How we came not to care: Oligarchy of the elite

Side View of Statue of John Harvard by Daniel Chester French

The final post in this series on interrogating inequality is about another possible clue as to why we no longer seem to care about inequality. It’s from the book Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

The role of elite institutions of higher education

In his book, Deresiewicz argues that elite educational institutions reproduce a class system, exacerbate inequality, retard social mobility, and perpetuate privilege. Not only is the elite class that’s created by these institutions “isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.” It runs society for its own exclusive benefit. (emphasis added)

Our educational system, it’s been suggested, is what America developed in lieu of a European-style social welfare state to mitigate inequality. Instead of “handouts,” opportunity. And once upon a time, it worked as advertised. Both the unprecedented expansion of public higher education and the equally unprecedented opening of access to the private sort were instrumental in creating a mass middle class, and a new upper and upper middle class, in the decades after World War II. But now instead of fighting inequality, the system has been captured by it.

I mention this not simply as another possible clue, but because the article (Rebooting Social Science) that prompted me to write this series of posts appeared in Harvard Magazine. That may or may not be relevant to the attitude it expresses towards inequality, an attitude I found troubling.

In 2008 this same magazine published an excellent article on inequality (Unequal America). I learned that 71% of Americans believe that the poor could escape their poverty if only they worked hard enough. (For Europeans, the figure was 40%.) The difference between Americans and Europeans may have something to do with geography. Industrialization happened later in the US than it did in Britain and Europe. The population remained agricultural, and urbanization happened later. “Young men” were advised to “go West.”

There was also slavery and its legacy. Rosanvallon makes a compelling case for the role of American racism in the US/European discrepancy. As he says, many white Americans “are prepared to renounce redistributive programs from which they themselves might benefit solely because racial hostility leads them to want to exclude blacks.” The end result is that the US compares quite unfavorably to other developed nations in measures of income equality, population health, and education.

I was just starting this blog when I read that 2008 article on inequality. I credit it with contributing to my interests in inequality, the social determinants of health, personal responsibility for health, and healthism.

As it turns out, the two articles were written by the same author (a Harvard graduate). Perhaps the different stance towards inequality reflects a greater defensiveness today on the part of elite educational institutions than was the case in 2008.

On a personal note

Throughout my life, in social situations, I have not volunteered information about the elite institutions where I received my education (Harvard and Yale). I feel that to do so elicits the assumptions that I come from a socially and economically elite background and that I identify with that elite. The truth is, my father was an immigrant with an eighth-grade education who spent his life as a blue-collar factory worker.

In retrospect, I believe it was this background that qualified me, in Harvard’s eyes, as a “diversity” student and facilitated my admission. I lived 3000 miles away in California and, as a very naive teenager, I honestly had no idea what Harvard ‘meant.’ I had two public high school teachers (history and English) who did, and — again in retrospect — I can see that they positioned me for admission.

Once I was at Harvard, I was fortunate to receive the type of education that produces lifelong intellectual curiosity, for which I am grateful. But I have never identified with the elite. In fact, I believe an awareness of the contrast between my social origins and the elitist culture in which I was suddenly immersed contributes to my strong interest in inequality and the social determinants of health.

Bob Dylan – “I used to care but things have changed”

Related posts:
Interrogating inequality: An annoying article
Interrogating inequality: Some good news
Interrogating inequality: Tony Judt
How we came not to care: Rosanvallon
How we came not to care: Historical trends
Teaching the oligarchy not to care
For-profit medicine and why the rich don’t have to care about the rest of us
Breaking the self-destructive meritocratic spell
A generation obsessed with material wealth
Two children visit their doctors: Social class in the USA
Health care inequality: The US vs. Europe

Image source: Flavorwire


William Deresiewicz (2014), Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

Elizabeth Gudrais, Rebooting Social Science: The interdisciplinary Tobin Project addresses real-world problems, Harvard Magazine, July-August 2014

Elizabeth Gudrais, Unequal America: Causes and consequences of the wide—and growing—gap between rich and poor, Harvard Magazine, July-August 2008

Pierre Rosanvallon (2013), The Society of Equals


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