School has started and with all the excitement of the new school year also comes some anxiety — from kids about homework, getting good grades, preparing for high school (and some of them for college). Parents, too, have anxieties about how their kids are doing, academically and socially. We just returned from the Parent Night for Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl, and what strikes me about listening to the nursery school teachers talk is just how much of what they teach –“how to be kind to one another” — is exactly what seems to get lost in the buzz of rigorous academics that follows fast upon the heels of the warmth and gentle nurturing that typifies nursery school. Sure, some nursery parents have worries and anxieties about their child’s development, socially and as far as it goes, in an academic readiness sort of way. But for the most part the focus is on developing, growing, being curious, and being kind — learning to be thoughtful, community-oriented, and caring human beings.
For what it’s worth, when I present to parents of the 7th grade students that I teach this coming Thursday, I want to remind them of those things. It seems particularly important to me now, as I consider some of the few reactions I’ve already had to one of our early 7th grade assignments.
We ask our 7th grade students to consider the role that “cultural identifiers” plays in our lives, particularly as Americans engaged in what purports to be a democratic society. Students identify themselves (sort of like checking off a box on a census survey) in some of the Big 8 (race, class, religion, education, geography) by making a collage with iconic symbols to indicate where they fall in the category. For the most part, this group of students is open-minded and tolerant of a wide variety of religious expression, races, primary languages spoken, family structures, and ethnicity. However, the rubber hits the road, and hard, when we ask them to, in a creative way, illustrate where they fit in the socio-economic strata. For some reason, when you ask the affluent to admit their affluence, they falter.
Perhaps it is the myth of meritocracy, or it is a fear that admission of one’s privilege will make one vulnerable to having that privilege questioned or threatened. Maybe Americans have for so long believed in the ideal of the middle class that they can’t find their way out of that belief, and despite owning two homes, fancy cars, stock portfolios and sending their kids to private schools, they want to believe that they are just regular folks, part of the great middle class of America.
A quick look at the data reveals that even looking at only one of the components of class (this NY Times special feature, How Class Works, provides an instructive interactive), occupation, the families at our school are in the top 25% of Americans. That happens not even looking at education, income or wealth — the other factors that establish class.
Affluence alone does not guarantee life success — books like Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege document clearly the hidden costs of material affluence on the development of children and adolescents. Yet, despite this, my students, when pushed, will say that they are perfectly happy in the “box” that has been created for them by their parents. Unlike some teens who long to “escape the box” of limiting life choices, my students feel that their box is big enough to provide them with a good life. And maybe they are correct.
But, shouldn’t children other than those of the affluent also have an opportunity to broaden their experience and horizons? How does our shrinking middle class inhibit the class mobility that should be available to Americans?
President Obama’s job speech even made this clear — when families earn over $250,000 a year, they should give back at least as much as the families struggling to make ends meet. Instead, it seems that the rich and affluent would rather rely upon the myth of meritocracy to explain their wealth. It is almost laughable that my students report themselves to be “middle class” when in fact the middle class barely exists. My students are squarely in the affluent, upper-middle class. The middle class has been decimated over the last 20-30 years of lost manufacturing jobs, increasing corporate welfare, evisceration of social programs, and the criminalization of the poor and working classes.
We should remember and enshrine what the nursery teachers say about treating each other with kindness, about thinking about the good of the community. If we could really learn those lessons of nursery school, if we could really practice how to treat each other well and carefully, would we continue to allow our current practices to privilege the few while harming the many?