The SanityPrompt

This blog represents some small and occasional efforts to add a note of sanity to discussions of politics and policy. This blog best viewed with Internet Explorer @ 1024x768

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Maybe They Should Call It the Middle Ass

OK, it’s time for me to offend my readers, particularly those middle class women struggling with parenting and life. But one of my pet peeves is when social elites portray their personal problems as endemic of broader social problems in society. What am I talking about?

Terry Gross, whose show I usually admire, occupied me last night while I was doing the dinner dishes. Her guest was Judith Warner, the author of the new book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Fresh Air features this quote on its website plugging the interview -- ‘In it she writes about the "choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret" that is poisoning motherhood for American women.’ Warner decries the cultural expectations she felt -- that mothers were expected to lose themselves in their children. During the interview, Gross asked her about the anxiety she experienced and she replied as follows:

"Most of us apply the same drive and competitive spirit that we have put into our work and all of our lives and put it into parenting. Many of us, having been socialized a certain way all our lives, don’t know how to do anything else. We don’t know how to stop achieving or how to slow down or how to relax because we never have done those things. When we are mothers we take the mode of being that we have had throughout our lives and continue our lives and generalize it into the act of work or motherhood."

Most of us? We? Are we expected to think she speaks for all American women collectively?

I am sorry but I find it hard to accept that this is a pressing social problem that needed to be addressed by Nightline, Time Magazine and Fresh Air and I find it a sad commentary on the narcissistic self absorption of the middle class that this book has risen to the top of the best seller list. Warner comments that after several years as a stay at home Mom in the suburbs of DC, she found herself obsessing about planning birthday parties or whether her oldest daughter should have a fuller collection of pre kindergarten skill books.

I see this as a sad example of anecdote masquerading as social study. If you look at the statistics on TV watching by American families, the numbers on obesity among American children, the performance of students on state assessment exams, and the woeful lack of preparation of entire student bodies on college campuses across the land, you quickly realize that over-parenting is not one of the pressing social problems of our time. Nor is obsession about child rearing a broadly shared social or psychological disorder. If our society suffers from anything it is a lack of involvement and attention by the broader numbers of American families in the lives and education of their children. We live in a world of finite resources and we cannot maximize simultaneously on all dimensions, so if we must pick our battles, why must they be the struggles and pre-occupations of the most elite in society? Those who went to the best schools, who wanted the best jobs, who wanted the most impressive spouses, who wanted to be successful and famous and wealthy, have enough already. Must their problems also occupy our policy makers? Probably, he answered himself, since our policy makers draw from the same crowd.

I don’t mean to be overly critical of Warner. She has some good points. Having lived and worked in France while stationed there for Newsweek, she experienced the blessings of the French welfare state in a way few parochial Americans could appreciate. She saw firsthand how the 35 hour work week left both her and her husband more time with their children (ironic that she should observe this the same day that the French do away with the 35 hour work week). She appreciated how significant government subsidies and tax breaks made it affordable for her and most others to afford trustworthy day care so they could continue at their jobs or add some further dimensionality to their lives if they were stay at home Moms. A lot of what she says about the inappropriate uses of guilt in parenting and how it can warp a parent’s best intentions are right on. She comments sagely on the need to set boundaries between children and parents for the sake of the parent’s sanity and the child’s well-being and sense of self and independence. And then, of course, she can’t be all bad if she co-authored with Howard Dean the book You Have the Power.

But Warner’s work is endemic of a broader social phenomenon that should be troubling but is unlikely to draw notice except from the most self conscious of our social elites. William Bowen at the Mellon Foundation typifies this. He has sponsored a whole cottage industry in this vein. When he writes about the problems in American higher education, he is really speaking about issues at the top 15-20 universities and liberal arts colleges in the country. He wrote a book about affirmative action and interviewed only students who attended these schools. He took on college athletics, but which schools did he study and what was his angle? How admissions spaces reserved for athletes were denying opportunities for able students at the best schools such as Amherst, Williams, Princeton, Yale and others. At my current institution, the entire football program is on trial. At most Division 1A schools, millions of dollars are generated from the labors of mostly minority athletes who are generally discarded after a few years without having received much of an education. When Bowen sponsors research by others, his grantees go off and study the same schools. One recent study done by some Harvard economists looked at that pressing social issue of early admissions policies among the most elite colleges and universities.

Mellon’s grants typify an entire stratum of our society who mistakenly think of themselves as part of the challenged middle class but who actually comprise the most gifted and fortunate among us. These are the same folks who worry that one of the most pressing educational issues is the increasing competition to get into the best college or prep school or preschool. The folks who are preoccupied with anxiety, not that they are falling out of the middle class, but that their lives might actually become middle class. Meanwhile, most Americans attend public colleges and universities. 80% of all institutions of higher education have no admissions standards whatsoever. The average age of a college student is the middle to late twenties. Higher education is swamped with increasing numbers of non-traditional students who very much need more education to maintain their social level in our shifting labor force.

Pundits liked to mock John Edwards’ talk of two Americas. But it is more and more clear that our society is dividing into the Haves and the Have-nots and their experiences bear no relationship to each other. The problems of the Haves bear no significance to the vast majority of Americans who are struggling to get by in the face of downsizing, technically imposed redundancy, and foreign outsourcing. But their problems occupy the attentions and resources of our policy makers to an inordinate degree because our policy makers are so deeply rooted in and surrounded by the world of the Haves, they only experience the Have-nots as characters in a ER episode. Sometimes it seems our ship of state is sinking and all anyone can talk about is how expensive deck paint has gotten.

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