Class Tells

One of the many things we find hard to talk about — not only here in Princeton, but nationally — is class. That helps to explain why we do such a bad job when we try to talk about the social mission of elite universities. Take Drew Faust — the excellent historian who recently became president of Harvard. As a scholar and a writer, Faust uses words with great skill and care — so well that her most recent book was published by Alfred Knopf in New York, one of the few remaining bastions of quality in the trade. But when Harvard announced its new financial aid policy, aimed at students whose families earn between $120,000 and $180,000 a year, President Faust declared that by showing that higher education remains an “engine of opportunity,” it would help a “middle-income group.” In this case, her language was not its usual crisp and accurate self — and the fault is not hers alone, but one shared with most members of the chattering classes.

Anthony Grafton, The Daily Princetonian

In a sense this is pretty-self explanatory. You can also use ZipCodeStatistics to verify that the median income of Princeton, New Jersey, is $90,000. Just as Grafton suggests, in this sector of education, people who make $100,000 are ‘middle class.’

They are also 77% white, 4.3% Hispanic/Latin, 11.3% Asian and 1.8% ‘multiracial’ More than 70% of the population has either a bachelor’s degree or is a graduate from a graduate or professional program. Not a representative bunch at all.

In fact, Grafton estimates that the new program is geared towards people wealthier than “95 percent or 96 percent of American households.” Why focus on the ‘chattering classes’– aka the media? Not that the media covers these sorts of issues well.

It would nice, though, if more precise language were used, as Grafton suggests, and these programs were described as aid for the wealthy. It would be even nicer if Historians of Grafton’s stature began to question the entire superstructure of material and social privilege on which institutions like Princeton rests.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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