The snobbish elites barricade themselves in exclusive suburban enclaves, the poor suffer from an erosion of values, and the once-noble “American project” goes down the toilet.
In his provocative new book, “Coming Apart,” libertarian Charles Murray proposes the U.S. is coming apart at the seams of class. He sees the wealthy, well-educated, and predominantly urban upper 20 percent growing more out of touch with ordinary Americans, especially the poorest 30 percent.
Murray posits that as the wealthy become disinterested in the rest of society, the values that once made America great — industriousness, religiousness, honesty, and marriage — slowly erode in the lower socioeconomic classes. His solutions for how to solve this — to have the elite “rehabilitate” the lower classes, much like paternalistic 19th-century reformers attempted to do, and to stop the apparatus of the “welfare state” from enabling the poor — are unconvincing and extreme. But his assessment of the growing cultural divide between rich and poor is thorough and persuasive and is particularly relevant to us at Whitman.
Murray’s ideas are especially evident within the Bethesda bubble. The area’s expensive housing screens out working-class citizens, ensuring the wealthy and educated are largely cocooned with their own kind. In fact, Murray identifies lower Montgomery County and Northwest D.C. as the largest elite bubble in the country, based on the large population of upper and upper-middle class and how they live within close proximity of each other.
Murray discusses all aspects of upper-class society and seems to write his description of elite high school life with Whitman in mind. He describes overworked students tackling mountains of extracurriculars and helicopter parents obsessing over their kids’ every move, all to maximize chances of getting into a prestigious college.
This college obsession yields dividends: 79 percent of students at “tier 1” colleges come from families in the top quartile of socioeconomic status, while only two percent come from the bottom quartile, according to sociologist Joseph Soare’s analysis in The Power of Privilege. This may comfort Whitman students, but it poses major problems for the country as a whole by perpetuating class differences within our society. The elite college-educated tend to marry among themselves, achieve financial success and have children who repeat the cycle, according to Murray’s research. Meanwhile, the poor are largely left behind.
Murray argues that the highly educated and entitled elites adopt snobby or naïve cultural outlooks, quietly maintaining that they and their peers are superior to the rest of the population, both intellectually and morally. The objective observer can detect strains of such snobbery or naïveté in aspects of Whitman and Bethesda culture.
Our school is undoubtedly a bastion of privilege. Most high school parking lots aren’t overflowing with students’ cars — often more expensive than their teachers’. Most high schools don’t graduate 95 percent of their students, and over one third of last year’s seniors went on to top 100 (as determined by Forbes) colleges.
This privilege can breed elitism, which isn’t necessarily as blatant or extreme as (mis)labeling decent middle and lower class neighborhoods as “the ghetto” or dismissing rural Americans as xenophobic, gun-toting, religious fanatics (though this dismissal certainly occurs to some extent). It mostly manifests itself in the ways elite’s everyday preferences and values vastly differ from those of working class Americans.
These are just a few trivial examples, but they attest to the weakening of the commonalities that hold America together. The uproar over the Trayvon Martin case illustrates how wide this divide has become. Due to the lack of evidence, the case has largely become a matter of individual interpretation, with much of the country seeing the case as proof of America’s latent racism and the need for gun control, and other parts of “ordinary America” arguing that George Zimmerman — who strapped on a firearm whenever he left his house — acted within his right to self-defense.
In order to bridge this divide, elites need to find ways to pop the Bethesda bubble. Many students’ only exposure to less-entitled realities comes through community service trips with groups like the Whitman Relief Network. Others only see “real America” out of a car window.
The reality is that America’s differences will grow so long as the elite barricade themselves in exclusive neighborhoods. So if nothing else, take a moment to ask yourself: how thick is your bubble?