six-or-seven-figure write-off provides a distinct perspective on the meritocratic rat-race, and one’s own vulnerability in a tough economy.
I’m enjoying Chris Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites. Hayes excoriates our nation’s insulated meritocratic elite, which he argues wrongly replicates its own privilege through access to fancy secondary schools, test prep courses, alumni donations, and more. Hayes describes a frantic, often zero-sum competition for positional goods in which dramatic inequalities among parents thwart fair competition and equality of opportunity in the next generation.
I basically agree with this critique. Yet something is missing in Hayes’ account, too. Many of us who comprise that meritocratic elite nonetheless take life torpedoes that puncture the arrogance and privilege he describes. Of course, our family experienced an extreme and unusual life event. Other privileged people experience a much more common challenge. Not every faculty brat or privileged Winnetka kid fares well in this meritocratic competition. What then?
Because I write about intellectual disability, I’ve encountered many parents touched by cognitive, behavioral, or learning issues. Sometimes, they have children with really serious disabilities. More often, their kids experience milder, though still significant issues: autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder, or ostensibly routine learning issues that knock kids off the expected academic path. Many of these parents are my professional peers, for whom these challenges can be especially bewildering when their child will follow a different biography from their own.
I recently ate breakfast with a casual acquaintance at a medical conference. We chatted about our kids. She told me about her youngest son, a super-achiever. Then she noted how hard it is to watch him visibly surpass his older brother, who faces some serious academic and social issues. Like many successful academic women I know, she is half of a high-powered and affluent professional couple. She and her husband spend more than $20,000 every year on occupational therapy, tutoring, and other supports. If these do any good, she’s happy to pay. So she spends the money. It’s just hard to know what she’s getting.
Her university, like mine and several others, runs a fancy private school which provides an attractive, subsidized alternative to (often-crummy) nearby public schools. These private schools offer an excellent education, including small classes taught by skilled teachers and filled with motivated and driven peers. If you want your kid to reach Harvard, there’s no better place. If you want a school that truly embraces every kid who walks in the door—well that’s another matter.
So my friend sends her children to public school. Of course not just any school. She moved to an affluent, largely Jewish suburb that resembles the community where I myself grew up outside Rochester, New York. Her child receives additional academic supports. He has an IEP/504 plan, in the lingo of such things.
He is also likely– like most of his similarly-situated peers—to attend college. He might go straight through. He might follow some other, more checkered path. In all likelihood, he will go. Ironically, the actual process of applying to and choosing colleges is both easier and more straightforward when one exits the thin layer of elite, nachas-selling schools. High school guidance counselors collect histograms of grades and test scores for students admitted to hundreds of schools. That removes much of the mystery about whether someone will be admitted to a given school. Checking “N/A” on the financial aid materials probably doesn’t hurt, either.
On visits to small schools that cater to this market, the tour guides don’t drag parents to see the nuclear accelerator– there isn’t one. Instead, the staff shows off the campus learning center. They talk about the new program of peer mentors. The value proposition is simpler: This is what we actually offer to teach your child. I find this refreshing, not least because parents are trying to buy their kids an actual education, not trying to purchase an artificially scarce prestige or positional good. Good for them.
I only wish other parents enjoyed the same choices. I’d venture there are five excellent public high schools in greater Chicago where kids with serious learning disabilities will reliably receive a good education. Not surprisingly, these schools serve pretty ritzy communities. And the college opportunities available to affluent, even educationally-challenged children stand in sharp contrast to the opportunities available to others. Around here, the linkage between social class and college experience could hardly be tighter. Among Chicago public schools students who entered high school during the 1990s, only eight percent graduated from a 4-year college by their mid-twenties. What a staggering loss of human potential.
It’s easy for those of us with secure jobs, some income, and cultural capital to carry ourselves with a certain swagger. It’s tempting to assume that our life advantages equip us to move our children forward, too. Once you start thinking this way, it’s easy to view services such as Medicaid or special education as charity we provide to help some distant others, rather than as help we all provide each other, because we all face common vulnerabilities and risks.
It’s also tempting to ignore our society’s deepening inequalities. When parents understand that a child “has issues,” the prospect of downward mobility becomes especially frightening because one can fall so far, so fast. Suddenly the idea that the top 20% of the income distribution live in markedly safer neighborhoods with markedly better schools becomes less appealing than it was before. America’s political, economic, and educational elites have failed the wider society by tolerating excessive inequality. By failing to protect some of their own children from precisely the same inequalities in an unforgiving economy, these elites have failed themselves, too.
*Apologies to Barbara Ehrenreich.