Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Paradox of the Middle Class

From the New York Times, an article whose subject seems to get at the essence of growing up in the middle class—Tips for the Admissions Test...To Kindergarten:
Test preparation has long been a big business catering to students taking SATs and admissions exams for law, medical and other graduate schools. But the new clientele is quite a bit younger: 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents hope that a little assistance — costing upward of $1,000 for several sessions — will help them win coveted spots in the city’s gifted and talented public kindergarten classes.
The article goes on to describe how the kindergarten tutoring business is taking off (the Bright Kids program featured here is just one of many) and why (many parents figure a couple thousand for tutoring is cheaper than private schools).

Although the whole affair seems outrageous and ridiculous at face value, it's difficult to resolve the issues here. If you ask people how we should distribute scarce rewards in a society fairly, most of them will say that they should go to the people who work the hardest (there is, in fact, research to back this up: q.v. Chapter 11, "Distributive Justice," in Homans, G.C., Social Behavior. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Janovich, 1974; and also work by Guillermina Jasso). But you put that principle into practice and you end up with situations like these, which seem, frankly, dehumanizing.

There are a number of other issues entangled here (like what it even means to be "gifted"; whether such ability is innate or acquired; whether differentiating education is worthwhile/necessary/inevitable; what it means to provide equal opportunity; the extent to which education figures into the American Dream, etc., etc.), but what makes the article jump out at me is that it shows how hard we, the middle class, are competing. It's like we're fighting tooth and nail for our very survival, even though fighting for survival seems unnecessary in modern society. Desperation amidst plenty: this, I believe, is the paradox of the middle class.

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