Karen Kipple’s “greatest wish in the world” is that her eight-year-old daughter Ruby will “have a good life.” At the same time, in “accordance with [her] politics and principles,” she aspires to “a life spent making a difference and helping those less fortunate than herself.” Apart from their love for Ruby, Karen and her husband Matt are united by little beyond the same “political outlook and commitment to social justice, combined with their willingness to impugn those who [don’t] share it.”
This tension between maternal love and political ideals propels Class, Lucinda Rosenfeld’s new novel. Its central dilemma concerns how, and where, to educate Ruby. New York City private schools are notoriously expensive. Karen and Matt do own a two-bedroom Brooklyn condominium worth more than $1 million — but only because its value has doubled in the three years since they moved to a gentrifying neighborhood. Karen is a professional fundraiser for Hungry Kids, whose cause is made clear by its name, while Matt is starting a nonprofit of his own after two decades as an attorney “fighting for tenants evicted by greedy landlords.”
It will have to be a public school, then, which is just as well: Karen believes that “public education [is] a force for good and that, without racially and economically integrated schools, equal opportunity couldn’t exist.” The choice is between: Mather, in a nearby neighborhood so thoroughly gentrified that seeing its students en masse for the first time made Karen feel she had “fallen asleep and woken up in Norway”; and Betts, Ruby’s school since kindergarten, where only a fourth of the students are white and many of the rest live in a public-housing project. Mather has an affluent, aggressive parent–teacher association that renders it indistinguishable from a private school. The hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by the PTA each year pay for, among other things, a recess coach and an experimental puppeteering troupe’s performance of an age-appropriate version of Schindler’s List. Karen likes that Betts exposes Ruby to less privileged children but worries about its academic reputation and quality. Apart from Latino History Month, it seems, the rest of the school year is Black History Month. Now in the third grade, Ruby knows the exact date of Martin Luther King’s wedding to Coretta Scott but has never heard of Julius Caesar.
The more acute problem is that Karen comes to fear for Ruby’s safety. Her daughter’s best friend transfers from Betts to Mather after a boy named Jayyden punches the little girl in the face. Karen feels sorry for Jayyden, who lives in the projects with assorted relatives, his mother thought to be in prison and his father in the wind. But Ruby’s vulnerability torments Karen, who tells Matt, “I just don’t feel comfortable leaving her there in the morning anymore.” His opposition makes her defensive. It’s not because so few Betts students are white or prosperous, she insists, but because so few come from a “functional family where people care about their kids getting an education and encourage them.” When they argue, Karen tries to use politics against her husband, accusing him of rejecting a move to Mather solely because he wants “to brag to all your friends that your daughter attends a minority-white school.”
A Tom Wolfe novel would deride Karen and her peers mercilessly, but Rosenfeld is wry and sympathetic. She allows Karen to recognize “that her life [is] ripe for mockery,” as she numbers herself among the educated white liberals “nearly as terrified of being seen as racists” as they are of “encountering black male teenagers on an empty street after dark.” Like Karen, Rosenfeld is at pains to make clear her antipathy to conservatives, especially whenever she begins sounding like one. Class is dedicated to “public schools everywhere” and has an epigraph from James Baldwin: “White people cannot, in the generality, be taken as models of how to live.” In the wake of the 2016 election, Rosenfeld described herself as a “card-carrying member of the liberal and coastal elite so despised by Donald J. Trump’s core constituency.”
Despite Rosenfeld’s efforts, however, her novel makes clear that the liberal hypocrisy it depicts is no foible but reveals a serious defect: a facile, often brazen combination of self-righteousness and self-advancement. Class fictionalizes a controversy that erupted in 2015 when the New York City school system proposed to redraw district boundaries, sending many children from P.S. 8, an overcrowded Brooklyn elementary school whose student population was 59 percent white, to P.S. 307, which was nearby, less crowded, and 90 percent black and Latino. The affluent parents who opposed their children’s transfer to P.S. 307 insisted that they were concerned about test scores, resources, programs, the high price they had paid for their homes in the expectation of sending their children to P.S. 8 . . . anything but race.
“It’s more complicated when it’s about your own children,” one parent told Reihan Salam, who rightly pointed out that every child is somebody’s own. For liberals willing to impugn people who don’t share their commitment to social justice, however, the extenuating circumstances that weigh heavily in Brooklyn Heights never explain or excuse red-state voters’ resistance to multiculturalism. We’re tormented about a complex, tragic dilemma; they’re hate-filled bigots.
It’s important to note that P.S. 8 was predominantly but not entirely white. It had “some students of color, but not too many,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a black writer for the New York Times with a daughter at P.S. 307, explained. Citywide, Hannah-Jones notes, New York public schools are just 15 percent white — but half of those white students are concentrated in 11 percent of the schools.
Hannah-Jones scorns the “carefully curated integration . . . that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations.” This curation, not unique to New York’s public schools, affirms the self-image and self-interest of wealthy liberal whites across the country, and at all levels of education.
In researching his 2007 book Creating a Class, the sociologist Mitchell L. Stevens spent more than a year “embedded” in the admissions office of a private liberal-arts college. The college and its personnel are not named in the book, per Stevens’s agreement with the administration, but the school was quickly identified as Hamilton College in upstate New York.
This institution was, and remains, selective and prestigious. U.S. News & World Report ranks Hamilton twelfth on its list of 239 “National Liberal Arts Colleges,” a bit below such institutions as Williams, Amherst, and Wellesley but tied with Colby, Colgate, and Smith, among others. Hamilton rejects 75 percent of the students who apply, even though the admissions director at the time Creating a Class was published believed that a large majority of its applicants were “strong” and would be “really successful” there. In other words, more high-school seniors will consider it a “reach school” than a “safety school.”
In modern America, Stevens argues, preparing one’s children for college and then enrolling them in the most desirable one possible is the culmination of “social reproduction.” He explains this sociological term as “the transfer of knowledge, cultural perspective, and social position from one generation to the next,” or, more broadly, “all the things parents do to ensure that their children will have good lives.”
Formal education has become central to social reproduction. Few American parents now transfer a family farm or business to their offspring. The “business” for a huge majority is a career selling labor on the open market rather than, as once was common, owning and operating some enterprise. Nor do more than a handful of parents bring children along in their own trade, schooling having displaced formal and informal apprenticeships as the pathway to careers. And smaller families mean that parents’ social-reproduction efforts are concentrated on fewer offspring.
Stevens shows how very selective colleges’ flexible understanding of “diversity” squares the circle between helping those less fortunate and giving one’s children a leg up. The key is that “official measures of campus diversity” have turned into “unofficial markers of institutional prestige in the little universe of elite higher education.” The paradigmatic Hamilton student comes from a family like Karen, Matt, and Ruby’s, in which parents and child believe that a college with an excessively white student population is deficient — in its morals and politics, to be sure, but also, and crucially, in terms of how much status it confers. Stevens explains that this mindset works to the disadvantage of applicants who would make a selective college more diverse, but only in ways that don’t boost the numbers everyone looks at, such as black, Hispanic, and Native American enrollment. As a result, valedictorians from small rural high schools, or the children of families who recently immigrated from Eastern Europe, are almost certainly wasting their Hamilton application fees.
The right kind of minorities do benefit from the zero-sum diversity game, but their advantage is equivocal. It is hard, for example, to argue with students who protest, “I’m not here to be your black experience,” given that such resentments reflect a large measure of truth. As Creating a Class shows, while Hamilton would welcome minority applicants in any case, it is especially receptive on account of its need to showcase the diversity attractive to those students, most of them white, from families that don’t need financial aid and might even donate to some future capital campaign. According to U.S. News, 52 percent of Hamilton’s 1,872 students received no need-based financial aid to cover the sticker price for room, board, and tuition, which was $64,250 last year. And according to the Equality of Opportunity Project, the median family income for Hamilton students is $208,600; more students are drawn from the top thousandth of the national income distribution (2.7 percent) than from the bottom fifth (2.2 percent), and nearly as many come from the top hundredth (20 percent) as from the bottom four-fifths (28 percent).
Leaked documents from the Princeton University admissions office, gathered in the course of a federal investigation into discrimination against Asian college applicants, give a rawer view than Creating a Class of how “selective” admissions works. An admissions officer wrote that it would be hard to recommend one Hispanic applicant since there was no “cultural flavor” in her packet. The need for “a touch more cultural flavor” is also a Hawaiian/Pacific Islander applicant’s shortcoming.
This euphemism isn’t hard to decode. There’s no point in going to the enormous trouble of creating a diverse student body if its diversity is so understated that students and their parents cannot readily discern the college’s all-important U.N.-like qualities. Minority applicants must contribute to diversity in ways that are vivid, not subtle. As George Orwell might say, all Hispanics are Hispanic, but some Hispanics are more Hispanic than others.
Speaking of Orwell, his observation that all leftist political parties are “at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy,” holds up impressively after 75 years. An evil not really meant to be eradicated is, for instance, central to the global-warming crusade. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert thinks the threat is grave, putting us in a “race toward planetary disaster,” but also considers the political effort against it thoroughly disingenuous. Most liberals, she argues, refuse to admit an inconvenient truth: The reduction in greenhouse gases necessary to reverse, halt, or even slow global warming will either prolong and worsen the misery of the planet’s poor countries or require Americans to reduce their energy consumption by more than 80 percent. Knowing that Americans have no interest in giving up “air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car,” environmentalists encourage the soothing fantasy that “climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to ‘the American way of life.’”
Similarly, diversity in education, from preschool to postgraduate, and the resulting holy war on privilege, requires denouncing but not renouncing. Despite its stated intent to subvert unjust hierarchies, multiculturalism facilitates rather than impedes careerism. A degree from a selective college, one racially integrated in a carefully curated way, does wonders for those getting on in the world. “Checking your privilege” never involves transferring to Jerkwater A&M, diverse in ways selective colleges never will be, and thereby surrendering one’s spot in the Ivy League so that it can be filled by a cashier’s or opioid addict’s kid. Noah Remnick, son of New Yorker editor David Remnick, devoted the summer before his senior year at Yale to sharing with Los Angeles Times readers the results of the “great deal of time” he’d spent “studying and talking with faculty and other students about what constitutes privilege, fairness and unfairness in American society.” Remnick will begin a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford in October, pursuing his interest in “race, resistance, and urban politics.”
In The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (1999), Nicholas Lemann wrote that our system of higher education has become a “national personnel department.” The reason for “the crush at the gates” of the most selective colleges and universities is that “people believe admission can confer lifelong prestige, comfort, and safety.”
The consuming concern with privilege and oppression, with confronting and correcting historical wrongs — social justice, in short, the ideology of preeminent colleges — has moved outward to less eminent ones and downward to secondary and primary schools. Many parents are eager, and many others are willing, to entrust their children to an educational system that inculcates this deep solicitude for the downtrodden, albeit just that portion of the downtrodden meeting certain demographic criteria. But the system, especially its most exalted institutions, is also expected to transmit the aspirations, expectations, and advantages of the uptrodden, those who started or climbed high and want their children to start and climb even higher.
Up to a point, the two goals are in harmony. Even 30 years ago, Wolfe observed in Bonfire of the Vanities that bigotry’s biggest drawback, if not its worst attribute, was that it had become “undignified,” a “sign of Low Rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor taste.” Since people thus marked have little hope for lifelong prestige, comfort, and safety, our schools prepare students to do good and do well by instilling in them the habit of deploring all manifestations of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
But only up to a point. Brookings Institution researchers Richard V. Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias have said that our upper middle class relies on “opportunity hoarding” to separate itself from the rest of society, and that elite colleges have become the chief mechanism for compounding advantage. Similarly, Mitchell Stevens’s conclusion in Creating a Class is that the college-admissions process has become the “preponderant means of laundering privilege in contemporary American society.”
Meritocracies purport to discern and reward “merit,” a decidedly intrinsic personal quality — but “intrinsic” qualities such as “intellectual facility” and “stubborn persistence” only “seem neutral to class,” Stevens maintains. In reality, young people blessed with the right kinds of families and social environments are far better positioned to acquire, cultivate, and display such attributes. Some of the resulting advantages, such as tutoring or the availability of Advanced Placement courses, are easily identified. The more important ones are harder to identify, much less replicate — and the most important is, in Karen Kipple’s description, a family that cares about its kids and encourages them. The laundering Stevens deplores is an acquired obliviousness to all these factors, a tacit agreement to deny privilege’s existence while perpetuating it. “Merit” is also a verb, a synonym of “deserve.” Those who have merit do merit the prestige, comfort, and safety they attain.
It turns out that “social justice” amounts to noblesse oblige, simultaneously strengthening the obligations and social status of our meritocracy’s credentialed gentry. Literary scholar William Deresiewicz, a self-described democratic socialist, says that the rise of political correctness means that privilege laundering pervades the entire college experience, not just the admissions process. The ultimate purpose of political correctness, he contends, is to “flatter” the elite rather than dismantle it. In effect, socioeconomically advantaged students, professors, and administrators use political correctness to “alibi or erase their privilege,” to “tell themselves that they are . . . part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem.” The social-justice warriors’ stridency belies, even to themselves, the fact that their aims are so limited.
For Reeves and Halikias, the protests that drove Charles Murray from Middlebury College had less to do with alleging and then thwarting racism than with “rich, ‘progressive’ protestors refusing to hear a lecture on the roots of their own privilege.” (The topic of Murray’s speech was to have been the growing gulf between the upper class and the rest of America.) Tellingly, Middlebury is even more selective and affluent than Hamilton College. Tied with Swarthmore as the fourth-highest-rated liberal-arts college in the U.S., Middlebury rejected 83 percent of its applicants in 2015. Fifty-five percent of students received no need-based financial aid, not surprising given that the median family income of those students is $244,300. Only 2.7 percent of its students come from families in the bottom fifth of America’s income distribution, and 24 percent come from the bottom four-fifths. At the other end, 4.4 percent come from the top thousandth, and 23 percent from the top hundredth.
Conservatives are right to be appalled by vituperative social-justice warriors. It’s oddly reassuring, however, that the “No justice, no peace” shock troops are as fraudulent as they are insolent. People’s true beliefs can be revealed by their words or, far more reliably, by their actions. Until kabuki radicalism gets around to requiring privileged students, parents, and colleges to surrender some of their own advantages rather than denounce privilege in general, the social-justice crusade deserves to be regarded with more contempt than alarm.
Ultimately, a meritocracy divided against itself cannot stand. An educational system can either subvert existing hierarchies or fortify them, but not both.
– Mr. Voegeli, a senior editor of The Claremont Review of Books, is a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center and the author, most recently, of The Pity Party.