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    Hello, world—we’re here again

    In the interest of balance, I should point out that Sarah Palin isn’t working class any more than Barack Obama is, though both her supporters and her detractors have a tendency to assume she is. Roger Kimball, for instance, wrote the following yesterday:

    But what (a locution that comes up often among her admirers) a breath of fresh air she is! Here you have a woman from a working-class background who, by dint of her own energy and ambition, becomes Governor of her state—a good Governor, too, by all account not tainted by The New York Times. She espouses good conservative principles: self-reliance, fiscal responsibility, a strong national defense. And, on top of all that, she is a courageous and loving mother to a passel of children.

    Not to take anything away from Palin’s energy and ambition, each of which is clearly considerable, but her father was a science teacher and her mother a school secretary. Her memoir recounts how reading-centered their household was; there’s a good bit of attention given to her father’s putting the television in a cold room over (I think) the garage to make it difficult for the children to spend too much time watching it. That you can be solidly of the middle class and have a lot more outdoorsy roughness in your life in Alaska than you probably would in most of the lower 48 is not something I’d dispute, but I don’t know that it makes you less of the middle class.

    As with President Obama, I don’t say this to deny Palin credit for her actual accomplishments. I just think that, as long as we’re going to be categorizing people by class, we should do it in a way that correlates well with the way people generally understand the terms we’re using. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, but I think there are useful distinctions to be made here, especially when we’re considering things such as education. This article (via Erin O’Connor and Joanne Jacobs) is from The Guardian, but the phenomenon it describes isn’t restricted to the UK:

    Pupils from deprived backgrounds are being conned into thinking they can advance in life by a system that hands out “worthless” qualifications, Harrow school’s headteacher said today.

    State schools risk producing students like “those girls in the first round of the X Factor” who tell the judges they want to be the next Britney Spears but cannot sing a note, Barnaby Lenon said.

    Bright children from poor backgrounds are being short-changed by those who lead them to believe that “high grades in soft subjects” and going to “any old university to read any subject” were the route to prosperity, he told a conference of leading private and state school headteachers.

    Meanwhile, at independent schools, pupils were being encouraged to take the toughest subjects, such as sciences and modern languages, and many were doing qualifications seen as more rigorous than regular GCSEs and A-levels, such as International GCSEs and the International Baccalaureate.

    “Let us not deceive our children, especially children from poorer homes, with worthless qualifications, so they become like the citizens of Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, carrying their certificates around in a ­wheelbarrow,” Lenon said.

    Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, backed Lenon. Media studies had seen a big increase in popularity in state schools, simply because it boosted their position in the league tables, he told the conference of the 100 Group discussing social mobility.

    “More children who were eligible for free school meals sat GCSEs in media ­studies than in physics, chemistry and biology combined,” Gove said.

    Sarah Palin majored in communications in college once she’d decided what she was interested in doing, but I suspect her parents would have stepped in, and quickly, to put the kibosh on her wanting to do a concentration in high school on some skill-free subject that clearly wasn’t going to get her anywhere—not because they loved her more than factory-worker parents would have but because they knew how the academic system worked. Jacobs’s excellent book Our School, about a charter school that serves poor children in San Jose, vividly describes several parents who know their children are bright, want them to succeed, and are willing to do their part in disciplining and encouraging—but who nevertheless can’t pass on time-management and study skills that they themselves never learned. (Happily, the teachers, who do have experience at shooting for and meeting high academic objectives, respond by being willing to play bad cop when necessary to get the kids up to speed on responsibility and achievement, not by watering down the curriculum with “media studies” so everyone can pretend to be doing well without any further exertion.)

    So anyway: Sarah Palin. She wasn’t from a powerful Alaska family, and she didn’t start off by going to law school and angling for a position as a local power broker from which she could work her way up, so I don’t think her achievements redound any less to her credit if we accurately call her “middle class” than they would if we inaccurately called her “working class.” And accuracy has a beneficial potential side effect: if we frankly acknowledge the extent to which the children of educated parents are, by and large, in a better position to do well in school and beyond, we may be able to have a more frank discussion about what schools need to do to help less fortunate children make up for the skills they’re missing from home life. (We might also get over the idea that you have to be working class to be earthy and unpretentious.) Precedent says it won’t happen, but as an inveterate, life-long Go-go’s fan, I choose to live (to rip off from Kimball’s post title) in La-la Land:

    4 Responses to “Hello, world—we’re here again”

    1. Donna B. says:

      Call me ignorant, naive… whatever. I just don’t get the difference between working class and middle class. I’m not even sure they are in the same plane and can even be compared.

      How do you define non-working class?

    2. Sean says:

      I think that for the purposes of deciding whether we should be designating an ambitious politician “working-class,” as a gold star for Overcoming Obstacles, the most important criterion is the highest educational level attained by his or her parents and other family elders. The parents’ job type is next. Income’s also important, but not nearly as imporant as the first two. Again, the major issue is expectations…what your parents push you toward and devote family resources toward helping you achieve. Working-class kids, through those lenses, have parents who almost certainly lack college degrees, do physical work that isn’t salaried, and know very little about the process of targeting and applying to colleges.

      Actually, Donna, I’m glad you asked that, because it reminds me to point out something that didn’t make it into the original post: the reason I’ve been writing about these things is not that I sit around obsessing over who’s authentically of the working class. But commentators keep casually characterizing Obama’s and Palin’s backgrounds as somehow disadvantaged, and I just don’t think that’s accurate.

    3. Mark Alger says:

      Actually, Sean, if there’s a point to be made about Palin’s class, it should be made about where she is as an adult — what she accomplished on her own — rather than what she presumably “inherited” from her parents. In that case, she is — or was — working class, as her husband is vrtually a poster boy of a working-class hero. (The real one, not the Sears one John Lennon sang about.)

      But, really, I think that says more about the people trying to parse Americans (a truly classless society if there ever was one) by their occupations (or educations) rather than their accomplishments than it does about the objects of that parsing.

      And if I’m going to engage in such a discussion (and, by extension, I urge this outlook on you, of course), I’m going to argue that, since we don’t HAVE a hereditary ruling aristocracy, we don’t have an upper class, and, since we don’t HAVE a class of helots or villains, legally bound to the land or to an occupation, we don’t have a lower class, and that therefor, we are ALL middle class, and that trying to parse us further is invidious and — dare I say — un-American.

      Which I think you hint at, but may not state quite emphatically enough. (And isn’t it bitchy of me to say so?)

      And, by the way, I haven’t been quick enough to say: it’s great to see you back to blogging with greater frequency again.

      M

    4. Robohobo says:

      “But commentators keep casually characterizing Obama’s and Palin’s backgrounds as somehow disadvantaged, and I just don’t think that’s accurate.”

      No one in America is in any way disadvantaged. Fer heaven’s sake our poor are fat. The good part about this country is that someone like me who comes from a poorer background can succeed – and then have it disappear again – but that is another discussion.

      Having ‘class’ has nothing to do with how much money you have. The Edwards’ have none, the Palins have a lot – class that is. Don’t know about the 0bama mater. Dad obviously had none. The Zero’s fishwife – she has none, her family? Who knows.

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