David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece two days ago called “The Great Divorce.” In it, he talks about Coming Apart, a book by Charles Murray, in which Murray argues that the US is increasingly a two-caste society. Brooks concedes that this argument isn’t new but, he says, “Murray provides an incredible amount of data” to illustrate his claims.
Okay, Mr. Brooks, first. Do you really need data to be convinced that the US is a society with a deep, deep fissure running down the middle, a fissure that’s looking more and more like that trench at the bottom of the ocean where various bad movies featuring Jackie Bissett and Ed Harris ended up?
If you’re a New Yorker who lives on 63rd street and the East River, the likelihood of you ever, ever stepping into a Wal-Mart other than on a whimsical Marie-Antoinette-as-milkmaid sort of errand is almost nil. If you’re a New Yorker who lives on Central Park West, perhaps facing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the chances of your kids going to a school where there aren’t enough math books for everyone in the class is an impossibility.
You don’t need data to know that (although it sounds fancier if you do).
I mean, I applaud Mr. Murray for finding ways to measure the gaping chasm between “have” and “have not,” and his research challenges my own assumptions. Seems it’s the “Have” tribe who goes to church and operates out of a conservative ideology, while the lower tribe goes to church less often and is more likely to live in sin (probably because they don’t go to church).
But Brooks goes on to say that “the members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.”
1950s traditionalist values. That’s a bit tricky, isn’t it, given what those “values” included? Segregation, sexism, homophobia…Middle-class white women didn’t work; lower-class women of color had to work; men of color were called “boy; mixed-race marriages were illegal. Yes, there was perhaps an “arduous work ethic” but what, exactly, does that mean? Other social scientists have shown that people in the late 20th and early 21st century are working longer and longer hours–and are less and less able to “turn off” work, due to all those iDevices that keep us tethered to work even when we’re, you know, relaxing with a martini brought to us by either Betty Draper or our crisply aproned help. (No names needed, just “the help.” After all, isn’t that a 1950s traditionalist practice?)
Okay. Okay, so we’ll let that slide…sort of. For me, actually, the real sticking point is when Brooks calls for National Service (which, actually, I think is a a great idea but mostly because after a year of mandatory services, then when/if kids go to college, they might know why the hell they’re there, instead of just using the next four years to dick around and drink beer).
Brooks calls for a National Service Program “in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement. If we could jam the tribes together, we’d have a better elite and a better mass.”
Let’s overlook his assumption that we’re always going to have “the masses.” Let’s instead say to him that actually, the country already has a national program that could, potentially jam the tribes together so that they’d work together, spread out their values, learn from one another.
It’s called public school.
Thats what we want to restore. Not the fucking 1950s, for god’s sake.
Public schools. Public schools with sufficient materials for all children, with teachers who are given creative license to work with the people sitting in front of them instead of being told to treat these people like they’re widgets; public schools that have safe and inviting physical plants, regardless of whether the building is in South Harlem, Tribeca, Illinois, Nebraska, Oregon. Public schools that haven’t been gutted by the imperious purse strings of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and others, whose ideas about testing, testing, testing, seem designed to keep “the masses” as precisely that, and whose own educations (and the educations of their children and friends’ children) contradict every single policy they want to institute.
What if a “good” elementary school were free instead of costing upwards of 36K. No, that’s not a typo, Mr. Brooks. Your own paper, in your own city, reported that private school tuitions, for first-grade, frequently starts at thirty-six thousand dollars. Which is cheap, I guess, because the kids are obviously finger-painting with liquid platinum.
Public education is uniquely suited to building bridges between these “tribes,” but Brooks ignores that fact, perhaps because he’s been one of the cheerleaders for more, more, more testing, and more “teacher accountability” and all the things that are rendering public schools absolutely incapable of doing anything other than…teaching the test.
And you know what?
Test scores make really, really crappy bridges.