A Columnist Walks Into a Sandwich Shop
In an intellectually lazy excercise, David Brooks uses his NYT writing space to blame coastal elites for the chasm between the highly educated and the rest.
A few of days ago, before the floodgates opened and we were momentarily drowned by the sewer waters of the Donald Trump Jr. Russia-email tweet, the northeast corridor punditry on Twitter was talking about “sandwiches”.
Someone had messed up… and that someone was well-known columnist David Brooks. The 140 character cyber assault was relentless, so I had to read this for myself. Sure enough the article, titled “How We Are Ruining America” was awful, and the playful mocking over the sandwiches analogy belied Brook’s true failing: his assertion that the behavior patterns born out of systemic failures are a bigger problem than the systemic failures themselves.
The piece, now unfortunately within the top 10 most-read in the paper’s online page, is a lost opportunity and one that reminds us that still, even in publications like The New York Times, commentators are not applying their intellect to their full capacity.
A brief exploration of structural factors
Brooks begins his article with this bold acusation: “ Over the past generation, members of the college-educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”
True, but how are they ‘making sure’ no one else can get in? With “behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life”, he says. Okay, but this point assumes that ‘cultivating successful children’ is a priority that non-well off parents do not have. I cannot imagine that this is true, so could it be that well-off people have the means and time to do this?
Well, yes, as Brooks himself concedes, with the help of a researcher he cites. “Upper-middle-class moms have the means and the maternity leaves to breast-feed their babies at much higher rates than high school-educated moms, and for much longer periods.”.
And moreover: “Since 1996, education expenditures among the affluent have increased by almost 300 percent, while education spending among every other group is basically flat.”.
Brooks doesn’t seem to wonder why that is, but a look at how university degrees are a strong determining factor in class and wages, how expensive such degrees have become over time, and that class mobility is tied to education, provides the answer: people who are trying to make ends meet cannot invest in education the same way that wealthy people do. A natural question is, why did education become a hurdle for so many? how can we make education more affordable so that everyone has a chance?
But no, Brooks does not want to explore that and declares: “I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.”
Really? so the things that cause the social barrier are less important? tell me more.
Cultural segmentation is a thing
In his story at the deli, Brooks spirals into full on mea culpa. The sandwich story boils down to ‘how could I have brought my high school educated friend to a deli she couldn’t understand because she’s not a 20 percenter?’. So they went for tacos instead and it was fine.
“American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class.”
Of course, but this is not unique to upper-middle-class culture. Perhaps Brooks needs to walk into any rural area and start a conversation about hunting, or spend a day with people from the inner city, or even in an poor immigrant community. Cultural signifiers differ from community to community and they are mostly defined by class and/or race.
It is baffling and disappointing that his encounter with a researcher on education inequality boiled down to ‘forget it, upper middle class people and rich people are awful and exclusionary’, what a failed opportunity and a waste of NYT column space.
There are alot of bad columns, why harp on this one?
Inequality of opportunity and access to education are at the heart of America’s current maladies. The segregation by education level, demographically expressed (as the researcher in the article elucidates!) has led to a real chasm in the population. The consequences range from barriers to upper mobility, political polarization, social instability, and a lower standard of living for a majority of our population.
Thus, the topic of this column represents one of the most important issues of our time. For someone who is fortunate enough to have space in the NYT to waste such opportunity, by casting asside structural barriers or their exploration, is literally a public disservice.