How to stop worrying about class
Today’s New York Times contains a fine example of how ideology works at the high end: report information that might trouble the established order, but conclude on a tranquilizing note that allows the comfortable reader to turn the page (or click “close tab”) without changing his or her worldview. Both functions are important. Outlets like the Times do report tons of important stuff that one would be hard-pressed to learn otherwise. But, as Alexander Cockburn put it long ago, a primary function of the bourgeois press is reassurance.
The piece by Sabrina Tavernise, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Show,” shows that “while the achievement gap between white and black students has narrowed significantly over the past few decades, the gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially during the same period.” (The paper from which much of the data is drawn, by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon, can be gotten here.) While it’s long been well known that parental income and education have a stronger influence on educational outcomes than schools themselves, the gap between kids from affluent and poor families is widening.
All that information, and then some, is nicely presented in the first half of the article. But the second half consists mostly of quotes from three right-wing sources: University of Chicago labor economist James Heckman; Bell Curve ghoul Charles Murray (newly famous for his cultural take on the crisis of the white working class); and Douglas Besharov, now of the Atlantic Institute but formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, where he ran the Social and Individual Responsibility Project. Heckman says the last thing we should do is give poor people more money. Murray says it has “nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture.” And Besharov chimes in with the inevitable “no easy answers,” because “no one has the slightest idea what will work.”
Nonsense. The answers are conceptually easy, though politically anything but. You take money from rich people and give it to poor people, and spend at least as much, maybe more, educating the children of the poor as you do on the children of the rich. But that might make the Times’ audience uncomfortable. Better to flatter them on their excellent parenting.
Disclosure alert: I know Sabrina Tavernise and like her a lot. I just wish she’d written this piece differently.