Saturday, September 24, 2005

Liberal Guilt

Ezra Klein is feeling guilty about graduating from college:
Jonathan Kozol, in an interview with Campus Progress, touches on something I've been thinking a lot about:

Some young people will tentatively say to me, “well maybe I oughtta get involved.” Well I say, “You don’t have any choice; you’re involved already. Even if you never do anything about this, you’ve benefited from an unjust system. You’re already the winner in a game that was rigged to your advantage from the start. If we did not have an apartheid school system in America, what is the chance you’d walk into this college so easily? It would have been a lot harder because there would have been a far larger applicant pool of highly capable minority kids to compete with you."

This week, I graduated from college. My diploma will come from UCLA, I will have been in-and-out within three years, and it never should've happened.

I exited high school with a 2.0, enough letter D's to bring you a season of Sesame Street, and a big fat F where Algebra II should have been. I should barely have graduated, forget acceptance to UC Santa Cruz. But even with that sort of transcript, I got into a four year school.

Why?

As a kid, the only thing I was allowed to buy whenever I wanted was books. And so I did, going from comics to fantasy novels to philosophy. And when the SAT's came around, well, you don't want to know what I got on the verbal side. But the point is, I would have never gotten that score without a well-off, highly educated family that funded my reading habit. If my school system wasn't the sort where 90-some percent go on to college, guidance counselors would have long ago told me the SAT's were a waste of time and I should save the space for more likely applicants. Everything would've been different. And the only reason it wasn't was socioeconomic. But so much as being on the winning side of inequality saved my ass, it's still a stain, I remain undeserving, and, if you like how I turned out, you should be furious that more kids don't get the same nine lives. Read the interview and buy the book.

It's an important subject that, like it or not, you're already a part of.

Let's put aside Jonathan Kozol's rant, and focus instead on Klein.

During his childhood, Klein enjoyed certain advantages. He identifies two: (1) parents who encouraged reading; and (2) a strong school system. These advantages don't exactly make him a feudal lord, but they are surely benefits that not everyone enjoys. From these two advantages, Klein reaches the following conclusion about his graduation from UCLA, "it never should have happened."

This lament suggests that something else should have happened. Instead of enjoying what he considers "socioeconomic advantages" in the race of life, Klein wishes that he and everyone else would have started from the same starting line. Because Klein benefited from what he considers to be an unjust head start, he is now "stained" and "undeserving." (One wonders whether Klein will similarly "stain" his own children.)

On his blog, Klein's guilt was well-received, a typical comment being:
If you're not feeling guilty about the fact that you grew up in a system where you were able to succeed despite your listlessness while those who aspired to better things got held back, then what the heck is wrong with you?
There is too much to unpack here. So, in lieu of a point-by-point rebuttal, I'll just address the commenter's question. What the heck is wrong with me?

To answer that question in full would require me to undergo years of pyschoanalysis, followed by years of writing. My wife might tell you that even then it would not be possible to cover everything. For now, I'll just focus on the part about not feeling guilty.

Let's turn to the Dictionary.
Guilt:

1 : the fact of having committed a breach of conduct especially violating law and involving a penalty;

2 a : the state of one who has committed an offense especially consciously b : feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy: self-reproach
My parents and school system helped me succeed while other people's parents and school systems let them down. I was (and am) occasionally listless (gasp!). Yet, I dont' believe I have "committed a breach of conduct". Nor do I experience "feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy."

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