Their Own Language.

Lucy Thurber is a playwright from Western Massachusetts (my current bailiwick) who “grew up in rural poverty in New England and drew in part on her own experiences navigating the world of higher education”; Ginia Bellafante of the NY Times did an interview with her which includes this passionate paragraph:

I am constantly disturbed by the notion that a lower-income background means you do not possess the ability to articulate yourself. Rural people where I come from, as well as the high school students I teach in New York City, are often some of the most beautifully articulate people I know. They simply have their own language. Just because the middle and upper classes often do not recognize this language does not mean that it does not express the human spirit or the human mind well or fully. I am also disturbed and offended by the notion that simply because a lower-income student did not have access to elite education or preparation, they are less intelligent than those who did. Intelligence cannot be measured in SAT scores, or high school G.P.A., when you are coming from these kinds of places. Our system of education was designed to keep the classes separated and if we are ever going to change this exclusionist culture, then we have to change the way we evaluate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. To say “they couldn’t keep up here” is a falsehood. We need to “keep up” with them.

That eloquently expresses one of my core beliefs, something I’ve tried to promote here at LH. And the last paragraph is good too:

I want them to know that the people where I come from do in fact exist. And that they matter. August Wilson once told me, when I was a baby playwright: “I bet the people that you grew up around told stories. Because if you come from these kinds of places, you tell each other stories. That’s one of the ways in which you know that you exist.” I want us all to expand our stories.

People need stories, and they need more than the same old stories. Keep ’em coming.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    I agree!

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    I am also disturbed and offended by ..

    This is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Who cares about *her* emotions ? But this kind of touchy-feely ersatz argument is rampant now, in the US at any rate. Much less so in Germany.

    I just finished Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Hofstadter (1963). He sets out the historical issues and development of education in the US. I found my own experience and half-thoughts falling into place in the general scheme – not always on the side of the angels, at least not what I had thought that side was.

    These are very difficult matters. “Disturbed and offended” is child’s play. Thurber clearly don’t know the half of it.

  3. If someone says that a particular social group is inferior, it’s perfectly all right to mention that the idea is offensive before refuting it in dry technical terms. The points she is making have been made in countless technical papers over the past half-century or more. She’s quite effective in making that case, again, using the modality of a writer.

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    “Technical” means what here ? Is it a term of unqualified approval ?

    Whatever else it may mean, it usually implies intelligibility only to a small group of people. That’s fine, but doesn’t exclude rejection by other technical people.In IT I am continually at loggerheads with other IT people about technical matters. None of it convinces management.

  5. Stu Clayton says:

    No matter how pissed off I am about certain technical matters, I have found that parading my displeasure gets me nowhere. To convince management, I discard the disturbed, offended and technical parts. Works a charm.

    Different strokes for different folks.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    Before reading Hofstadter, I would not have thought twice about the claims in Thurber’s remarks (apart from deprecating her parade of feelings). Now I see their counterparts in discussions over 100 years ago. Two chapters of the book are especially eye-opening in this connection: Chap. 13 “The Road To Life Adjustment”, and Chap. 14 “The Child and the World”, both in the section titled “Education in a Democracy”.

    This is history, not homily.

  7. I understand the sentiment, but in the previous question of the article, she talks about how her language, her mode of being, was very foreign to the other students, leading to PTSD and panic attacks. This is actually a better way of seeing it: as a foreign student, of course you are going to have problems articulating yourself in the new environment: this is part of the reason to expose yourself to the new environment.
    So to turn around and say “but you’re beautifully articulate in your native language” is kind of beside the point.

  8. Stu Clayton says:

    I agree. And panic attacks are something to grow out of. Hillbilly Elegy is good on this. Moral support from friends has fewer unwanted side-effects than Valium and victimhood have.

    Living in Germany, hell-bent on speaking only German (= learning to) was a very melodramatic and difficult business for me, the first few years. It never occurred to me to blame anything or anybody for it. I had a lot of support from friends. I reached my goal – actually I reached several goals of which I was not initially aware.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    If someone says that a particular social group is inferior, it’s perfectly all right to mention that the idea is offensive before refuting it in dry technical terms.

    It also seems like it should be prefaced by “And with this I hand the microphone to my good friend Captain Obvious”, though.

  10. I actually came here to push back gently at some aspects of Thurber’s points about “intelligence” (because surely one component of intelligence is the flexibility to adapt your communication style to suit different audiences) – but never mind, I don’t think I want to be on whatever side Stu’s on, with its superior Teutonic logic and its haughty disdain for “victims” who lack the fortitude to grow out of panic attacks.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    There are two things here.

    1. “Don’t argue from your own feelings” may be perfectly good advice. It may also be bad advice. It depends on the context. In this case it’s hardly meant as an argument at all. This is an interview with an author of fiction. The interviewer wants the readers to understand more of the literary project (for lack of a better word) of the author. That means getting the author to give something of herself to the readers, and her feelings, her sense of right and wrong and her successes and old bitterness are all background for her writing.

    2. Feelings or not, the underlying point about the inherent suppression in an educational system or a social environment that requires conformity to the subtle norms of a ruling class (again, for lack of a better word) stands. And it doesn’t help much that the same educational system and the same norms make social advancement possible for those willing and able to conform. The newly recruited footsoldiers are often the most dedicated gatekeepers.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    Teutonic logic ! That’s even worse than female logic.

    I wonder why Thurber brings up panic attacks at all, if not to suggest that elites and institutions are at fault, somehow. She says, rather strangely, that “safety” set them off.

    # Suddenly I found myself in this foreign land of unfathomable safety, and plentiful resources. I had no bearings or examples of how to operate within it. … And my language, my mode of being, was very foreign to the other students I met, who could not believe my utter fascination with the salad bar at lunch. Ultimately I made incredible friends and that institution changed my life, but it was a jagged beginning. I experienced panic attacks and PTSD. I felt ugly and isolated, because I did not know the culture of this place of luxury, or how to blend in within it. #

    Well, I see these as personal, not institutional problems. As I wrote: something to grow out of, as I have grown out of things (such as sounding off about linguistics at this very site). My disdain was directed solely at the “disturbed and offended” bit.

    For a more robust account, see Hillbilly Elegy.

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    Trond: what you write stands because it’s so extremely general. The problem with the expression “ruling class” is that there is no better expression. The notion itself is hopelessly vague.

    Suppose snowflakes became the “ruling class” in politics and universities. Would there be no more “subtle norms” governing access to that class ? Would there be no more “social advancement possible for those willing and able to conform” ?

    In such a snowstorm, I would be left out in the rain. However, I doubt that I would be disturbed and offended – angry, more like. I might even buy a red baseball cap.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    its superior Teutonic logic and its haughty disdain for “victims”

    Actually, disdain for victims hasn’t been fashionable in Germany since you-know-when. I’ve only seen “don’t be a victim”, “attitude of victimhood” and “I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor” from Americans so far.

  15. Stu Clayton says:

    Haughtiness is also in short supply here. But not riding on a high horse. Go figure.

    I’m not even sure how I could convey the notion of “victimhood” in German. Opferbereitschaft is already taken. Something involving Opferallüren ? Systemimmanente Jammersuserei ?

  16. Trond Engen says:

    I’m actually not so concerned with the norms as with the gatekeeping mechanism. Any society needs norms. No society needs social gatekeeping. The more interesting questions are which norms are important, how they are enforced and what they are used for. Dialect and social background are arbitrary norms. Enforcing them has no benefit to society at large. As such they serve no other purpose than gatekeeping. They’re not quite as inescapable as race or gender, not for all anyway, but still quite close and personal.

    This whole American obsession with victimhood stems from a failure to see structural solutions to structural problems. Any social unjustice can be redefined as a problem of conformity to the wrong norms, something to be overcome by personal struggle. “Women who want to succeed act like this business demands.” “You won’t get anywhere sounding like a hillbilly.” And victimization is just the flip side of that coin. When all problems and solutions are personal, all consequences are also personal, and all arguments must start from personal experience.

  17. Who cares about *her* emotions ?

    I do, for one. And I’m pretty sure a lot of people do; that’s how most people work. If you want to address yourself primarily to engineers and technocrats, by all means avoid talking about emotions, but it’s absurd to pretend you represent universal law. And frankly, you sound pretty sexist; it’s a standard trope to complain that women are always talking about their emotions (which are by definition stupid and uninteresting).

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    If you’ve got a better way of staving off revolution than for the status-quo elite to recruit and assimilate the more ambitious and intelligent (whatever proxy might be used as a metric for that quality) offspring of the lower orders, I’d like to hear it.

  19. Are you claiming that no one with a university education ever starts a revolution? That would be a bizarre idea.

  20. Indeed, I can hardly think of any revolutionary from the 19C who wasn’t educated. Despite the immense utility of literacy, it was no accident that U.S. slave states kept slaves illiterate by law. (The Romans certainly didn’t.)

  21. Trond Engen says:

    If you’ve got a better way of staving off revolution than for the status-quo elite to recruit and assimilate the more ambitious and intelligent (whatever proxy might be used as a metric for that quality) offspring of the lower orders, I’d like to hear it.

    Recruiting to the elite is good. Making the newly recruited into gatekeepers is bad. Keep the gates wide open, not just as open as needed to stave off revolution.

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    And frankly, you sound pretty sexist; it’s a standard trope to complain that women are always talking about their emotions (which are by definition stupid and uninteresting).

    Nonsense. Should I have written “who cares about *his* emotions” to deflect a charge of sexism, even though the playwright is (apparently !) a woman ? “Disturbed and offended” is merely a modernized attack of the vapors. If such displays are traditionally associated with women, well, tough luck. I certainly don’t believe any woman is obliged to act that way.

    It makes no difference to me who has the vapors, they have no argumentative value in a discussion of educational institutions. In a discussion of political policy, if a man says he is angry and will make America great again, I don’t take that as an argument. Of course in each case there is a large appreciative audience for whoever is doing the swooning or the stomping.

  23. “I’m not being sexist, she’s just swooning and having attacks of the vapours, which invalidates anything she has to say!” isn’t the compelling argument you were looking for, I think.

  24. Nonsense. Should I have written “who cares about *his* emotions” to deflect a charge of sexism, even though the playwright is (apparently !) a woman ?

    Yeah, it’s a standard sexist trope to insist one is only coincidentally complaining about a woman’s behavior. If a man talked about buying a nice handbag, it would be just as dumb!

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    The admissions policies of elite/”gatekeeper” educational institutions are one component of a recruit-and-assimilate-into-the-status-quo-elite strategy, but only one component. Those educational institutions need to interact smoothly with other institutions (such as those who provide useful-for-subsequent-resume-value-and-networking first jobs to graduates of elite institutions) to succeed in that goal and get the recruits to end up the same life paths, career arcs, consumer preferences, etc as those who are nth-generation members of the elite.

  26. I mean, I get what’s being talked about in such analyses, but one must always remember it is only a metaphor. There is no actual Committee of the Elite that is creating and implementing a recruit-and-assimilate-into-the-status-quo-elite strategy, it is just the standard way society works and always has (since the hunter-gatherer days).

  27. J.W. Brewer says:

    hat, do you mean that the people on admissions committees for elite universities and the committees that do hiring for elite employers are not actually consciously pursuing such a strategy (which is an empirical question, but I’d think you might be both incorrect and naive if that were your meaning), or do you just mean that there isn’t an official Master Commitee of All Gatekeeper Committees making sure all these different institutions are doing the same thing, but rather it’s only coincidence or herd behavior or what antitrust lawyers call “conscious parallelism”?

  28. Stu Clayton says:

    Das Zeitalter des Verdachts is apparently not over yet. It’s hard to keep up with everything that counts as sexism nowadays. No matter, I’ll stick to my preference for argument over emotion.

  29. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW here’s a mixed-at-best review of the play in question, asserting that the premise is interesting but the characters do not ring true. I don’t know anything about the reviewer so I can’t calibrate how fair/unfair it’s likely to be. I don’t think the reviewer is necessarily saying “no white lady from Western Mass is capable of writing convincing black and Hispanic characters from the Bronx,” only that in his opinion this one hasn’t.

    https://newyorktheater.me/2018/04/23/transfers-review/

  30. hat, do you mean that the people on admissions committees for elite universities and the committees that do hiring for elite employers are not actually consciously pursuing such a strategy (which is an empirical question, but I’d think you might be both incorrect and naive if that were your meaning)

    I’m not sure what you mean. If you meant that the people on admissions committees for elite universities and the committees that do hiring for elite employers are consciously trying to recruit people who will “fit in” with their current coworkers, which in practice of course means replicating the elite, then sure. If you meant they’re consciously trying to keep the underclass out, twirling their evil mustaches and laughing up their sleeves when they make public statements about inclusiveness, then I’d think you were both incorrect and naive (with standard-issue leftie-conspiracy-theorist naivete). If it took consciously villainous villains to perpetuate a bad situation, things wouldn’t be so bad.

  31. J.W. Brewer says:

    My claim is that they are trying very hard to find applicants from (at least some subsets) of underclass backgrounds but focusing on people from those backgrounds who seem most assimilable, on the perhaps underexamined assumption that but for their deprived backgrounds they would and should have almost exactly the same goals and priorities for their lives as the children of the current elite do.

  32. FWIW here’s a mixed-at-best review of the play in question, asserting that the premise is interesting but the characters do not ring true. I don’t know anything about the reviewer so I can’t calibrate how fair/unfair it’s likely to be.

    Thanks, that was interesting. I don’t know anything about the reviewer either, but it certainly rings true. It’s hard to write about such lives from the outside.

  33. My claim is that they are trying very hard to find applicants from (at least some subsets) of underclass backgrounds but focusing on people from those backgrounds who seem most assimilable, on the perhaps underexamined assumption that but for their deprived backgrounds they would and should have almost exactly the same goals and priorities for their lives as the children of the current elite do.

    Well, yeah. I’m not sure why you thought I might disagree with that.

  34. Stu Clayton says:

    “I’m not being sexist, she’s just swooning and having attacks of the vapours, which invalidates anything she has to say!” isn’t the compelling argument you were looking for, I think.

    Sexism hysterics (oops !). I said that emoting is not an argument, not “invalidates anything she has to say”. You do understand the differences between an argument in support, an argument against, and not-an-argument ?

    I wonder if being a sexist would invalidate everything I have to say. Is sexism the male equivalent of swooning ? A fascinating conjecture.

  35. Stu Clayton says:

    For over forty years I have watched these expressions “elites”, “minorities”, “rights”, “wrongs”, “sexism”, “structural problems” etc being churned in discussions. For all the churning, neither butter nor better comes out of it. No new ideas, just the same old stuff. Has no one else noticed that ?

    I myself hardly know what to think about a great number of issues. What I do think can’t be boiled down into a few sentences of attitude.

  36. It’s incredible how popular Hillbilly Elegy is popular with just the most awful people and Stu here seems to fit the bill to a tee.

  37. Trond Engen says:

    Gatekeeping through formal institutions like elite universities is one thing. Informal requirements of conformity to certain arbitrary norms is something else. I meant the latter, but let’s talk about the former.

    To some degree I think the effort to find and recruit the best and the brightest from the underprivileged classes is making things worse. The problem is the narrow gate, and by letting a selected few through one gives an impression of inclusiveness to something tnat’s still very much a display of inherited advantage.

  38. So what’s the answer? Let everybody have everything? There’s not enough of everything to go around. Let the have-nots seize everything from the haves? We’ve seen how that worked out in enough places to suggest it’s not going to improve matters. If there were a simple answer, it would have been found and tried by now.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    Nah, I’m no revolutionary. My solutions would be by strengthening democracy and access to education. A lot of the everything of the haves is what economists call exctraction of rent, i.e. what you can get because you are in a position where nobody competes with you. When a big part of society in practice aren’t allowed near a position of power, those who are can increase their share.

    In America, especially, I’d pour money into the public school system and the public institutions of education. I might even set up quotas so that graduates of private schools wouldn’t have more than their numerical share of admissions to higher education. That would do something with the self-segregation of privileged children, remove some of the incentives in the zero-sum game for admission, and make the local community more interested in the quality (rather than “value for money”) of their public schools. It would also send more elite kids to non-elite universities and vice versa, which would do something about the social sifting mechanism that makes them attractive as elite universities and gatekeepers in the first place.

    If I may venture into sci-fi, I’d also do something about the American electoral system. Multi-seat constituencies would allow candidates of more varied socio-political backgrounds, for several reasons: each party would have to put together a team of candidates with broad appeal within the constituency, more than one opinion would be represented locally, it would allow more than two national parties divided over whichever faultline works best to mobilize swing voters, and the need for personal campaigns and corrupt private campaign funding would be greatly reduced. This would be a worthy end in itself, but it would also eventually give a Congress less concerned with the hardships of the haves.

    A more-than-adequate public school system and multi-seat constituencies. Both have been found and tried in much of northern Europe. They aren’t the only tools in the box, but we were concerned with gatekeeping especially.

  40. A professional contortionist can “articulate” himself very nicely in the comfort of his own home or to epater the crowds. The problems begin when he wants to walk on his hands through a two foot snowbank.

  41. In America, especially, I’d pour money into the public school system and the public institutions of education. I might even set up quotas so that graduates of private schools wouldn’t have more than their numerical share of admissions to higher education. That would do something with the self-segregation of privileged children, remove some of the incentives in the zero-sum game for admission, and make the local community more interested in the quality (rather than “value for money”) of their public schools.

    That all sounds good to me!

  42. Stu, you sure are spending a lot of time discussing what’s disturbing and offending you.

  43. J.W. Brewer says:

    Limiting private-high-school graduate access to elite colleges would be very very good for people who currently own real estate in the smallish percentage of US public school districts that already provide a disproportionate number of the public high school graduates who go to elite colleges. It would probably increase the resale value of my home (since I live in one of those districts and pay exorbitantly for the self-image of not being the sort of fellow who sends his kids to snobby private schools) by a few hundred thousand dollars. Not sure that it would help the country nearly as much as it would help me, though. And what about poor striving children like Ms. Thurber, who went (perhaps with financial assistance) to a fancy-schmancy private high school near chez Hat? Or, more to the point, kids from poor neighborhoods who go to not-very-socially-posh Catholic high schools that are notably less privilege-bestowing than the average affluent-suburb public high school but a lot better than the public high school on offer for that neighborhood?

  44. Hmm. Good points. It’s all so difficult…

  45. Actually, disdain for victims hasn’t been fashionable in Germany since you-know-when.

    Except that the word itself – „Opfer“ – has become one of the most common male insults on the streets of Vienna, and in much of Germany as well I believe. It has all the connotations of „loser“ in English but to my ears sounds even uglier given the implied lack of empathy.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not even sure how I could convey the notion of “victimhood” in German. Opferbereitschaft is already taken. Something involving Opferallüren ? Systemimmanente Jammersuserei ?

    Sound good to me.

    it is just the standard way society works and always has (since the hunter-gatherer days).

    Paleo- and even neolithic societies (as found today in the highlands of New Guinea for example) are generally egalitarian, actually, and democratic all the way to requiring unanimity for any decision. It looks like power can’t be accumulated before wealth can.

    Limiting private-high-school graduate access to elite colleges would be very very good for people who currently own real estate in the smallish percentage of US public school districts that already provide a disproportionate number of the public high school graduates who go to elite colleges.

    Currently, as far as I understand, public schools in the US are financed by micro-local property taxes, so that the rich parts of town have very good schools and the poor parts get unmitigated crap (complete with incompetent teachers in a vicious circle: they aren’t good, so they aren’t paid much, so nobody good wants to be a teacher there). I take for granted that Trond’s proposal would end this unimaginable horror.

    I’m also against the whole concept of geographic representation in legislatures. The time when people’s interests were reliably predictable from where they lived is long over.

  47. A lot of the everything of the haves is what economists call exctraction of rent, i.e. what you can get because you are in a position where nobody competes with you.

    Exactly. A system in which the direct products of nature (particularly the land itself) are controlled by a few is always going to be oligarchical, and the more technical progress it makes, the more poverty it generates. The 1940s-70s were an exception in the U.S. because of the Great Compression, which abruptly reduced inequality for a generation.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    one of the most common male insults

    True. That’s a very recent development (5 years? 10 years maximum?), and I don’t know how much it’s catching on outside of a particular subculture. And yes, the lack of empathy is explicit.

  49. It looks like power can’t be accumulated before wealth can.

    See Moriori discussion here a little while back.

  50. Currently, as far as I understand, public schools in the US are financed by micro-local property taxes, so that the rich parts of town have very good schools and the poor parts get unmitigated crap.

    And also (in some places even more so) private contributions from rich parents to the local public schools where their kids go or where they themselves went.

  51. My daughter’s former primary school and my grandson’s present school (the same place) get a lot of funding from this kind of private contribution.

  52. Trond Engen says:

    @JWB: Good for Ms. Thurber, good for the school. But nevertheless, both she and society would have been better off if a local high school education was good enough, however poor the neighbourhood. I don’t say this is easy and without pain. As David says, it would mean transfer of money from affluent school districts — much the same districts that would see increased real estate value, I suppose. There may be concessions to be made to local systems, like Catholic high-schools in poor neighbourhoods, but those concessions should be such that the institutions are competing (or even better: complementary) on education rather than social selection of students. There are systems for this.

  53. J.W. Brewer says:

    U.S. public school finance varies dramatically. What happens a lot of places, including where I live, is that residents of more affluent districts both pay for their own local schools via school-district-level local taxes and then via their state taxes pay for a considerable state-government top-up subsidy for the schools of less affluent districts elsewhere in the state via policies that attempt to roughly equalize per-pupil expenditures regardless of variation in the local property tax base. Equalizing expenditures turns out to be much easier to do then equalizing outcomes.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    private contributions from rich parents to the local public schools

    Gah.

  55. J.W. Brewer says:

    @Trond: if her wiki bio can be trusted and her family indeed lived in Northampton Mass during her teenage years, she could have, but did not, go to Northampton H.S., which is significantly above average in student test scores etc. for a U.S. public high school and indeed, contributed two of its graduates to my own undergraduate entering class at Yale. (One was a classics major and now teaches Latin at a fancy private high school elsewhere in New England; I’ve lost track of the other.) You’d have to ask her and/or her family why that was not thought a suitable choice for her.

  56. J.W. Brewer says:

    Some data on variations in U.S. school funding from a think tank generally perceived as at least mildly left-of-center by U.S. standards.

    “The interpretation of these results will likely vary based on the reader’s expectations. Someone expecting to find widespread evidence of ‘savage inequalities’ will be pleasantly surprised to learn that, on average, poor students attend schools that are at least as well-funded as their more advantaged peers. They might also be heartened by the fact that the gap in local funding of districts attended by poor vs. non-poor students has narrowed rather than widened during a period of rising economic inequality.”

    But don’t worry, doomsayers, because the very next paragraph starts with “But …” https://www.brookings.edu/research/how-progressive-is-school-funding-in-the-united-states/

  57. Trond Engen says:

    JWB: Thanks. I was thinking maybe public schools are underfunded in general, in which case I’d expect children with limited access to other resources to be more affected. But $13,000 per student doesn’t seem that low. And indeed it isn’t — here’s a chart of education spending per student per OECD country. That would seem to mean that the situation is less bleak than I thought, and much is preserved from when the USA had the world’s best school system. Maybe, then, that this is mostly about the self-segregation of the affluent, and that school quality even is proxy for something else in choice of postcode.

  58. The question is, what is it spent on? Not paying teachers, that’s for sure.

  59. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    I’m struck, to the point of sympathy for Stu Clayton in spite of finding his tone very off-putting (and I suspect intentionally so), by an apparent tension between the policy prescriptions we’re all supporting and the original statement our host approvingly highlighted.

    Ms. Thurber is explicitly saying that kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, who grew up in poverty and didn’t have access to a good education, are just as intelligent and articulate as privileged kids who enjoyed an elite education. I may be misreading her, but she even seems to be saying that they are just as capable: “To say they ‘couldn’t keep up here’ is a falsehood.”

    I believe we’re conversely all agreeing that by the time they graduate from high school (or worse, drop out of it), disadvantaged kids are indeed suffering from their disadvantage and as a consequence they’re not as capable as privileged kids. Sure, they may subsequently overcome this disadvantage through talent and hard work, their own and their teachers’. But if you just drop them in the same college or job as their privileged peers, they will do worse if they’re equally talented and equally hard working, because they aren’t equally prepared.

    This is highly relevant for education policy, not only because it explains why it’s crucial to provide poor children with better schools, but also because it explains why non-selective college admissions do not have a good record of achieving upward social mobility. Having attended myself a non-selective (but nonetheless quite good) Italian university, I’m pretty sure truly disadvantaged kids are very unlikely to enroll and even less likely to graduate. Their likelihood of doing as well as I and my upper middle class peers is tiny.

    However, maybe Ms. Thurber never meant to deny any of this. Maybe it’s all in the nuances of “they couldn’t keep up” being false and yet “it’d be hard for them to keep up” being true. She did, however, unambiguously claim that disadvantaged kids suffer no disadvantage in articulateness and linguistic expressivity. How is this narrower claim consistent with reasonable education policy? Surely English isn’t the only subject that happens to be taught equally well in all U.S. schools irrespective of overall quality. Is it then the only useless subject in the curriculum?

    I see the escape route of claiming that schools (elite schools at that!) teach articulateness in an elite language that requires teaching, whereas the disadvantaged are naturally articulate in a demotic language that does not. Yet I find this argument unpleasantly tinged with noble savagery. Why don’t privileged children likewise become fully articulate in their parents’ elite language without a need for school instruction? In any case, shouldn’t it then be even more imperative to expunge from the school curriculum any native-language instruction beyond basic literacy, which would be not only individually useless but also socially counterproductive?

    Finally, there’s the claim of no differences in intelligence. Do we even know that intelligence is all nature and no nurture? I’m not sure the evidence on early childhood education is entirely consistent with that view, and by the time we’re talking extreme poverty, I’m even more skeptical that the evidence on childhood and prenatal malnutrition is. So it sadly doesn’t seem impossible that some disadvantaged kids are so disadvantaged their very mental development is stunted. This would be truly disturbing and offensive.

    Conversely, heading down the path of fully innate, nature-only intelligence can lead to very uncomfortable places. Cognitive ability positively, albeit imperfectly, predicts an individual’s success, including income, wealth and eventual social class. Thus, on average, one of the many privileges of privileged children is having parents with higher cognitive ability. This must help with nurture. But do we know for a fact that there’s no inheritability in cognitive ability? If instead there is, then the closer a society moves to fairness and equality of opportunity, the more strongly parents’ success will predict children’s intelligence. Maybe we don’t need to worry about this problem yet, given how unequal and unfair our society still is; but the fact that Ms. Thurber and I wouldn’t like this to be true doesn’t suffice to make it false.

    In the end, to confidently agree with Ms. Thurber I find I have to stretch her argument until it’s barely recognizable. Undoubtedly, within-group variation dwarfs across-group variation. One can find many disadvantaged kids who are more intelligent, more articulate, and even more capable than many privileged kids. Nonetheless, almost by definition of their disadvantage, the disadvantaged are on average less capable than the privileged. I suspect there are average differences in articulateness too, and I cannot confidently rule out average differences in cognitive ability either. I would find it ethically repugnant if someone were to claim there are also differences in human dignity. But then I wouldn’t find such a claim any more acceptable if it were based on undoubted and purely within-group differences in capability, articulateness or intelligence.

  60. The question is, what is it spent on?

    This is surprisingly hard question considering that public spending is open and someone just needs to hire a competent accountant to give the answer. Scott Alexander asked that question some years ago and then several people from chattersphere replied, but nothing even remotely satisfactory.

  61. Why don’t privileged children likewise become fully articulate in their parents’ elite language without a need for school instruction?

    Because most parents, elite or not, do not actually talk like a book, as the saying is — yours truly being an exception. What you see here is pretty much what you get if you talk with me, but most people, even speaking English, are more diglossic than that. See also the father tongue vs. the mother tongue.

  62. I suppose large part of school spending in the US is spent actually on security.

  63. Nobody knows, really, because no government department takes responsibility for accounting what is spent on what nationwide. There is a Department of Education, but its responsibilities are primarily student grants and loans rather than education as such.

  64. One was a classics major and now teaches Latin at a fancy private high school elsewhere in New England; I’ve lost track of the other.

    The other is doing good work in Maine where he consults on housing development.

  65. David Marjanović says:

    one of the most common male insults

    Actually, I think the intended meaning is “you look like a future victim of mine, I should rearrange your face right away”, not “you’ve been a victim before, shame on you”.

  66. In the end, to confidently agree with Ms. Thurber I find I have to stretch her argument until it’s barely recognizable.

    You’re treating her piece as some sort of comprehensive philosophical/political/policy statement, which it clearly is not. She’s basically saying “Don’t treat poor/disadvantaged kids as if they’re hopeless dummies incapable of civilized life,” which I presume you agree with. And I don’t know why you’re bringing Stu into it, since he was neither agreeing nor disagreeing with her, just mocking her for talking about her emotions.

  67. J.W. Brewer says:

    @Vanya: re “doing good work in Maine” — and so he is! (Well, I will defer to you on the goodness of the work, but I am happy to see a more-or-less recognizable photo of him at the website of the Bangor Daily News once I had a sense of what google search terms to use.) If you are in touch, please give him my regards.

  68. J.W. Brewer says:

    Ms. Thurber’s ultimate point, to the extent we should do her the credit of taking her seriously rather than just discounting her as the typical literary figure bloviating about public affairs, is not just that such and such people are not “hopeless dummies incapable of civilized life,” it’s that “civilized life” itself (or at least its institutional structures) must be radically transformed until such people thrive on equal terms without any need for them to assimilate to elite norms of what does and does not count as, e.g., academic achievement. That’s an argument worth considering on its merits, but it’s not the sort of banal platitude that everyone already agrees with.

  69. Stu Clayton says:

    since he was neither agreeing nor disagreeing with her, just mocking her for talking about her emotions

    Well, at least you recognized that I neither agreed nor disagreed ! But no, it was not her talking about her emotions, but her bringing up hurt feelings as if in support of her ideas in the interview about the way things should be. As if hurt feelings were a kind of argument, or a satisfactory substitute for it.

    There is a LOT of this going around. Many people announce that they are “disturbed” and “offended” at the vocabulary in novels, and (if LBTXYR) are “triggered” by the use of non-PC pronouns. They demand “safety”, in schools and universities of all places, not from guns but from ideas and words.

    However, the very people who use these words in place of argument cannot seriously object when they are submitted to the same scrutiny and condemnation that they practice towards others regarding specific words.

    “Disturbed” and “offended” have been exposed as markers of self-righteousness. I demand to be protected from these words, they disturb and offend me. And they trigger mockery, a condition I have suffered from all my life.

  70. J.W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, while I think I share Stu’s general lack of sympathy for those who point to their own emotional states as if a substitute for evidence-based argument, it does seem relevant here that this is not an op-ed piece authored by Ms. Thurber, but answers given in an interview setting. It’s a different genre, more informal and conversational, and I don’t get the sense that the interviewer’s questions were trying to suggest “ok, give me the most objective and evidence-based reasons why a skeptic should agree with you about what you’ve just said.”

    On the other hand, there’s a bit of sleight of hand, because it’s not just a transcript of a conversation, it’s the result of tacking together bits of both a face-to-face interview and one or more email exchanges, all of which have been “condensed and edited.”

  71. Stu Clayton says:

    I don’t imagine in the slightest that I have successfully analyzed Thurber. We might even get along, who knows ? It’s merely the words in that “condensed and edited” interview that got me going. Good to have that pointed out, JW.

  72. ə de vivre says:

    It does sound like Thurber’s emotions were very triggering for you Stu. Fortunately, there are very effective therapies available for people who are easily overwhelmed by emotion. Meanwhile, maybe LH should start including trigger warnings to accommodate his readers with delicate sensibilities?

  73. Stu Clayton says:

    “All guns must be deposited at the entrance”

  74. As a recently diagnosed diabetic, can I request trigger warnings on mentions of hot chocolate?

  75. David Marjanović says:

    There is a LOT of this going around. Many people announce that they are “disturbed” and “offended” at the vocabulary in novels, and (if LBTXYR) are “triggered” by the use of non-PC pronouns. They demand “safety”, in schools and universities of all places, not from guns but from ideas and words.

    That’s not the same thing. “I’m triggered” is short for “my PTSD is triggered”. Many people who’ve spent their whole lives in fear have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.

  76. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    John Cowan, thanks for re-posting the Le Guin speech. I suppose I wasn’t around the Hattery when you posted it the first time. I find it provides a better way of posing the question I had in mind, restricting it to the linguistic element that is most germane here.

    If we grant with her that “the father tongue is immensely noble and indispensably useful” and worth teaching, doesn’t it follow that the disadvantaged who speak only the mother tongue are in fact less articulate than the privileged who speak both? To avoid that conclusion, don’t we have to assume either that the mother tongue of the disadvantaged is intrinsically more articulate than that of the privileged, or that learning the father tongue entails forgetting the mother tongue? Is either assumption correct according to linguistics, contrary to my superficial impression?

  77. That’s not the same thing. “I’m triggered” is short for “my PTSD is triggered”. Many people who’ve spent their whole lives in fear have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.

    Yes, but people who enjoy mocking others for their excessive or misplaced displays of emotion love to use the concept of “triggering” as if it were nothing but another symptom of our soft, feckless, everybody-gets-a-prize times. We clearly need to go back to the good old days when men were men, women were women, and nobody opened their yap about their goddam emotions.

  78. “I’m triggered” is short for “my PTSD is triggered”.

    That’s what it should mean, but I have seen some true instances of people using it to refer to language that they find merely offensive or distasteful. On the other hand, those instances are fairly outnumbered by the use of it as a sarcastic snarl word by the right, something which I do think is distastefully provocative toward people who truly suffer from PTSD.

    To a point somewhat in Stu’s direction, though, I’d recommend this article which relates some of the toxicity that can be found in (distorted) youth social justice praxis.

  79. That’s what it should mean, but I have seen some true instances of people using it to refer to language that they find merely offensive or distasteful.

    Well, of course; that’s how the human species works. Has there ever been a valid concept that was not misused? To use examples of such misuse as proof that the concept is invalid is another common indicator of intellectual dishonesty (not that you’re doing that, you’re just mentioning it).

  80. I have to admit that I’ve only encountered the watered-down / jokey usages (not even the snarly right-wing usage because I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I would have to actively look for snarly right-wingers to be exposed to, at least Anglophone ones) — I’m well aware of the real phenomenon but didn’t know that was the English term for it.

  81. doesn’t it follow that the disadvantaged who speak only the mother tongue are in fact less articulate than the privileged who speak both?

    Less articulate, no. I am not less articulate than you merely because I am confined to English (and Standard English at that) as a means of self-expression, whereas you have at least English, Italian, and perhaps more languages.

    learning the father tongue entails forgetting the mother tongue?

    I do see men, certainly not all men but many, who seem to have repressed their use of the mother tongue to the point of inarticulateness — but it is not a matter of forgetting but of shame.

    We clearly need to go back to the good old days when men were men, women were women, and nobody opened their yap about their goddam emotions.

    Or as Robert Hughes put it about colonial Australia, when men were men and sheep were nervous.

  82. David Marjanović says:

    this article which relates some of the toxicity that can be found in (distorted) youth social justice praxis

    Distorted indeed – this is the fandom of Young Adult fantasy novels. Any fandom that small becomes a community, and that means it acquires group dynamics all the way to peer pressure.

  83. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re nervous sheep, I think the first context in which I heard that was as a description of Dartmouth College before the arrival of co-education in the 1970’s. I expect that neither Dartmouth nor colonial Australia was the locale of the original instance of the expression. The earliest instance I can find in the google books corpus is from a novel published in 1985, where it seems to refer to the “good old days” without a specific geographical location. 1985 was apparently also the issue date of an anthology LP of hardcore punk bands with a similar title. But the expression (the sheep are variously nervous/scared/frightened and perhaps other near-synonyms?) must be much older and perhaps the ever-increasing inclusion of more ephemeral sorts of old texts in searchable databases will enable corpus linguistics to track it down to its original lair?

    One can plausibly imagine nostalgic appeals (whether sincere or jocular/ironic) to the days “when men were men” increasing in the later 20th century in reaction to the rise of feminism, but the phrase itself occurs at least as early as https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night-Thoughts, written and published in the reign of Geo. II.

  84. J.W. Brewer says:

    By the way, speaking of mid-’80’s hardcore punk, Distorted Youth would have been a pretty good band name, but I would not have gone out of my way to see a performance by a band called Social Justice Praxis.

  85. Trond Engen says:

    JWB: Ms. Thurber’s ultimate point [is] that“civilized life” itself (or at least its institutional structures) must be radically transformed until such people thrive on equal terms without any need for them to assimilate to elite norms of what does and does not count as, e.g., academic achievement. That’s an argument worth considering on its merits, but it’s not the sort of banal platitude that everyone already agrees with.

    Thanks. Back on track. My point was meant to be that in order to change the informal gatekeeping mechanisms (e.g. linguistic and socio-cultural prejudice) that delimit “civilized life”, it would be necessary (but not sufficient) to address the formal mechanisms that limit access to the class that serves as models, and the fractionating column of higher education and the narrow recruitement to political positions are two such examples. And I din’t mean to suggest that it’s a phenomenon unique to the US, even if the discussion was US-specifc. Not that US-specific, though. Both examples may be used, and maybe with better justification, for France.

  86. Both, you will note, civic nationalisms.

  87. J.W. Brewer says:

    To Trond’s latest, two caveats to my prior post he was quoting. First, read in the full context of the “edited and condensed” Q&A it is less clear that that is Ms. Thurber’s actual bottom line as opposed to a more conditional one, although it still might be. Second, after posting I wondered if I should have said “elite norms” or something else like “bourgeois norms.” There are two different notions here. Notion A is that the children of the non-elite 90% or 95% of society aren’t going to have a decent shot at themselves entering that top 10% or 5% (or whatever smaller fraction you might choose to specify) without learning to emulate that powerful minority’s mode of being. Notion B is that the children of the worst-off let’s say 20% of society (call them the “underclass” or something like that) are not going to get out of that position without learning to emulate the mode of being of the remaining 80%. Which to emphasize may depend on whether your focus is “why can’t at least one kid from this poor neighborhood grow up to write plays which get off-Broadway productions and favorable write-ups in the N.Y. TImes” or “why can’t the overwhelming majority of kids from this poor neighborhood grow up with a decent chance of holding steady-if-unglamorous jobs, staying out of prison, and living past age 65.” Maybe in the elite-college-admissions context, Notion A is the relevant one, but it seems to me that these are distinct concerns aimed at distinct problems that may be easy to muddle together, with unfortunate consequences.

    Separately, Trond’s recent post makes me belatedly note that the current US political leadership class may well be less homogenized, “fractionated,” and/or elitist than it would become if the membership of Congress were not required to be drawn from all 50 states and indeed from 435 separate districts, which is apparently a feature of our institutional arrangements not to David M’s liking. This means inter alia one can hear a reasonably wide range of regional accents, including deprecated and stigmatized ones, out of the mouths of people wielding power in Congress. One key difference between US and UK politics is that in the UK it is as I understand it neither legally required nor conventionally expected that MP’s live (or have ever lived) in their constituencies, so if the national party thinks you’re a promising up-and-comer they’ll find some random piece of the country you may have never been to before to run you as a candidate in, and you won’t be crippled by the voters perceiving you as a carpetbagger because that’s what they’re used to. And unlike certain other furrin countries, the UK has single-seat districts. Now geographic diversity is not the only sort of diversity, but in a country where elites tend to be geographically clustered in a few locales, requiring geographic diversity is one plausible countermeasure to their dominance.

  88. Trond Engen says:

    David M.: I’m also against the whole concept of geographic representation in legislatures. The time when people’s interests were reliably predictable from where they lived is long over.

    I’ll forcefully disagree. There are local interests that have to be channeled into parliamentary politics. The alternative is parliaments marred by regional parties fighting for nothing but pork. But since people do have more than local interests, we need multi-seat constituencies to represent the diversity of wider outlooks. But local representation is also a way to broaden the base of recruitement, which is what we’re discussing here.

  89. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    John Cowan, thanks for your answers, but I’m not sure I can follow them.

    You’re obviously right that speaking a few languages makes me no more articulate in any one of them. But Le Guin’s mother and father tongues aren’t literally different languages. Isn’t her point that English alone has “mother tongue” and “father tongue” registers, each of which is more suited to certain purposes or situations? Doesn’t lacking the best register for some purposes or situations count as being less articulate in a language?

    Also, it’s unclear to me in what sense many men may be ashamed of using the “mother tongue.” I’m sure many men are ashamed of appearing feminine, and relatedly of expressing their feelings and emotions too openly. But ashamed of not talking like a printed book or a rhetorical oration? Anecdotally and fictionally, there seems to be no scarcity of working class men who have not mastered the elite “father tongue” and yet who’re very averse to saying anything that might compromise their manliness and make them sound feminine or childish.

    Maybe there are some people (I would bet more women than men) who are too educated to be comfortable cursing and insulting with unfettered articulateness. Given where elite discourse is going in U.S. and Italian politics alike, it seems to be a declining concern.

  90. J.W. Brewer says:

    At least as of a few decades ago, it was a commonplace observation in the sociolinguistics literature that male speakers were (at least in English-speaking socieities?) less likely than female speakers to use “correct” language (and thus less likely to blunder into hypercorrection!) and thus less likely to value “talking like a book” but to the contrary more likely to deprecate “talking like a book” as a sissy thing to aspire to. Not unrelatedly, by no later than the mid-20th century male American writers with negative attitudes toward bogus grammar prescriptivism often associated the inculcators and enforcers of that prescriptivism with a stereotypically female authority figure, such as “Miss Thistlebottom” of “Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins” fame. The sort of woman for whom the pejorative adjective “schoolmarmish” was intended.

  91. I’ve seen similar data about Spanish too – for example, with men in each social class being more likely than women to use the “lower” form [mui] (or even [mu]) rather than the “higher” form [mwi].

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how this jibes with the observation that’s commonly made these days that girls and young women are the main initiators of language change.

  92. I do see men, certainly not all men but many, who seem to have repressed their use of the mother tongue to the point of inarticulateness — but it is not a matter of forgetting but of shame.

    The defining example for me is former Russian prime-minister Chernomyrdin. He was comically inarticulate in public, presumably because he couldn’t use his natural locution, which was heavy on mat.

  93. David Marjanović says:

    There are local interests that have to be channeled into parliamentary politics. The alternative is parliaments marred by regional parties fighting for nothing but pork.

    The solution to this is what the EU calls the subsidiarity principle: don’t make local or regional decisions at the national level, or for that matter vice versa.

    Of course, which decisions are best made at which level can often only be found out by trial & error. To avoid too many errors would require politicians to do what they just about never do and look how previous trials have played out in the rest of the world.

  94. jamessal says:

    I’m coming a little late, so forgive me if someone’s made this point, but there’s this little script I’ve heard now and then — see “DFW Demolished,” the article to which Hat links being especially snobbish and wrongheaded, of course (though I’ve seen similar sentiments from those who should know better) — proposing that it would be ideal if English teachers explained, especially to black to students, that though no dialect is better than another, the real, i.e., moneyed world, speaks Standard English, so that sadly, unfortunately, unfairly, etc. students who grew up hearing and speaking a noticeably different dialect from the standard will have to put in a lot of extra work to learn another dialect (the Standard) if they want to succeed in the big bad world: there’s nothing wrong or inferior with the way these students talk; they just have to deal with a harsh, classist reality.

    Now, to some extent that’s actually true, but it’s never acknowledged that the teacher’s admission is also an attempt to inoculate the class from burgeoning the same inequalities the teacher claims to deplore. Why should learning English mean only reading classic books and teaching one variety of it, no matter how practical fluency in it at the moment might be? Majoring in English has become fodder for comedians for a good reason; as John Mulaney put it in his latest hilarious show at Radio City Music Hall (paraphrasing): “The saddest day of my life was graduation, when I stood in an hours-long line waiting ot be handed a piece of paper that proved I’d spent $120,000 and four years of my life to read books I hadn’t read in a language that I already spoke.” Comedians aside, I have yet to meet a single person, even those who read and loved the books to which they were exposed, who didn’t think majoring in English was a giant waste of time and money. Maybe that’s because the focus is so narrow, propping up the inequalities our imaginative ideal teacher/professor would deplore before a class/course. Studying English should include — in large part — studying English in all its varieties. This should start well before college, too. Spending 4 years and a ton of money to naturally communicate with all of its speakers rather than a privileged minority — that is, actually studying English — not only wouldn’t be such a risible waste; over time, we might just no longer need the notion of an ideal teacher/professor giving a hypocritical lecture at the start of a class/course.

    It’s been a long day — I hope that was relevant 😉

  95. Well, um, I wasn’t technically an English major, but I took an awful lot of English classes, and hung around with a lot of English majors (including my wife), and I didn’t actually think it was a waste of time at all. (I got free tuition as a faculty kid, and I lived at home, so admittedly money didn’t enter into it.)

  96. David Marjanović says:

    Over here, people who study German or English (Germanistik, Anglistik) generally go on to teach it at the middle-/highschool level. Money doesn’t really enter into the question, what with university being free and all, except of course it’s not what to do if you want to become rich at some point.

  97. Trond Engen says:

    Up here may not be exactly the same as down there, but I’d say not only modern languages. My son has been sending his University applications this spring, muttering in resigned irony over how his interests (linguistics and physics) are putting him on a slow track back to videregående.

  98. That’s “upper secondary school,” per Wikipedia.

  99. Trond Engen says:

    jamessal: It’s been a long day — I hope that was relevant

    Yes, thanks.

    Studying English should include — in large part — studying English in all its varieties. This should start well before college, too. Spending 4 years and a ton of money to naturally communicate with all of its speakers rather than a privileged minority — that is, actually studying English — not only wouldn’t be such a risible waste; over time, we might just no longer need the notion of an ideal teacher/professor giving a hypocritical lecture at the start of a class/course.

    Amen. By lucky draw and a long history of inclusive compromise, we Norwegians have managed to make for ourselves an official language with two written standards, each with a wide specter of allowed forms. Being exposed to it means being exposed to variety, and teaching it means teaching variety. Unfortunately (say I, but I’m very much in minority), the current trends are towards more uniform conservative Bokmål in media, a more narrow (and traditionally conservative) definition of the Bokmål standard, a more narrow (and more Bokmål-like) definition of the Nynorsk standard, and less room in the school curriculum for dialects, history of language and sidemål (= the other form than your own).

  100. Trond Engen says:

    Hat: That’s “upper secondary school,” per Wikipedia.

    Yes, years 11-13, leading to the equivalent of a high school diploma.

  101. jamessal says:

    John Cowan: apologies to you and especially your wife. I originally wrote much more but I’ve been having a problem with LH swallowing my comments, and I forgot to copy ahead of time as told myself to do. Hopefully Hat can make it appear in full. In short, there are two points I realize I should have emphasized and one ‘m now making in response to your comment: 1) the quality of the institutions I’ve heard about, and seen, were not all that impressive; 2) in America, the per capita number of people who go to college roughly doubles each generation, necessarily devaluing an undergraduate degree; and 3) I, my wife, the few people I’ve spoken with about this, and the comedians I watch, like John Mulaney*, are all in their mid-thirties or younger, and . . . well, I don’t want to make any assumptions about your age, though if memory serves and your wealth of knowledge indicates . . . I’ll leave it at that {( ; – > )={ **

    * John Mulaney is the best stand-up comedian now performing; he just Radio City Music Hall. And he’s not a vulgar comedian at all. I can’t recommend him more highly to everyone. All his acts just keep getting better.

    ** That’s a winking man to avoid having my emoticon turned into an emoji (he also wears a toupee, has a skinny neck, apparently won a couple medals he wears on his left breast, and is extremely happy.)

    Apologies again for not being more circumspect in my original comment.

    Okay, here we go again . . .

  102. David Marjanović says:

    the per capita number of people who go to college roughly doubles each generation, necessarily devaluing an undergraduate degree

    If by “devaluing” you mean grade inflation, that’s instead a necessary outcome of financing universities through tuition fees.

  103. James, no offense taken. I’ll be 60 in a few months and Gale has just turned 75, so what we experienced doubtless has little to do with what thirtysomethings have been through. I was actually a Communications and Mass Media major, which since there was no such department, meant an individual advisor who pretty much let me take any courses in any departments I wanted to. I left CCNY a few courses short of graduating because of my mother’s death, but I was able to find work anyway (in those days you didn’t need credentials to be a professional programmer, just skill) and it hasn’t held me back.

    David: What’s being devalued is the lifetime economic advantage of a college degree in better jobs and higher salaries. Only 27% of the U.S. population has a 4-year degree or better, but a good 65-70% of graduating high school students go on to college (the Great Recession caused a dip, but not that much) which means that the economic premium of a college education is beginning to slip away, and first in the subjects more remote from the economically sound STEM degrees. The same thing has happened to a high-school diploma or equivalent, which used to also command a significant economic premium but no longer does so, as 85-90% of the population has one. What remains is the gatekeeping effect of a college degree: there are many professions (including mine, as noted above) that you can’t enter without one.

  104. J.W. Brewer says:

    My majored-in-English wife is younger than John C’s spouse but still older than jamessal (she’s in her early forties), so perhaps that will help us isolate the point in time when the whole thing collapsed into worthlessness? My 16-year-old, when asked, will say (it may only be a placeholder, but it’s not a bad one) that she wants to major in classics, which seems more high-toned than English. I did let her attend one of those John Mulaney performances at Radio City but I also let her attend a performance a few months before that by the rapper Lil’ Pump, so I’m not enforcing a strict no-vulgarity policy.

    In terms of the dilution of college due to expanding enrollment, the real ancien regime when college attendance in the U.S. was overwhelmingly the exception rather than the rule did not survive World War 2. It ramped up fast enough after that that the percentage of US high school graduates going to college first went over 50% in 1965 (given drop-outs that’s not the same as >50% of all 18-year-olds, but it’s an easier to stat to find), so on a doubling-per-generation basis we ought to have exceeded 100% a while ago by now. Instead, the number inconclusively bounced around 50% until the early ’80’s and then started a steady (but slower) upward trend again. As of 2016 it was up to almost 70% of high school grads trying college (including two-year programs) immediately, and that doesn’t capture kids who don’t do it immediately but do it later on. The sort of branded-as-elite colleges that Ms. Thurber was kvetching about way at the beginning of the thread have not collectively expanded their aggregate student bodies nearly as rapidly (and of course in addition to the going-to-college-percentage, the total number of 18-year-olds per year has also increased over time, after the post-Baby-Boom drop was offset by greater total population, the effects of immigration, etc.). So the scenario in her play (fictionalized version of Amherst doing questionable job of outreach to the most promising 1% of kids from such-and-such part of the Bronx) is pretty remote from the question of how good or bad a job the median non-prestige college is doing with the median non-prestige high school graduate.

  105. jamessal says:

    J.W. Brewer: Though I was writing quickly after a much larger comment was eaten, you’re right, the math was sloppy and I shouldn’t have stated it as a general rule; I was focusing on the last generation or so. I’m fascinated to learn that college attendance was that high before WW2, but I did say the it was undergraduate degrees that were diminished, for which one would need to finish the school, not that the enrollment rate diminishes college (generally?), so allowing for the sloppy math I underscored, I think my point stands.

    https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2017/cb17-51.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/24/education/census-finds-bachelors-degrees-at-record-level.html

    https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/24/education/census-finds-bachelors-degrees-at-record-level.html

    John: That’s a relief. Thanks for being understanding — and for sharing that biographical tidbit. Next beer’s on me!

  106. J.W. Brewer says:

    There are two different ways of looking at the numbers. The first is cohort-based – how many of last year’s high school grads are in college right now or (because many start but do not finish, or finish with only a two-year degree) what percentage of people in the would-have-finished recently cohort (say age 25-30) have gotten a bachelor’s degree. The second is cumulative – what percentage of the entire population (excluding those under some too-young-to-count age, conventionally 25 in US census bureau stats) has a bachelor’s degree. That second one changes in delayed response to changes in the first but that can be very delayed, i.e. the reason that percentage went up a lot between say 1980 and 2000 is that the folks born between say 1905 and 1920 who overwhelmingly lacked bachelor’s degrees had mostly died off in between. There’s even a further delay because women typically outlive men and until sometime in the ’70’s more men graduated than women, although it’s now the other way around. Although there can be other changes that reflect not the delayed impact in what Americans are and aren’t doing around age 20 but immigration patterns and the educational background of adult immigrants — those from some countries disproportionately come from the formally educated/credentialed subset of that country’s population; those from others, not so much.

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