The poverty of the modern middle class: prologue

About six months after I graduated from Columbia, a couple who knew members of my extended family asked me to lunch unexpectedly. Not wishing to be rude, I went. As it turned out the couple had an agenda; they wanted to talk about having their daughter apply to Ivy League graduate schools.

Their daughter had recently graduated from a private liberal arts college and was having trouble finding permanent employment in a field and at a level her parents considered acceptable given the cost of her education. In fairness to her, she was interning at a non-profit in NYC. Her parents, though, had unrealistic expectations and seemed to feel that having paid for her to go to a “prestigious” private school, she should have entered the workforce at a much higher level.

The parents had some highly specific questions, ones that were so precise that I suggested they needed to contact someone in admissions at the respective universities or speak with an application consultant. In retrospect, I suspect they may already done so and the feedback hadn’t been favorable. Their questions were focused on seeing if there might be workarounds or special exemptions for the graduate program prerequisites. While there are, their daughter wasn’t eligible for any of them.

The parents were visibly angry, unable to accept that their daughter’s endless sports and community involvement, which they had so carefully funded, were meaningless in the face of program prerequisites. The graduate programs had foreign study abroad components, so the language prerequisites, which the daughter couldn’t meet, were immutable. Additionally, as the programs was designed for those interested in careers such as publishing, journalism, or policy writing, all applications demanded a large and exceptionally high-quality writing sample. To have an idea of what was expected, think of Princeton University’s standard 50,000 word (i.e. a small book) undergraduate thesis.[1] The daughter had neither the language skills nor the writing sample. In the case of the former, the private college her parents had chosen didn’t offer modern languages at anything resembling the level expected; for the writing sample, the young woman simply didn’t have one. Her parents were vague as to the reason, but I think she may have chosen an academic track which didn’t require an undergraduate thesis.

The parents weren’t completely sure which upset them more: that their capability as parents was under review, or that everything they thought was “valuable” or “worthy” had been found wanting. Sports? Irrelevant. Door-to-door political canvassing? Commonplace. The parents were proud of having provided certain experiences, such as trips to Disneyland, ski trips, and cruises. These activities have importance as symbols of a financial middle-class with enough liquidity to spend on recreation, but the daughter couldn’t include them as significant in personal statements. In this, the daughter was disadvantaged compared to Abigail Fisher and her discovery that 1,999,999 other people in any given year are Habitat for Humanity volunteers. 

The episode revealed a bankruptcy of mind, culture, and outlook which is the poverty of those whose incomes are firmly middle class but whose intellectual knowledge and cultural capital is lacking. Like the person of my previous post, there was a trust in the opinions of the majority and an uninquiring faith that doing x, y, and z is guaranteed to lead to immediate status, security, and success. The financial but not social or cultural middle-class has realized that parts of life and social experiences are out of reach; Not because they were originally off limits, but because too much time has passed, and individuals, such as those in this story, are behind the curve when it comes to specific skills and types of knowledge. People, entire sections of the population, have gone so far down a particular path, it’s too late to turn back.

[1] In case readers are wondering if it is possible to access this type of writing preparation at the undergraduate level outside of the Ivy League, it is. Speaking from my own experience, most liberal arts colleges and large universities offer an Honors track or program through which participating students receive the support and guidance to write longer, more advanced papers and theses.

3 thoughts on “The poverty of the modern middle class: prologue

  1. All true, but try using compassion as a way to understand the situation in the entirety. One door closes another opens. It is the way.

Please keep it civil

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