Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Let’s talk class: are you what your parents gave you?

There are a lot of things you and I don’t deserve: our height, our race and our class. Obviously, we didn’t choose how tall we are or the combination of pigments in our skin. Less obviously, most of us didn’t choose our socio-economic statuses either.

Surely, none of us chose our parents before we were born. And largely, our parents have given us our class status. Now, given that most of us are about 20-years-old and probably have not earned enough money to meaningfully afford everything we have (e.g. Whitman tuition), the only way we have gotten where we are, have what we have and go to school where we do has been on someone else’s dime.

Think of it this way: if you plagiarize, you fail because the paper you turned in doesn’t reflect your work. The paper’s not a reflection of your innate abilities, choices and effort; it’s taking someone else’s work and pretending it’s your own.

Our class, similarly, is a gift freely given that has significantly influenced our lives. Let’s look at skiing, a paradigmatic example for us Whitties who love the outdoors.

Skiing is related to geography and socio-economic status; plain and simple, it can be expensive. Basketball? Not so much. Now guess which is more popular worldwide.

I’m not suggesting skiing is less of a sport than basketball, or that skiing, because it’s more expensive, is somehow morally wrong. My point is that socio-economic background influences what kind of lives we live, as a whole, down to where we “summer” if we even use that term, down to if we could afford test-prep services in high school and down to what college we all attend now.

If this is so, then what part of my life, or your life for that matter, is truly yours? And what part is the product of our parents’ hard work or what they’ve inherited?

In America, this discussion is particularly hard to have openly because any mention of the word “class” is tainted with ideas of “communism.”

But who are we kidding? According to an article in the Financial Times, the top one percent got 23.5 percent of the total income American citizens earned in 2007. A study saying that the top 0.01 percent of Americans earned six percent of America’s total income in that same year was cited by Paul Krugman in a recent New York Times blog.

If class determines what kind of lives we live as a whole and the gap between classes in America is widening, then are Americans increasingly living wholly different kinds of lives? At what point do two people born in the same country end up having little in common by way of interests, shared communities and culture?

What’s worse is that America falls victim to particular myth, inherited from the Puritans, that says we hard-working Americans deserve everything our work gets us.

But if we started out at different rungs on the ladder, then we’re going to end up at different places even if we all work equally hard. This is why there’s affirmative action for race and why there should be more affirmative action for class.

Individually, we have to take a step back and look at each aspect of our lives and differentiate, if at all possible, aspects of ourselves that are not only possible but probable because of circumstances outside our control like race and class.

Otherwise, can we truly say the lives we live are ours, rather than just an inevitable outcome of a set of facts like where we were born and our race and class?

Merely recognizing the gifts we’ve been given doesn’t entail a wholesale rejection of those very gifts. Rather, it exposes us to the contingencies underlying all that we have.

If we recognize that what is ours could very well have been otherwise, then is it possible to rescue the archaic notions of humility and grace from the dustbin of humanism.

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