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The Meritocracy

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One thing I care very deeply about is the ability of working-class kids to become upwardly mobile. That’s of course because I am a first-generation college graduate in my family and my father worked in a plywood mill. So I want other kids like me to be successful. One thing that these kids believe in is that if they work hard, they will succeed. It’s America, right! This is our national myth.

But of course while this can be somewhat true, there’s a pretty hard ceiling on just how high working kids can rise because the truly desirable and powerful positions are all held by the American class elite, often regardless of actual intelligence or work ethic. Henry Farrell interviews Lauren Rivera about her new book that argues that working-class students don’t rise as high as they could because they study too much instead of making social connections. It’s a little depressing and all too believable.

Whether intentionally or not, elite parents expose their children to different experiences and styles of interacting that are useful for getting ahead in society. Many of these are taken for granted in upper and upper-middle class circles, such as how to prepare a college application (and having cultivated the right types of accomplishments to impress admissions officers), how to network in a business setting in a way that seems natural, and how to develop rapport with teachers, interviewers, and other gatekeepers to get things you want from those in power. Basically, if we think of economic inequality as a sporting competition, elite parents give their kids a leg up, not only by being able to afford the equipment necessary to play but also by teaching them the rules of the game and giving them insider tips on how to win.

Working and lower-middle-class children are less likely to participate in structured extracurricular activities than their more privileged peers while growing up (and when they do, they tend to participate in fewer of them). This hurts their job prospects in two ways. First, it affects the types of schools students attend. Elite universities weigh extracurricular activities heavily in admissions decisions. Given that these employers—which offer some of the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the country—recruit almost exclusively at top schools, many students who focus purely on their studies will be out of the game long before they ever apply to firms. Second, employers also use extracurricular activities, especially those that are driven by “passion” rather than academic or professional interest and require large investments of time and money over many years, to screen résumés. But participation in these activities while in college or graduate school is not a luxury that all can afford, especially if someone needs to work long hours to pay the bills or take care of family members. Essentially, extracurriculars end up being a double filter on social class that disadvantages job applicants from more modest means both in entering the recruiting pipeline and succeeding within it.

This is a good moment to mention how college administrators, like employers, love the idea of the “well-rounded student” as well. Let me relate a story told from my M.A. advisor Susan Becker (also co-author of the best book available for history survey course discussion sections). At the University of Tennessee in the 1980s or early 1990s, she started an honors program and while she ran it, it was strictly on academic merit. She said it was great because it was a place where all these Tennessee-born nerds and geeks found people who were interested in what they liked, fell in love, etc. And then the administrators took it over, made it about the well-rounded student, and filled it with their favorite frat boys and student government leaders and all the same people who college had always solidified as the next class of Tennessee elites. Working-class kids simply don’t have the cultural capital to access the sort of jobs that these people will hold. They think hard work will make it happen. And while that will take them so far, it isn’t going to take them to the top. I can write all I want, but there’s no way an Ivy League school or top liberal arts school will ever hire someone with a University of New Mexico PhD. I realize that now, but the myth of hard work suckered me in too. It’s hard to escape American mythology and I can assure you that my students believe in it as much as I did.

Also, here’s where I pulled that great image at the top.

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