In an op-ed Tuesday that quickly went viral, David Brooks of The New York Times took on America’s growing class divide, and the Internet gleefully seized on a passage about his taking a friend with “only a high school degree” to lunch:
“Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”
Brooks’ column, rightly, pointed out that subtle class clues shape access to power and prosperity in the United States — something research has borne out.
But where Brooks (and many of the other commentators on the much-discussed class divide) gets it wrong is in blaming liberals and progressive coastal culture (sopressata sandwiches, fuel-efficient cars) instead of the cultural resentments and impediments (lack of well-funded public schools, zero paid parental leave) built and bred by the GOP. It’s not Italian cured meats keeping the wealthy and privileged in their gilded position. It’s policy.
The 2016 election brought with it a series of disturbing and frightening consequences. One of the sadder ones: Education is now a partisan issue. According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, more than half of Republicans say that colleges and universities have “a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.”
But the rage working-class whites displayed in November, and the current Republican disdain for higher education, isn’t about expensive charcuterie or uneasiness at being in Whole Foods because, as Brooks frames it, you have to have a college degree to walk into the place.
The real story isn’t that the better-educated coastal classes did anything wrong, sandwich-related or otherwise, but that the well-educated, moneyed members of the Republican elite have successfully weaponized white resentment and used it to line their own pockets and maintain their power.
Education, in most of the world, is not particularly controversial. It’s widely understood as a valuable social good, and the challenge in many countries is how to get more kids into decent schools. Parents the world over recognize that education is the key to success and upward mobility.
Where it is controversial, it’s often a symptom of an extreme religious ideology hell-bent on bringing society back centuries — think Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Those groups are right about one thing: A little knowledge poses a real danger to authoritarianism and the mindless following of orders.
Which is why the strategy of the GOP has for decades been to degrade the American public education system through funding cuts and funneling of resources toward privatized education. All the better to produce a compliant electorate.
At the same time, they’ve perpetuated lies about climate change and undermined public trust in science and objective fact.
On the culture side, they’ve tied education to liberalism — not unfairly, since the highly educated do tend to be more liberal — and portrayed the educated as elitists who are out of touch with authentic American values (and, apparently, authentic deli meats).
This is, of course, reality turned upside down; it’s even more insulting that it’s being branded authentically American. Pursuing personal betterment (through education or other means) is about as American as it gets; so too is innovation, invention and being on the cutting edge of technology, industry and creation — much of which requires at least some formal education.
And never mind that the architects of the conservative strategy to dumb down the electorate are themselves highly educated, and reaping its benefits — our President has a degree from an Ivy League school, as he often reminds his critics.
But it’s better to convince the masses that their real enemy is the latte-sipping liberals with their fancy degrees and their “science,” and not the big-money polluters who turn their communities into “cancer alley.”
Sadly, it’s not just the political right that embraces this kind of anti-intellectualism and portrays the values of a small group of people (working-class white men) as more authentic and admirable than the diversity of interests and experiences embraced by others across the rest of the country.
In her book “White Working Class,” Joan C. Williams argues that coastal liberals making disparaging comments about “plumber butt” caused our current cultural divide. The far left is doing it, too, in its knee-jerk anti-liberalism — it’s not the corporate GOP and its reactionary base that’s the problem, this argument goes, it’s liberal technocrats, who have the audacity to rely on things such as education, expertise and data to drive policy.
It’s a sad state of affairs when one of the most prosperous nations on earth doesn’t ask, “How can we give every person in this country greater access to education and the information, critical thinking skills, social mobility and higher paying jobs that come with it?” but instead looks at the best educated among us as a problem: inherently flawed and inauthentic, elitist instead of aspirational.
There remain significant formal barriers to a decent education at the primary, secondary and collegiate levels in the United States — barriers we could easily tear down with greater resources and investments of money, time and professionalism. Pointing the finger at educated liberals and our alleged elitism does nothing to address the problem.
Education doesn’t necessarily make you smarter, although, hopefully, it makes you more knowledgeable, and shapes you into a more careful thinker. Active hostility to education, on the other hand, and political policies that reflect that antagonism, make our entire country dumber.