The poverty of the middle-class: lack of savoir-faire

In 2009, the film An Education came out. It was a Bildungsroman of sorts but it was beyond a coming-of-age story. It showed the life of the aspiring, post-World War II nouveau riche middle-class. The protagonist is a schoolgirl whose aspirationally-minded parents send her to a private school. They have no notion of what a good school is, how to tell if one is good, or why a person should attend one; they only know that “all the best” send their children to fee-paying schools. In the process, they’re swindled. The film’s characters descend into wallowing self-pity as nothing works out quite right for the protagonist. The story showcases a reality that we’re dealing with today. A fiction created by and for the post-War nouveau riche is collapsing. Those caught in its net do not recognize that what is collapsing is a fantasy, believing instead that the social order is declining, that a social contract has been broken.

Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759),

The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world, and that mankind are disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions with which the advantages of his situation so readily inspire him. At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the advantages it procures him. The poor man, on the contrary is ashamed of his poverty.

In the twenty-first century, achievement replaces riches as a font of glory. And that is good. It means that we have reached a point where being monied by itself is no longer a distinction. Achievement is the currency of the realm now (if anyone wants to imagine me saying that in the voice of Cutler Beckett from Pirates of the Caribbean, please feel free). What we face today is a society of rich men whose hearts have dilated but who haven’t reinvested their wealth to procure advantage. And herein lies the rub: procuring advantage requires savoir-faire and those who built and benefitted from the society of post-War nouveau riche for the better part don’t have it.  

The savoir-faire needed is a type of street-smarts, but for life and careers rather than the literal streets (though it’s good to have that as well). This knowledge is not particularly secret, yet when caught out, the nouveau riche middle-class squawks and cries foul. Take for example Abigail Fisher and her lawsuit against UT-Austin: the young woman required the Supreme Court to validate UT-Austin’s assertion that graduating above average from a public school, playing in a section of a youth orchestra, and being one of two million Habitat for Humanity volunteers did not make her remarkable. The Abigail Fisher story is not one of racism or affirmative action. It’s a story of lack of savoir-faire. A person who thinks that any of the extracurriculars entered into evidence at the trial were résumé enhancing is as deluded as the parents from An Education who thought that merely forking out money ensured social mobility, a better life, the prospect of great things.

Making unfounded assumptions is part of the nouveau riche middle-class’ lack of savoir-faire. A lawyer I know has made it well into adulthood without knowing that advanced degrees from Ivy League schools are fully funded, i.e. free. Believing that he could neither afford an academic advanced degree nor that it would pay off professionally, he pursued law at a school where he received in-state tuition. He suffers from a stagnant career and fears that he doesn’t have a vocation for law. In contrast, this lawyer has already been surpassed by another attorney I know who is still in her twenties. In addition to being fiercely intelligent overall, she is worldly-wise. When she decided on law school, she pursued only Ivy Plus schools exactly because they were the ones with the best funding and scholarships; name recognition was an aside. She received merit-based full tuition funding, a stipend, and major professional opportunities because she was a prize winner.  

Nor is it an anomaly that the highest tiers of education are free, or less expensive than people assume. Those who have read George Elliot’s Daniel Deronda know that Daniel was on track to win a fellowship which would refunded his tuition at Cambridge to his father Sir Hugo Mallinger. This was a huge honor which had almost nothing to do with money. Sir Hugo was fabulously wealthy; he didn’t need the money refunded – though of course it would have been nice. The honor was the primary attraction for him. “Daddy paid all my tuition” can’t be put on a résumé; “___ Fellow” or “winner of ___ Scholarship” can be. To be clear, I fully support parents saving for their children’s college. But I have had genuine conversations with people who told me that even though their children qualified for merit scholarships or grants, they wouldn’t apply for them because “those are for poor people.” The middle-middle class’ false pride of refusing to apply for scholarships and grants, euphemistically call “paying their way,” has only disadvantaged middle-middle class children as they arrive at the ages of twenty-two, twenty-four, twenty-six without plums, without proof of their abilities, without signs that someone, some institution took a bet on them and that they held up their end of the bargain. Further as Daniel Deronda’s story shows, this false pride has never been the way of the upper-class.

A lack of savoir-faire affects in career shaping as well. I know two artists, one of whom is quite young, just over thirty, and highly successful; the other has had an unnecessarily disappointing career. Artistically, both are remarkable. The difference between the two is that since undergraduate the first has submitted her work to art journals, competitions, galleries, any opportunity where her art could be seen. Acceptance rates are less than one percent, and it is entirely standard for artists to apply multiple times to a single opportunity. The first artist has learned to take rejection on the chin, get up, and reapply. She said to me once, “all grant applications want to know what journals you’ve been published in, what shows you’ve had and where; all the journals and competitions want to know what grants you’ve won, where you’ve been published, and what shows you’ve had. The only thing to do is to keep having shows, keep applying, keep building.” Her persistence shows as she wins more and more prizes which in turn lead to bigger opportunities. She’s already developed a name and reputation within the professional community.

In contrast, the second artist submitted her work to a handful of opportunities when she graduated but gave up when the everything ended in rejections. Now, decades later, she understands how the “numbers game” works, and she’s submitting her work for consideration again. Just because she “didn’t know” she has lost decades she could have spent building her professional reputation and career. She lives in a kind of disappointed daze, wondering why things never quite worked out. She’s reached the point where she can afford to support herself by art alone, but she feels as though somehow some vague, inchoate rules of the game have been broken.

This is not about having money. The artist who has drifted and the first lawyer both come from and have enough money to do anything they might desire. This is about knowing how things work. In the age of the internet, such ignorance and lack of savoir-faire is inexcusable, and it is only right for it to be treated as a flaw. Back in 1905, my great-grandfather who had grown up in unfathomable, though genteel, poverty managed to figure out that Harvard doctorates were fully funded. He pursued one to the benefit of himself and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. If he could gather information and take action in 1905, in a part of the country without telephone, running water, electricity, or proper roads, what excuse is there for people today?

Gathering information and then taking action has another name: meritocracy. Both the left and the right have united against meritocracy, as predicted by Michael Dunlop Young, the man who coined the term “meritocracy.” Both sides agree that the meritocracy is bad because it is unfair, it breaks social bonds, however fictious. The rub with meritocracy is that it favors those who have savoir-faire over those who do not.And perhaps it is unfair. For example, the artists are equal in that each is technically strong and expresses interesting concepts with their art. Subjectively speaking, I would pay to go see the work of either of them in galleries. Yet one is ahead of the other in her career because she knew what was needed to cultivate her professional reputation and promote her work.

The second lawyer, the first artist, the UT-Austin students who had superb applications all earned their laurels because they took the extra steps of gathering information and learning how the world works. We owe nothing to people who won’t inform themselves, who create fictions about how the world around them works and then become angry when their ideas are shown to be fantasy. Saying that we are in a social contract with such people is coercive because such a contract compels those with savoir-faire to be the custodians of those without it. It would mean that Abigail Fisher would have to be admitted to the school of her choice because she “didn’t know” that all her extracurriculars were ordinary; it would mean that the first lawyer would have to be elevated to equality with the second one, even though the first one is literally less knowledgeable about the law, because he “didn’t know” that better quality legal training was in his grasp; it would mean that we would have to hold the artist who “didn’t know” to submit to journals and gallery competitions as equal to one who has a strong career and recognition because she submits her work regularly. How is this world, a society of excusing ignorance, pandering to an affluent but uninformed, uninquiring people, more fair than a meritocracy?     

14 thoughts on “The poverty of the middle-class: lack of savoir-faire

  1. have you ever had a conversation with your dad about how your family can’t afford that Ivy league school to which you were accepted? didn’t think so..

  2. Here is the problem I have with your reasoning. There are only so many artists that can make it. There are only so many football players that can make it to the NFL. There are only so many lawyers a society can support. So if more become better at the game, there will still be the same number of failures. I am not saying that meritocracy is always bad or unfair. It is just that the room at the top is very limited and will not grow just because more are getting better at the game. Luck or serendipity also plays a big roll. If A=B then which do you choose?

    • Part of the author’s argument is that people must recognize reality. You’ve stated some of those realities. So, people with lesser God given talents should probably seek employment opportunities that match the range of their talents & then work hard to become the very best they can within their chosen field of endeavor.

  3. I could turn this argument around and point out that the “savoir-faire” the author is talking about is the actual problem; we reward people not for actual accomplishments, but credentials. The disconnect in the meritocracy is the rewarding of credentials over true accomplishment, with people of mediocre ability trained in climbing the ladder of the ‘right schools’, “right connections,” etc. This article really is a defense of the problem; and is summed up by a question a foreign friend asked me once,”Did Abraham Lincoln go to Harvard?”. A Lincoln could never get where he did today because “merit” now equals credentials. A degree is not an accomplishment; it is a starting point. But today that’s not how it’s viewed.

  4. “A lawyer I know has made it well into adulthood without knowing that advanced degrees from Ivy League schools are fully funded, i.e. free.”

    If the author is saying that Ivy League law schools provide aid and scholarships, such that the up-front out-of-pocket costs are comparable to those of a state school, then the author is wrong, at least as regards law school. Unless you count student loans as a form of aid.

    If the author is saying that the salary differential between a graduate of an Ivy League law school and a state law school is likely to more than offset the higher up-front out-of-pocket costs, then the author may have a point. However, this holds only if the fledgling attorney wishes to practice in certain specific fields of law in a metropolitan area, and is willing to work like a rented mule.

    If the author wishes to live and work in, say, Wyoming, an Ivy League degree carries little cachet, In fact, an out-of-state degree is in some ways is a disadvantage in such places. Besides reverse snobbery and the sense that the Ivy Leaguer isn’t “really from here”, the out-of-state graduate didn’t get to make the social connections or have the formative experiences that everyone else who went to the state law school did.

  5. Yes, it is easy to compare two artists who are “equally talented”, and determine that the one who tries harder should come out on top. But the author scrupulously avoided a comparison between either talented friend, and a less talented one who was admitted to a prominent school and burnished their credentials.

    Meritocracy is often cited to conceal other structural advantages.

  6. “Back in 1905, my great-grandfather who had grown up in unfathomable, though *genteel,* ** poverty managed to figure out that Harvard doctorates were fully funded. ”

    **veiled bragging about minor minion of the oligarchy family’s success. Yet another tale from a line below the top about how they got that well-earned home run. Sadly they all minimize it was from a perch on third base, or swear up and down what was leg off of third base was really a pair of legs aside home plate.

  7. Meritocracy? Is that what you call it when the best and the brightest in quite literally every field I can think of not only never face any consequences when their greed and incompetence destroy millions of lives and kill thousands, but actually somehow manage to get rewarded for it?
    e.g. every single post WWII president who all committed multiple war crimes not to mention making poor people here significantly worse off. Or all the leading economists who were blindsided by 2008 because not a single model that they use has money, banks, or personal debt. Or Wall Street committing practically nothing besides fraud in the lead up to the recession only to get bailed out to the tune of $29 trillion from TARP and the Fed while Obama continued his policy of intentionally maximizing the number of foreclosures on poor people.

    Or the catastrophic messaging failure from Fauci and others about covid.

    Or the years long fact free delusion conspiracy theory that every good thinking news pundit on all of our imperialist war mongering state run propaganda outfits from MSNBC to CNN that was #Russiagate.

    So much more I could go on with too. You would either have to be blind or benefiting from it immensely to not see. If we had anything even in the same ballpark as a meritocracy our current batch of sociopathic elites would be lucky to be cleaning toilet bowls. This evil country can’t implode fast enough.

  8. “Free” except for that mountain of social capital you’re dragging behind you…

Please keep it civil

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