Monday, May 30, 2011

Making privilege

While reading sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan's Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School, the thought uneasily crossed my mind that this is exactly the kind of academic book Malcolm Gladwell might make more popular by turning its critical analysis of the making of privilege into a between-the-lines instruction manual for business-class tiger-parents.

It could be a chapter of Outliers 2.

In Privilege, Khan argues against the popular understanding in the United States that elites are people who are entitled - that is, that they simply were born into their privilege. Entitlement might have described the elite 100 or 50 years ago.

Today, however, he suggests that the "new" elites themselves share at least an ideal and rhetoric of having had to "work for" their privilege. Privilege has become not what you were fortunate enough to be born into, but what you were clever enough to "earn."

Up to this point, readers of Gladwell will be happy to recognize themselves - members of the new elite - in the pages of Privilege! However, Khan's point is that the new elite is as troubling as the old elite. There is no nostalgia here for a ruling (white) class based on exclusion, but Khan is equally skeptical of the current embrace of so-called meritocracy - a term that I was surprised to learn had been coined in Britain in the 1940s to criticize "the cold scientization of ability and the bureaucratization of talent" (Khan 2011:8). In fact, the new elite is based on assumptions that could prove to be even more insidious:

With "merit" we seem to have stripped individuals of the old baggage of social ties and status and replaced it with personal attributes - hard work, discipline, native intelligence, and other forms of human capital that can be evaluated separate from the conditions of social life. And the impact of the adoption of this approach has led to rather contradictory outcomes. It has undercut nepotism. It has been used to promote the opening of schools to talented members of society who previously were excluded. But it has also been used to question policies like affirmative action that taken into account factors other than performance on select technocratic instruments. It has been used to justify the increased wages of the already wealthy (as their skills are so valuable and irreplaceable). And most important for me, it has obscured how outcomes are not simply a product of individual traits" (Khan 2011:9).

For whatever reason, reading this passage called to mind a moment in "The Osbournes"* when Kelly describes how hard Ozzy worked for everything that he has today. I found it jarring to hear the tribute to hard work paid by a young woman who I got the impression has not had a lot of personal experience with it.

*I know. A dated reference to a TV show that I watched back when I watched TV! Sigh.

Khan argues that hierarchy remains as entrenched under the new privilege as it had been with the old entitlement. Hierarchy under the old elite represented ceilings. Under the new elite, it has become a ladder to climb: You just have to make the right choices, and do the right things.

Enter the guru, Gladwell, and other prophets of privilege and hard work: David Brooks, anyone?

The new elite purports to include the "best of the best" regardless of class or race / ethnicity - at least in theory. A point that Khan makes is that inequality persists even with growing awareness and acceptance of "openness" and "access."

As exploration of privilege, Khan's book is revealing about the state of the American Dream today.

I think about how many of us have a stake in the hope of "hard work." I stop short of calling it a myth, which reveals how high a stake I have in it, too.

Or as Khan observes: "Students learn to emphasize hard work and talent when explaining their good fortune" (Khan 2011:15).

Khan tells us that his own story is "familiar": A tale of immigrants who find opportunity and success in the United States and then give their children more and better than they had themselves. I think it would be worth telling his story in terms of how and why Pakistani doctors and Irish nurses were brought to the United States in the early 1970s.

Or for that matter, I could tell my own story as a tale of the sacrifices that my parents made and the hard work that bought our family a house in the suburbs and elite educations for my brother, sister, and me: Or I could tell it in terms of an American embrace of Koreans as anti-communist Asians and of a shortage of doctors and nurses that brought guest workers to the United States.

None of us arrives on our own merits only.

Thursday, May 26, 2011


If, and I am only saying if, we ever had that much celebrated post-race moment on a certain evening in November 2008, then the evidence keeps mounting that we have been living in a post-post-race moment ever since:

Last week, readers responded swiftly to evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa's piece, "Why are black women less physically attractive than other women," which had been posted on a blog at Psychology Today - then removed amidst the (justified) outrage. The anthropology blog Savage Minds posted a response, "Why are evolutionary psychologists less intelligent than other mammals." For me, this incident serves as a reminder (again) that it is not just about speaking out against racism, but explaining exactly how racism is "at work" - in this case, it is important and necessary to discuss the particulars of the research and the assumptions embedded in it.

My other favorite columnist at The Nation (in other words, not Katha Pollitt) is Gary Younge, who in the June 6th issue penned a piece called "The Paradox of Hope," which comments on an inconvenient truth of the Obama presidency: "But for all the ways black America has felt better about itself and looked better to others, it has not actually fared better. In fact, it has been doing worse. The economic gap between black and white has grown since Obama took power." Yet, Younge notes, black Americans generally continue to support Obama. Why? #1. Look no further than the spectacle of the Birthers: "In the face of such brazenly racist attacks, defending Obama's right to the office becomes easily blurred with defending his record." #2. "Racial advancement is increasingly understood not as a process of social change but of individual promotion," Younge observes, "the elevation of black faces to high places."

This might account for how and why the recent coverage in The New York Times' "Room for Debate" blog given to a study of racism in the United States turns out to be so wrong. Living Anthropologically picks apart the problems with the study, which the authors claim as evidence of anti-white bias on the rise from the 1950s to the 2000s. Except that "they don’t have historical data–the chart is deceptive":

What they have is a survey from today, asking people “to indicate the extent to which they felt both Blacks and Whites were the target of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s” (Norton and Sommers 2011:216). And, of course, whites today say anti-black bias was a problem in the 1950s but drops steadily, whereas anti-white bias is steadily on the rise. Blacks today say the same thing, although not to the same extent. But that does not actually say anything about what people in each decade actually thought! All it does is support the dominant U.S. mythology: the idea that racism was a problem back in the 1950s but it’s going away or gone now.

In other words, the study might tell us something about the perceptions of white and black Americans concerning the experience of race in the United States, but it is not what the authors themselves purport their research tells us.

Finally, I just started to read Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School, an ethnography written by sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan, who had attended, then later taught at St. Paul's. I was drawn to this book for a number of reasons, including what I admit to be a personal fascination with privilege. It never has been the wealth that dazzled me, but the confidence and ease with which the elite operate in the world: They can be some of the most charming, informed, and interesting people you ever met in your life - and I know this because I attended college with them. Khan articulates perfectly the question that has nagged at me:

One of the curiosities in recent years is how our social institutions have opened to those they previously excluded, yet at the same time inequality has increased. We live in a world of democratic inequality, by which I mean that our nation embraces the democratic principle of openness and access, yet as that embrace has increased so too have our levels of inequality. We often think of openness and equality as going hand in hand. And yet if we look at our experiences over the last fifty years we can see that that is simply not the case. This is most notable in elite colleges, where student bodies are increasingly racially diverse but simultaneously richer.

The headline in The New York Times on May 24th reads: "Top Colleges, Largely for the Elite."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Blog I love

I wish my blog were more like Kate Clancy's.

It is all about the anthropology of ladybusiness, and a terrific example of parenthropology at work.

So, go read it. Then come back here another time :)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Our So-Called Education

Living Anthropologically posted this brief item, commenting on two articles in The New York Times:

May 14: On the one hand, "Fast Tracking to Kindergarten." Meanwhile in college it's "Your So-Called Education." As a parent of young children, and a professor, these trends seem intuitively true, and wrong. Are they also related?

I think what we are witnessing now is the further constriction of what counts as education - and parents and everyone else concerned with teaching and learning, from primary school to college and university, ought to join forces to resist it.

Or as William Deresiewicz writes in an essay reviewing a dozen recent books on the state of higher education (published in the May 23rd issue of The Nation):

There is a large, public debate right now about primary and secondary education. There is a smaller, less public debate about higher education. What I fail to understand is why they aren't the same debate.... Education, it is said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket.... Learning isn't about downloading a certain quantity of information into your brain, as the proponents of online instruction seem to think.... It is labor-intensive; it is face-to-face; it is one-at-a-time.

Deresiewicz cites Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's recently published book, Academically Adrift, which found that college students today are not in fact learning all that much in college. At institutions of higher education, the buzzword now is "assesssment," which is supposed to measure "student learning outcomes" - that is, how full are the buckets.

When students apparently fail to learn, the reflexive response of policy makers has been to blame the teachers. Witness the popularity of so-called reformers like former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, and the attacks upon public school teachers and their unions.

However, consider the conditions in which public school teachers today work. Austerity demands that they make do with less, teaching more children in their classrooms (not to mention having to manage the complexities of the lives of the children whom they teach), cutting "extras" like field trips or recess, preparing children to perform well on standardized tests that are taken as measures of the teachers themselves. How well can teachers teach - and students learn - under such conditions?

A point that Deresiewicz and Arum and Roksa (in "Your So-Called Education") all make is that there are now fewer full-time tenure-track faculty teaching at American colleges and universities: No more than 35 percent. Deresiewicz suggests:

If we're going to make college an intellectually rigorous experience of the students who already go - still more, for all the ones we want to go if we're going to reach the oft-repeated goal of universal postsecondary education, an objective that would double enrollments - we're going to need a lot more teachers: well paid, institutionally supported, socially valued.


Another important reason to resist the narrowing of education is that it reinforces already existing inequalities. Narrowing what counts as worth learning serves the interests of people who know what Kumon is and can afford it. The only hope for democracy is a broad education.

State of The Nation

In the May 23rd issue of The Nation, New York Times economics writer Louis Uchitelle reports on the decline in the number of dual-earner married couples between 2007 and 2010.

Uchitelle takes particular note of married couples who find themselves relying on what had been women's "second income" jobs after men lose their places as the primary bread winners:

Meanwhile, Rhonda's long working days - she leaves at around 5 am and is gone until early evening - have altered her role in the family, not to mention his. She still views him - and he views himself - as the chief provider, if not today then in the long run, when her income, they hope, will once again become secondary.

Uchitelle describes a shift in household responsibilities, but whether or not this constitutes a shift toward gender equality is another question:

When Ruth Millkman, a sociologist at the City University of New York, noticed this role reversal in data from the 1930s, she thought it was a move toward gender equality. "But because the role reversal was strongly associated with economic deprivation, it was not welcome," Milkman says. Seventy-five years later, Keith Baudendistel certainly does not welcome it. "I want to be the head of the household again," he says, "but until that can happen, we have to manage as best we can."

I have to wonder about the hope and the expectation that life can return to what it had been. Even when men like Keith find work again, they are likely to earn less (even considerably less) than what they earned before, and it is unlikely that Rhonda's income will be "secondary" again. Their home life has been and will be transformed.

I think there might have been a moment when it looked like the financial crisis might precipitate important and meaningful changes in the way things (and people) work. It seemed like crisis might precipitate a searching of our collective souls. Question the power of financial institutions. Question the work week. Question inequalities, including gender.

Did I miss the parade?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Telling us what we think we already know

That is what I think undergraduate students think I do as a professor of anthropology.

I say that b/c of course it is that time again: In-class review and then exams suggest to me that for each student who genuinely seems to have grasped the concepts as presented to them in class, then absorbed them well enough to think through the ways in which they apply in various situations (including in his or her own life), there are others who walk in and out of class apparently immune to education.


This is a point that columnist Katha Pollitt makes in the May 16th issue of The Nation, as she discusses the rise and fall from grace of memoirist and erstwhile do-gooder Greg Mortenson:

As a string of much-praised fake memoirs can attest - to say nothing of Bernie Madoff's meteoric career - people don't look closely at stories that tell them what they want to hear. Americans love to be inspired by heroic lone individuals who provide simple solutions to complicated problems - especially when the individuals are American and famous, the solutions are cheap and the problems are far away.

I admit that as a cultural anthropologist, I both agree with Pollitt - and feel vaguely queasy b/c I suspect that what students learn in ANTH 100 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology is the story that they want to hear. That is, the truth that they think they already know. Note that I say "what students learn." Not "what I teach." Or at least try to teach.

I think students learn that "culture" is a simple solution and a complicated problem. As in, Our culture could teach Them Over There what to do in order to fix all of Their problems, which are rooted in Their culture. They need to learn from Us.

Exhibit A: Nicholas Kristof's column on female "circumcision" this week in the New York Times. (See a response at Living Anthropologically.)

Kristof ought to read Pollitt. In fact, I ought to assign this column for ANTH 100 next fall:

We've gotten used to a certain kind of NGO fairy tale, as depicted in the children's book Beatrice's Goat, much admired by Kristof: Heifer International gives a family a farm animal, and in a dozen years, the profits send a daughter to college.... Faced with the chance to transform a life, we forget that poor people rarely need just one small thing, that they are embedded in immensely complex and oppressive social worlds.

I am grateful to Pollitt for giving a name (NGO fairy tale) to the gripe that I have had with efforts like Clean the World, "which distributes recycled soap products, along with appropriate educational materials, to impoverished countries worldwide, and to domestic homeless shelters." (Along these lines, I had heard about a group called Underwear for Africa (and in the UK, Knickers for Africa.)

It is not just that we forget, but we want (and in a way, need) to believe that poor people need Just One Small Thing b/c that seems to be all we are willing to give toward justice.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Manning up"

Real life interrupted my blogging life: A week of rehearsals leading up to Beanie's dance recitals, translating into late nights putting kids to bed and even later nights prepping classes and answering e-mails from students about their grades.

Classes end this Wednesday, and I have finals to write for this Friday and next Monday.

In our neck of the woods, the end of term also coincides with the start of milder weather and heralds a season of sociality with friends we hardly even saw all semester.

Also, Bubbie has been having renewed separation anxiety during his drop-offs at child care and at nursery school. Thankfully, we know and trust Bubbie's teachers, who all seem to take his meltdowns in stride as "a phase" that will pass. They and the parents of other children in Bubbie's nursery school have been kind and reassuring, which is fortunate for Bubbie b/c I admit to being a bit exasperated with him. Here is a child whose mother has worked all of his life. So, I have to confess that I am a bit miffed to have him cling to me and tell me not to go to work when I know that he is otherwise well cared for and even enjoy himself at child care and nursery school. B/c I know that I am a good mother and the fact is that being productive (and dare I say even successful) at my work makes me a better mother to Bubbie.

Happy Mother's Day :)


Unless you have been hiding yourself in a cave in a Tora Bora - or never mind, especially when you have been - you have been subjected to an ever-churning spin on the news surrounding the assassination (?) of Osama Bin Laden.

I have been interested especially in responses surrounding the news:

(a) The posting of a quoted attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. on Facebook. I had "liked" it every time I saw a friend post it. I actually was familiar with the last part of it because it appears in a children's picture book that Beanie and I have read (Martin's Big Words). However, there turns out to be a story behind the first part of the quote, which is mis-attributed, as Megan McArdle, a blogger at The Atlantic, reported.

(b) I am not alone in believing that Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" might be one of the most misunderstood popular songs ever. All due respect to The Boss, but I have to say also that the song as produced on the album might be the most spectacular failure at irony ever recorded. We took a little drive this morning, listening to Greatest Hits, and Beanie and Bubbie were singing along to the chorus at the top of their lungs: "I was - BORN in the USA! - I was - BORN in the USA!" At one point, Beanie improvised: "I was - BORN in Michigan." Pause, then: "Michigan is part of America."

(c) I am not entirely exaggerating to claim that I have been devastated to learn that Hillary Clinton's response in the Situation Room - as captured in a photograph now widely reproduced in the news media - is attributed to allergies, not to the burden that she carries as a human being. I am right there with the blogger at The Stir:

Do I wonder if Clinton is covering up the truth about a personal and emotional moment for fear of being seen by the world and her peers as a (gasp!) woman? I do. But even scarier to me is the idea that she or anyone else in that room might not have actually had a reaction that looked like the one she was or wasn't having when the photo was taken. After all, while I want my leaders to be strong, fierce, and determined, I also want them all to have deep insight and emotion about the decisions they are making for our country and the world. In a nutshell, I prefer for them all to be a little, well -- "womanly," I guess, is the only word I have that encompasses all that. It's a good thing.

Remember that someone deliberately chose this particular image to represent the Obama administration. Clinton's reaction creates an impression. It suggests a good story.