Monday, April 18, 2011

Moving on up, moving on down

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Amy Chua-fest was about regression to the mean, aka the fact that sometimes kids with all the privilege in the world still don't get into the Ivies. We-as-a-society are accustomed to discussions of how unfair it is that smart and hard-working kids without all the privilege in the world are held back, but we're not sure what to make of the reverse phenomenon.

This is a problem, of course, primarily for the kids in question and their parents, parents who believe in social mobility through education, who are themselves its beneficiaries, but who now have to contend with the fact that their children, however wonderful, are not certified wonderful by the relevant authorities.

Chua's contribution, "Chua" defined as an amalgam of the phenomenon as understood by those who did and did not read the whole thing, was to say a) that it's OK to want certified-wonderful offspring, and b) that amorphous, milieu-propelled, 'privilege' alone is not enough to get them there. Oh, and c) that, absent the kind of obstacles that the kids we generally think of as less privileged (more specifically, children of immigrant families) experience, young people have no drive to succeed, so if you want your privileged kids to stay that way, you have to create an artificial atmosphere of absence-of-privilege. Not just stuff like, no designer handbags in 8th grade, but more like, if you get a B, you will starve to death in the gutter. Basically, Chua's innovation was rethinking the concept of privilege, both in terms of declaring it acceptable to perpetuate hard-won high-status, and in terms of pointing out that we-as-a-society overestimate the extent to which simply having educated and well-off parents guarantees class maintenance across generations. To put it another way, aka to repeat myself, we're used to thinking of social mobility in terms of its inadequacy as a way of propelling people upward; she's reminding us that it functions decently well in propelling some downward.

The rest, as I see it, is secondary. The 'Asian vs. Western' bit; the question of whether one can, in fact, get a good education at a school that isn't Harvard (was this ever in doubt? was 'a good education' ever the issue?); whether 'success' means Harvard or Stanford and Berkeley too; how to foster a child's creativity or individuality or whatever... none of this is what made Chua's... phenomenon any different. Which is why Caitlin Flanagan has, I think, missed its significance. The "good mothers" she postulates hover in this on-the-one-hand, on-the-other sphere of wanting their children to Find Themselves, yet to end up at Ivies all the same. There is this paradox, fine, but the paradox that matters is the broader one: they want the Ivies to be meritocracies, but they want to make sure their own offspring get ahead.

Meanwhile, Flavia's suggestion, that parents encourage their kids along the way, but not in any definitive direction, "then see who your child is, and what she can do, and recalibrate," strikes me as altogether reasonable, but fails to address the anxieties that drove the wave of Chua-fixation. (Not that Flavia claims to be addressing Chua-fixation.) Chuaism is about making sure your children remain in the same class, about pushing them beyond what's needed to be in that class, just to be extra sure, and in order to make sure they do the same with their kids. It's not about producing children who are, god forbid, well-suited to the work they end up doing.

I, for one, think Flaviaism is more reasonable - why focus on class maintenance, when having wealthy offspring is no guarantee they'll be amazing let alone nearby when you're old? Unless you believe in an afterlife during which you'll be able to bask in the glory of your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren's i-banking careers, when it ends, it ends. But if you're losing sleep over the possibility that future beings with your DNA will worry about where the next meal is coming from, you're better off advocating for more socialism - or better yet, moving to a country where that's a done deal - than banking on your descendants being smarter, luckier, and more hard-working than most. Sort of like, as I've also said before, if your number one concern in life is that your offspring marry fellow Jews, you're better off moving to Israel than exerting pressure on them as individuals, when it could well be that they'll obey, but their kids won't.

But Chuaism isn't about reasonable. It isn't about looking at what it's supposed to matter if in 2150, people with your last name are lawyers or janitors. It's about taking whatever twinge of paternal angst compels parents to find it mildly tragic when their children, however happy, fail to be certified as wonderful, and rather than suppressing it, as is reasonable, making that the focal point of parenting.


PG said...

I mostly agree with this, except I think it misses one important factor in Chua: her sense of a noble lineage. There's a lot in her book about how she doesn't want to let her children be less than All They Can Be because it would be letting down her ancestors. What I know about Chinese ancestor worship comes mostly from Disney films, but even the fact of having ancestors who'd be let down is specific to a particular background.

My parents pushed me a lot, but I doubt they were motivated by any feeling that my lack of success in life would be a perversion of the family tree. Both of my parents are the first in their families to attend college; my father's family was extremely poor by American standards (they were farmers and frequently lacked adequate clothing and nutrition). My mom's family is now well-connected in India, but for reasons having little to do with education-fueled meritocracy, and this has never done us any good in the U.S.

My parents had cultural motivations to emphasize respect and obedience to one's elders, and I think the ways in which their parenting was similar to Chua's is due to this overlap with her beliefs. But whenever I fell short of their expectations, it always was clear that I was disappointing *them*, not some proud heritage. They were worried about how *I* would fare in life if I didn't do what *they* wanted, not thinking about either their predecessors or my hypothetical descendants.

Stendhal said...

I would add that the Chua-Rubenfelds have so far resisted regression to within 5 standard deviations of the mean (or whatever the odds are of getting into both Yale and that inferior school in Massachusetts):

Phoebe said...


If the 'tiger' parenting philosophy requires thinking your ancestors not only care what you're up to, not only share modern-day beliefs about the options for women in society, but see a distinction between Skidmore and Swarthmore, then I think one loses a lot of potential adherents. The 'immigrant way' in which it seems you and I were both partially brought up tends not to come from a place of 'oh how glorious our family once was.' It's precisely because families were not so glorious in the Old Country that immigration tends to occur. (I mean, if I think of what my ancestors would think about what I'm up to, they'd probably be a whole lot more concerned with my lack of religious observance than with the fact that I'm in a PhD program.)

Which is, I think, where the argument falls apart. Unless you hold this view, it's hard to say why it should matter if one's descendants are upper-middle-class. And caring about this is the unstated given of Chuaism. (No, I still have not read the book itself, in all its glory-for-Chua's-ancestors, what with still being in Frahnce.)

It's not hard to see why parents would get a twinge of 'and all for what?' if they see that despite their own hard work, their kids are opting for/cut out for what they view as a mediocre existence. But if parents think rationally, they'd see that this is not a goal worth emphasizing, and that indeed, in emphasizing it, they're acting to the detriment both of their kids who'd rather be doing something else, and the kids of less well-to-do families who would actually appreciate whichever opportunities. I'm not saying that UMC parents should go out of their way to raise their children in some magical class-free bubble, only that their main goal with their parenting should not be producing UMC generations through eternity.


She has a blog! Seems to be legit.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem with class mobility is: if you and your spouse are YLS professors (or, really, Ivy-educated professionals of any stripe), where can your children go but down? How can you even be sure they're maintaining their class status: do they have to get exactly equivalent degrees, from exactly equivalent schools, and make exactly equivalent amounts of money? Or does something like noble do-gooding or the life of a dedicated, marginally successful artist count? If your kid can't plausibly make more money--or can only make more money at a job that doesn't carry sufficient intellectual or cultural cachet--maybe you push him to do something that has tremendous value within your class, but that isn't as quantifiable.

That, I think, is the problem of the "Good Mothers" Flanagan is talking about, whether they realize it or not. Believing in your kid's special talents, and in his right to be happy and successful doing his own thing (perhaps supported, for a while, on the parental dime--just think of all those doctors and lawyers who sighingly pay rent on their 23-year-old kids' NYC apartments while they take 6-month unpaid internships followed by $25K-a-year jobs), is maybe the only possible next step in the class-ascension ladder for families who have gone in two or three generations from immigrants and laborers to the Ivy League and the upper reaches of the professional class.

But the value of letting your kid follow his bliss is more easily sold when it's accompanied by a degree from Brown (and the connections that mean his unpaid internship is at the Paris Review or Lapham's Quarterly, not Women's Fitness).


Phoebe said...


"if you and your spouse are YLS professors (or, really, Ivy-educated professionals of any stripe), where can your children go but down?"

In Chuasville, they can stay at the same place by also attending Ivies, and by pursuing one of a limited set of careers. Since Chua and her husband alike are law profs and writers, her kids couldn't just be obedient YLSers or creative types - gotta do both! Do-gooding would be OK if it led to a Rhodes. Up might not be an option, but down would be just about any change from the status quo. I for one think it's silly, but that by definition takes me out of the target audience.

Another thing Chua misses, actually (unless, PG, she addresses it in the book), is that status maintenance across generations requires not only perfectly-formed children, but also ones who marry and reproduce with equally fine specimens.

"just think of all those doctors and lawyers who sighingly pay rent on their 23-year-old kids' NYC apartments"

I used to think of them all the time, actually, when I was an early-20s child of a doctor, living in NYC, but paying my own rent, first with a non-glamorous office job, then with a grad program that, contrary to what real estate brokers seemed to think, pays enough to live on. (I never considered the unpaid-and-finding-self route, and so am not sure whether my parents would have or could have funded this, and if so, for how long. )The assumption seems to be that if you're post-college, living in NY, and not working in finance, your parents fund your existence. This is certainly true in enough cases that the phenomenon drives up rents in some areas (Murray Hill...). There's this whole culture of people in the situation you describe denying that that's their situation. Oh... this could merit a post of its own.

As for whether the 6-month-unpaid-internship route is the next step up, it is if what's happened is, there's now enough family money to support a new pseudo-aristocracy. In that case, yes, being an aristocrat is a step above being UMC. It's not a step up if the kid makes $25,000 forever, has no trust fund, marries someone who makes the same, and then has kids.

"the Paris Review or Lapham's Quarterly, not Women's Fitness"

I suspect, from my brief time in journalism, that even Women's Fitness more or less requires connections.

Britta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phoebe said...


Did you want one/both your comments posted?

Britta said...

If you can post both of them in the order I wrote them, that would be great. If not I can try again. It's just the only one that stayed up was the second part.

Phoebe said...

Said Britta:

I think there's a lot of truth (if not complete truth) to Flavia's statement. I went to a prestigious liberal arts school which was filled with children of Amy Chua types. At that level, "downward mobility" very much included individual career choice, rather than structural issues. E.g. my ex-bf's parents were Ivy-league educated and one was a corporate lawyer and the other co-founded a famous Israeli lobby group, both of which paid exceptionally well (esp. corporate law). In that sense, any job which earned less than half a million dollars would be "downwardly mobile," however, even at Ivies or other schools, expecting to make mid-high six figures is a stretch. At that level, is scientist or professor less prestigious than doctor or lawyer, even if it results in incomes (and by extension potential lifestyles) of many magnitudes of difference? My ex-bf ended up in an unfunded humanities phd program in a top 20 but not top 10 program, which 1) is what he wanted to do with his life, but 2) was considered to be a step down from his parents and his highly successful older brother (who got a PhD in applied math, works on Wall Street, married a doctor, and will probably earn equal to or more than his parents.)
Of course, my ex-bf is doing very well in graduate school, is now mostly self-sufficient through teaching, is dating a girl in an MBA program at Yale, and will probably be just fine. Of course, without extensive parental support (paying tuition, health insurance, apartment in Manhattan, food & living expenses, providing a trust fund with enough money to buy a house outright, etc) he would not have been able to realistically go to grad school without taking on lots of debt, nor would he be in a house buying position upon getting his first job, etc. In that sense,

I can tell the same story over and over again for my roommates in slightly different iterations (two of my roommates considered careers that would make them less successful than their parents, but have now ended up on career tracks that are both high paying and high prestige).

On the other hand, growing up in Portland, I know tons of people with Ivy educations (inc. my father) who chose careers where most of their colleagues don't have them, and which are not necessarily considered "elite" (public school teacher, artist, chef, bureaucrat). With these, a degree from Brown vs. Portland State is not necessarily relevant for further career success. In that sense, as the child of Ivy/prestigious school educated, JD and other post-grad degree holding parents whose careers in the non-profit world government bureaucracy are neither stratospherically prestigious or high paying, (or are unbalanced, e.g. relatively high prestige, extremely low pay) I don't feel much pressure about downward mobility, except for the general "baby boomers had it easy and our generation is getting screwed out of health care, easy decent jobs, and affordable real estate." At the same time, I also recognize that going to certain schools has put my siblings and I on a certain track towards a level of material success and in a certain social milieu (well, hopefully. I recognize a phd in the non-econ or psychology social sciences isn't exactly a guarantee of a cushy and prestigious job) that is necessary to stay in the upper-middle class and keep a lifestyle similar too or better than our parents.

Hmmm....maybe the point of my above ramblings is that there's wide variation in being upper middle class, and fluctuations within can lead to feelings of upward or downward mobility, without it necessarily being the case (e.g. going from corporate lawyer to professor to corporate lawyer in the next generation is totally plausible, going from corporate lawyer to gas station attendent to corporate lawyer less so. One involves a drop in income and lifestyle, the other involves actual downward mobility out of the middle class.)

Phoebe said...

Added Britta:

To the extent we are actually talking about class distinction in the upper middle stratum, we are talking about fine grain distinctions, many of which differ regionally and over time, in a country where frank discussions of class are difficult. Moreover, fine grained distinctions are always opaque to those outside, but extremely salient inside. Like, I'm sure there are big distinctions between being a Duke and an Earl, but standing outside the British nobility, it looks like a giant mess of privilege. (Like, I am slightly horrified to admit I have heard the term "ghetto Ivy" applied to Cornell and Penn, or the term "2nd tier Ivy" applied to Columbia and Brown. Snobbery can never be too fine grained)

Also, we're in a country where massive inequality exists and is getting bigger, to an extent not seen in any other industrialized country. There are people in this country who literally cannot afford electricity, or who die from lack of affordable medical care. In that sense, I think it's not invalid to discuss the differences between being a research scientist vs. a doctor, or a public school teacher who went to Yale vs. one who did not, but it's hard because is against a backdrop where on some level it's like, to grossly mix metaphors, debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while Rome burns :P In this context, there's also the degree to which it is important to acknowledge the real psychological cost that comes with relative wealth, and the degree to which it's important to say "your privilege is showing," or "suck it up, asshole."

(Oh, so much rambling, so little time. I could keep going, but I'll stop here)

Britta said...

Oh! Let me dominate the comments section! I'm not sure how the "don't disappoint your illustrious ancestors" is really Chinese. As far as I know, Chinese are not super big on, like, prestigious ancestors (unless maybe it's Confucius), and Communism pretty much wiped that out on the mainland. I mean, there is the general, procreate and honor your ancestors by cleaning their graves and making offerings on their alter, but I didn't think it really translated to: "get As or great-grandpa will weep in his grave." There is a bit of what is called "great Han chauvinism," so in that sense, maybe it's more of a, "if you suck, you are a disappointment to the Chinese people?"

Phoebe said...


I don't know about Chinese-as-in-living-in-China, but I have some recollections of Chinese-Americans I knew in high school - one in particular - claiming noble heritage, in keeping with plans for an impressive future. I remember at the time thinking this family history was doubtful.

Britta said...

Yeah, there could be a big mainland/non mainland divide. Since Chua's parents came from the Philippines, maybe it's different? Also, I know that clan belonging is much stronger in Southern China, and I've only ever spent time in Northern China, so maybe there's more of it there. It seems though, between the Republican and the Communist revolution, there wasn't much of a noble class left to be descended from. Maybe this is changing as people dig up their former illustrious ancestors? I'm obviously not an expert, but bragging about your ancestors just didn't seem very common with the Chinese people I met.

Anonymous said...

There seems to be a prevailing sense among east coast elites that it is absolutely essential that a child get into a top-drawer ivy league school. To that end, people go nuts trying to get their children into the right pre-schools and schools (at least, that's what certain books and documentaries tell me).

There is less of that anxiety in Minnesota, even among the upper reaches of society (I won't say none, but I do know that the behavior of people moving from New York can surprise the staff at local private schools). Perhaps that's because there are so many successful locals who went to big ten schools or small Midwestern colleges (people at the top law firms, etc.) Of course, people still want their children to be "successful," but they are less likely to have bought into the notion that there is a single ivy-strewn path to that success.

Britta is correct in pointing out there are significant cultural variations between regions in the U.S.

Phoebe said...


Yes, the East Coast is notoriously where the snooty-education-obsessives reside. We can bring it up, but it's repeating what everyone already thinks/knows. A more useful discussion would be, does that mean elites in Minnesota, say, are less concerned with downward mobility, that they express it in different ways, or that the mere fact of being in Minnesota implies that someone has priorities other than being #1 in some universally-recognized sense?

Anonymous said...

A few of those factors are in play:

(1) There is a broader band of careers and incomes that are acceptable to upper-middle class Minnesotans, so, while they don't want downward mobility for their children, they may be less likely to interpret a given career or educational choice as a move into a different social statum. I think I'm pushing towards a theory that more finely grained social distinctions can result in greater social anxiety.

(2) The anxiety and snobbishness that is present in Minnesota is sometimes expressed differently, to the point that visitors from the East Coast may not catch all of it at first. There is a cultural aversion to direct expressions of negative thoughts and emotions that can mislead outsiders (I'm thinking of a transplanted New Yorker who did not understand, cruelly, that her bosses and co-workers disliked her). Extravagant and emotional outbursts are more disfavored here. So, even a parent who did worry greatly about a particular opportunity or choice might publicly express only mild disapproval or ambivalence.

(3) The idea that living in Minnesota implies one has other priorities has significant merit. Obviously, many people hell-bent on success leave right after high school, if not sooner. I'm loathe to admit it, though. I think a fear of mediocrity and of settling for mediocrity is one of the great anxieties of Midwestern life. That real anxiety makes Midwesterners particularly sensitive to what they perceive as the snootiness of those on the east coast.

PG said...

There seems to be a prevailing sense among east coast elites that it is absolutely essential that a child get into a top-drawer ivy league school. To that end, people go nuts trying to get their children into the right pre-schools and schools (at least, that's what certain books and documentaries tell me).

I grew up in a town of 29K people in East Texas. My parents were from India. The peers to whom they compared me were kids in the same or similar towns in Texas whose parents also were from India. None of these places had elite preschools. We all went to the same public high school because it was the only high school for 50 miles around. (One family friend sent a son to a Northeast prep school, but this generally seems to have been deemed a bad experiment.)

All these parents had varying levels of anxiety that their children get into Ivies. My parents weren't even the most crazy, because they were so ignorant of America that they assumed it was like India, where grades and test scores were all that counted. Their more sophisticated friends figured out the concept of a "well-rounded" applicant, and not only frog-marched their offspring through academic excellence but also required them to found volunteer organizations and do independent research.

My best explanation for the Indian obsession with Harvard (which seems at least mildly generalizable to other Asians) is that it's the school people hear about even when they don't live in the U.S. All my relatives in India knew about Harvard; none of them had heard of Brown or Columbia, much less any public U. Harvard's always held up as an exemplar of American greatness to people outside the U.S. (Despite having a dedicatedly Republican father, I thus had a very different upbringing from children of white small-town conservatives, who apparently are taught that Harvard is a source of Communist evil.)

As an economic immigrant*, you also believe very strongly in America as a meritocracy; it would've been stupid for you to immigrate otherwise. Your best way to start your children's adult lives in a meritocratic system is to get them the best college education possible (and to hope they do well enough in college, even without you standing over their shoulders, for them to qualify for the best graduate education possible). My mother has never heard of any law firm except those in our hometown; my father has no idea that federal appellate clerkships are prestigious; but they both thought I should try to get into Harvard or Yale Law. In a meritocracy, immigrants believe that a brand name education is what a family name/connections were back in their home countries.

Chua's parents actually seem not-very-Asian regarding Harvard, as she says in the book that her father wanted his daughters all to attend Berkeley so they could stay close to home. My parents were very socially conservative with us -- I wasn't allowed to sleep over at friends unless my parents were friends with their parents -- but they prioritized our getting a name brand education over our being geographically nearby.

*The dynamics for non-economic immigrants are different. For example, Hmong immigrants who were political refugees from the Vietnam War had aided the U.S. military by fighting hand combat in jungles; when the U.S. pulled out, these people were yanked out of a rural, non-modern environment and dropped in the U.S. The dynamic shifts again for Cambodian refugees from the Khmer Rouge genocide, who are disproportionately well-educated city folk because those were the Cambodians first against the wall in that revolution.

Britta said...

I'm actually writing a paper about "Ivy Fever" in China (that's the Chinese term for the phenomenon), it sounds pretty similar to India. Even in remote villages, everyone's heard of Harvard (where of course, if you can go there, you get offered a million dollar salary job upon graduation, and live in a mansion wallpapered with gold). In the city, really hardcore parents have memorized the US News & World report rankings, but pretty much almost everyone knows all the Ivy Leagues (plus Stanford, MIT & Berkeley), or at least knows what the Ivy League is. There is also a HUGE market for extra curricular activities that would appeal to Ivy League-type US universities, and a whole genre of books about how to get your kid into prestigious school X (like, seriously, dozens and dozens have been published.)

It was slightly annoying though, having gone to Swarthmore (which no one has heard of), to have Chinese people who found out that my sister went Brown to be like, "ooh, Brown is Ivy League, why is your sister so much smarter than you? Why are you too dumb to get into Brown?" When I tried to explain that I only applied to Swarthmore and hadn't applied to Brown, they'd get this look of disbelief and pity, like I was obviously lying since I couldn't take the shame of being such a failure in comparison to my brilliant sister, and had made up some lie to save face :P (of course, that sometimes happens in the US too, when people are like, "Swarthmore, is that a community college?" :P )
(If your school is unheard of but has a famous alumn who is known for being smart, you can be like, "I went to Wellesley College, where HIllary Clinton went," and people will be like, "ooh, that must be a good school then. You must be smart.")

Berkeley's probably much bigger in China than in India because so many Chinese/Chinese Americans have gone there since the 60s (I think it's like 40% Chinese now). My mother grew up in a Chinese immigrant neighborhood in the Bay Area, and Berkeley THE school for all her neighbors (my mother's one neighbor didn't get good enough grades to get into Berkeley, and his parents sent him to another UC until he could transfer in to Berkeley.) Maybe that explains Chua's parents' love of Berkeley?

rshams said...

(If your school is unheard of but has a famous alumn who is known for being smart, you can be like, "I went to Wellesley College, where HIllary Clinton went," and people will be like, "ooh, that must be a good school then. You must be smart.")

YesYesYes^10000. This is literally what I had to say to people (while living abroad, as well as to relatives outside of the East Coast and the U.S as a whole) after much confusion with Wesleyan and references to "Mona Lisa Smile."

Phoebe said...

All interesting comments, but I think we've gotten a bit side-tracked. I think Chua hit a nerve precisely because the essence of what she was laying out - i.e., that it's OK and even optimal to care that your family remain a particular socioeconomic status into eternity - transcends regional and cultural differences. It's not mere Harvard-obsession, but an obsession with perpetuating Harvard obsession across generations, something that requires overshooting the mark with each successive generation.

My sense is that a lot of the response to the phenomenon has been, for example, to point out that the entire country isn't whichever subset of the East Coast. One might say that this can't be pointed out enough, but my sense is, those who most need to get that memo that Park Slope or the UWS or whatever isn't the entire country, simply aren't interested. Reminding them that the Midwest exists will have no effect. So I don't think pointing out that the country is a diverse place, as much as in and of itself this is informative for East Coasters (such as yours truly) who do find this interesting, addresses the social-mobility question. If we take the specific "brands" out of the equation, the book/phenomenon is also telling UMC parents in other parts of the country that it's OK for them to think it's a tragedy if their kids don't get into the flagship State U.

There's also, of course, the issue of, if you're interested in perpetuating brand-name success of a certain sort, chances are you don't live in Oklahoma. So to point out that things are different in Oklahoma doesn't really address the question of perpetuating a very particular status that only does exist in certain areas. However, like I said above, I think there are equivalents all over the country, and that the idea that it's OK to put class-maintenance first could excite parents living far from anywhere with preschool-mania.

PG said...

One last bit of sidetrack: Britta, would it be useful for your paper to talk to someone who runs a college consulting business in China? One of my law school classmates is doing this now. My understanding of his background is that his parents are from China but that he grew up mostly in the OC. I can't guarantee ahead of time that he'd want to talk to you, but he's been interviewed in several Chinese magazines about his work.

I'm not sure it's typical for most Americans to think Ivy schools will maintain class, because most Americans have achieved UMC without Ivies and assume their kids will too. The non-Indian UMC kids at my high school all went to UT or A&M like their folks did, and now continue family tradition at Davis Insurance and Winston Ranch, or are civil engineers (instead of dentists) who make about the same amount of money as their dads did at 30. Outside the Boboville of the NYT wedding announcements, the vast UMC of America is full of people who think the Ivies are a waste of money for the important things to learn for an UMC future: accounting, cattle breeding, soil testing.

Phoebe said...


"I'm not sure it's typical for most Americans to think Ivy schools will maintain class"

I'm sure it isn't - obviously the only people for whom Ivy=class maintenance are the subset of parents who went to Ivies themselves. For anyone else, it would mean a change - not necessarily understood as a shift up, especially if a major in medieval tapestry is involved, but a shift of some sort.

A lot, I think, rests on definitions. My knowledge of what Texans, Indian or otherwise, in the careers you mention earn is slight, same re: my knowledge of cost of living and the relative wealth this signifies in their communities. In short, I take your word for it that these=UMC, but these terms can be used a number of ways. For example, what are we calling Chua's social class? "Bobo" would seem to imply there's a bohemian or at least faux-bohemian angle, which I'm not seeing. It often seems like UMC is used to refer to "coastal elites," as opposed to, to everyone who makes X amount in a field that required a college education or beyond. Given the context, the distinction between provincial elites and big-city ones seems important, because the idea is that one has reached a point from which (as Flavia pointed out) the only possible direction to go is down. If you're the best at what you do in Oklahoma, you can always relate with pride that your kid is the best at what she does in Chicago. Whereas if you're at the top of something D.C.-specific in D.C., NY-specific in NY, Yale-specific at Yale, etc., there's no more-competitive arena to go to.

So maybe the issue is, Chuaism is on the one hand about class maintenance regardless of whether one is a civil engineer in Texas or a law prof at Yale, but on the other about the very specific question of how, if you're at the tip-top, you can ensure your children stay there. Given that simply attracting the tip-top sorts is enough to get a book press and readers, that may have been enough. Either way, though, the question I have remains why we're supposed to support the idea of perpetuating socioeconomic status for those with our DNA indefinitely.

Britta said...

Thanks for the offer, it could be interesting to talk to him. The paper is for a conference in which the abstract was due a week ago, but the conference isn't until next December, so I wrote something vague, and now have to (or at least at some point in the next 6 months) think about exactly what I want to say. If he does want to talk, it might be pretty interesting to get his insights. I don't know how these sorts of things work through blog comments, but I could give you my email address.

Getting back to the points mentioned by PG and Phoebe, what counts as UMC seems to be key here. I think that local vs. national elites is an important distinction, and that local elites are as often as interested if not more in preserving local elite status with their children than in having their kids get national elite status. In this sense, while there can be advantages to going to an Ivy league type school, there can also be advantages to having stayed local and built up a network. E.g., I know lawyers in Portland who say its better to go to Lewis & Clark Law school than Harvard if you want to be a lawyer there, because that's how you get into the network system. I also know that much of the local Portland elite attended U of Oregon and local law schools.

There are also people, as Phoebe mentioned, who are hostile to their kids attending elite east coast schools, as they see it as representing a divergence from their values, for whatever reason. These people might also be successful local elites, or fairly well-to-do locally, even if they don't see themselves aligned with the national elite. There are also tons of other people who attach almost no importance to schooling, or care about it only with regards to sports rivalries, or religious affiliation, or something else. (I know, being Scandinavian American, there is a whole system of Lutheran schools, each of which have an overt ethnic/national connection. When I was applying for college, outside of my immediate family there was pressure to pick a Norwegian school from my fathers' side of the family, and a Swedish one from my mothers' side. In certain Scandinavian-American communities, Ivies are for grad school, and for undergrad it is expected you go to a Lutheran school. There is plenty of snobbery and an expectation of extended higher education, however it's not oriented towards the "WASPy" elite.)

Phoebe said...

Just to clarify, I think it was PG who said local elites may be hostile to Ivies - not that I disagree, just giving credit where it's due!

Next, I think once the question of perpetuation of local elites - i.e. not the NYT Weddings folk - comes into it, there's also the question of all the subsets of America interested in maintaining themselves as a group over time. This includes, even, the notorious 'being a good student is acting white' accusation. Point being, the fact that there's a group whose members wish to perpetuate it across generations doesn't mean that the group in question is elite, or, for that matter, is capable of ensuring a comfortable life for its members.

My sense of Chuaism, then, is that it's about being a Western Civilization Elite, and that because for the time being at least, the top universities are largely clustered in the US, even if the country that you want to end up in/for you kids to end up in isn't the US, that's the relevant meritocracy for your purposes.

This matters because regional elites, as well as non-elite self-perpetuating groups of all kinds, tend to restrict membership on the basis of, in part, things other than merit, i.e. race, culture, authenticity. Meanwhile, the hyper-elite is, in theory, open to all.

PG said...

Britta, feel free to send me your email address. I'm pgofhsm on hotmail.

Phoebe, the careers I mentioned would be squarely UMC, in the sense that they're in the fourth quartile of American household incomes, though more sophisticated analyses will break this down by the median household income in a particular zip code, so as to gauge just this issue of relative wealth within a community instead of on a national level.

But yes, it's much less income than is required to be perceived as UMC in NY, DC, LA. David Brooks has identified these places very neatly: towns where there is no new car, no restaurant meal, no private school education, being sold that's literally unaffordable for the UMC in that area, which means identifiable class stratification at the top is not nearly as great as in big cities. Of the more expensive of the two private elementary schools in town, the yearly tuition currently is $4000. This is a lot of money and out of reach for the median American household, but nothing like the cost of private schools in big cities -- a couple of my friends from Houston attended an Episcopalian school there that costs $20k/year.

And Britta is correct that it's the kind of place where an Ivy degree isn't really any more useful -- and may be less so, due to lack of local connections -- than a degree from the state flagship schools. I don't know whether the Indian kids who attended the state schools were able to benefit from those connections to be part of the regional elite, because nearly all of them have moved away from East Texas.

So a distinction between regional vs. national elites is worth making. I think cities like Houston and Dallas tend to be an uncomfortable mixture of both attitudes -- you have the good ol' boy element where going out of state for education makes you suspect, but you also have people who value national elitism and will give you an extra point (all else being equal) for attending an Ivy instead of A&M.

To drag poor Palin into this discussion, I'd say she represents the kind of UMC (now wealthy since she left the governor's office) thinking in which people consider themselves to prioritize education -- they don't want their kids to be dropouts -- but the particular form that education takes isn't hugely important nor life-determinative. In her autobiography, she seems sincerely outraged that people would think she didn't take education seriously merely because she didn't pick one good college and stick with it, and she misinterprets (perhaps deliberately) the mockery of her multi-state college career as an attack on people's working their own way through college.

Obama's mother's family represents a Chua-like mindset even among people who were not themselves elites: though his maternal grandparents didn't have university degrees and his mother initially dropped out of the University of Hawaii to have him, they were all convinced that the most important thing in his life -- even more important than remaining with his nuclear family -- was to get the best education obtainable. Some people who knew his family say that his maternal grandmother thought that an elite education would help him overcome the disadvantages of his mixed racial background. In that sense, I think they were operating on the national and even global elite model that Phoebe noted. Obama's father definitely was part of a global educational elite -- he came to the U.S. on an undergraduate fellowship, was Phi Beta Kappa at U-Hawaii, got a master's from Harvard (which I suppose made the president a legacy for Harvard Law admissions?) -- but it's more difficult to assess his influence.

Britta said...

Thanks! I'll email you shortly.
I think you've hit the nail on the head. It's not like the US is divided into aspiring Harvard grads and high school dropouts. There are plenty of people, many whom are UMC, for whom a college degree (and maybe even a graduate degree) is expected and important, but from exactly where is not super critical, or if choice of school is important, its not based solely on academic/national prestige. There's also the fact that going to a selective school, even if it selects more than 50% of its applicants, still makes the school relatively elite, in the whole scheme of colleges.

It seems like on the East Coast, in certain areas (NYC, DC, Boston?) there is a pretty strong overlap between local and national elites, so the two might not be distinguishable. Portland was maybe more like a liberal version of Houston, where going to Harvard certainly didn't hurt, and plenty of parents at my high school urged their children to apply there, but it wasn't seen as the be all and end all to a successful life. I went to the academically top public high school in the city, where over 95% of students went to college, and well over half of those students went to the U of O or Oregon State, including many of the children of the wealthiest and most socially prominent parents. There did seem to be a slight divide between UMC parents who wanted their kids to go to an Ivy-type school and pushed their children to do activities that would appeal to those sorts of colleges and UMC parents whose goal was to have their daughter be head cheerleader. These kids were on the ski team, smoked pot, got Lexus SUVs on their 16th birthdays, and threw crazy parties. Both groups of kids were expected to go to college and get good grades, though the first group shot for straight As, and the second for some combo of As and Bs. Likewise, the first group did the International Baccalaureate program, and the second did some combo of regular and honors classes. On the whole, both groups were “good” students by any overall measure (e.g. state standardized benchmarks), and overall their parents had the same goal for their kids (UMC respectability), except exactly what and how to achieve it was slightly different.

Phoebe said...


The Palin/Obama distinction really gets at it, I think. There's on the one hand the inaccessibility of local success to non-locals, on the other the stratospheric appearance (and Chuaist requirements!) of 'universal' success, which is read as threatening and 'against the values of our lifestyle' by more 'local' sorts.


"It seems like on the East Coast, in certain areas (NYC, DC, Boston?) there is a pretty strong overlap between local and national elites, so the two might not be distinguishable."

True to some extent, although there's still a more provincial kind of success one might have within a community - not everyone in these areas, of course, is part of the Manhattan-below-96th-and-gentrified-Brooklyn community, not even everyone living within those bounds, not even everyone white living within those bounds.