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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Silver Spoons and Street Corners

Since I wrote the last post, I've been thinking a lot about differences in upbringing, and about social advantages us middle class whites take for granted. From mowing our lawn for five bucks a pop, I graduated to other peoples' lawns, and then to multi-acre lawns that required the use of large tractors, which were helpfully provided for me by my dad. As soon I got my license, I got a job at The Elks Country Club washing dishes. From there I went to Spiece to be a shoe salesman. I worked all these jobs while going to school, having a secure roof over my head, a more-or-less stable family environment, and being looked over by competent--at times overbearing--parents.

School is another matter entirely. My mom and I often argue about just how much I benefited from attending Catholic schools, something she insisted on when my dad was balking because of the expense. But even if Catholic schools were better (they're not) I would have enjoyed quite a bit of an advantage had I gone to public schools around where we lived too. The budget for schools is largely determined by housing taxes, so areas with affluent homeowners tend to have better funded schools. Inner city schools, on the other hand, tend to have less money over all, and substantially--ridiculously--less money per capita for the students. The ratio of minorities to whites in these schools is often more than 9 to one. (Here's a link to Jonathan Kozol's article about this in Harper's).

What this means is that while I was busy learning not just the explicit lessons of a school curriculum but also the procedural skills of adhering to schedules, budgeting time, preparing in advance, paying attention, sitting quietly, kids less fortunate than me were getting their education on a street corner, learning how to get respect, how to hustle, how to get what you need and not get caught.

But most middle class people I know don't see being to work on time as a skill so much as a moral issue. They are unable to appreciate the true significance of different upbringings. Part of the problem may be the challenge to free will such an appreciation would pose. Indeed, most people I talk to are prone to get angry when you talk about the advantages they enjoyed, as if you were trying to take credit away from them. It's also just really hard to remember picking up implicit lessons, really easy to take them for granted, and all too tempting to indulge in feelings of superiority.

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