Thursday, March 08, 2012

Affirmative Idealism

In his book "Coming Apart," Charles Murray explained the cause and consquences of the growing societal divide in America in a thorough and convincing manner. One criticism that has been leveled against him is that he didn't offer much in the way of solutions. In response, he has a piece today called Reforms for the New Upper Class:

That said, I can see four steps that might weaken the isolation of at least the children of the new upper class.

For one thing, we should get rid of unpaid internships. The children of the new upper class hardly ever get real jobs during summer vacation. Instead, they get internships at places like the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) or a senator’s office.


We can also drop the SAT in college admissions decisions. The test has become a symbol of new-upper-class privilege, as people assume (albeit wrongly) that high scores are purchased through the resources of private schools and expensive test preparation programs.

Instead, elite colleges should require achievement tests in specific subjects for which students can prepare the old-fashioned way, by hitting the books.

Another step would replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action. This is a no-brainer. It is absurd, in 2012, to give the son of a black lawyer an advantage in college admissions but not do the same for the son of a white plumber.

Finally, we should prick the B.A. bubble. The bachelor’s degree has become a driver of class divisions at the same moment in history when it has become educationally meaningless. We don’t need legislation to fix this problem, just an energetic public interest law firm that challenges the constitutionality of the degree as a job requirement.

All of these suggestions are reasonable and all could be implemented to some degree without significant investment or unintended adverse consequences (as opposed to most solutions to this problem that involve government programs). However, as Murray freely admits, these reforms alone are not going to be nearly enough to bridge the growing divide. But they might just be a good place to start.

There may, however, be a symbolic value in these reforms. The changes that matter have to happen in the hearts of Americans. The haves in our society are increasingly cocooned in a system that makes it easy for their children to continue to be haves. Recognizing that, and acting to diminish the artificial advantages of the new upper class — especially if that class takes the lead in advocating these reforms — could be an important affirmation of American ideals.