It’s conventional wisdom that we are a deeply divided nation these days. And the conventional wisdom, for once, is right: we are. Where things diverge is the explanation for same. Although day-to-day politics are one thing, the divides we experience these days run deeper that “go along to get along” or the horse-trading of patronage driven politics. They’re divides in the way we look at life, and they’re profound.
We hear a great deal about “taking our country back”. We also hear a lot about the “end of freedom” in this country. But why, one asks, would one want to take away freedom in a place where freedom has generated the prosperity? Conspiracy theories about, but there’s one thing that people on both sides of the debate overlook: when you’re dealing with people who have never had real freedom to start with, it’s hard to explain the benefits of same. I’ve spoken about people like the French (before their revolution), the Russians and the Arabs (still) having this problem, but now I want to turn to a group that hasn’t tasted as much freedom as they think they have: the children of the successful.
I say “successful” rather than “wealthy” because the two aren’t synonymous these days. That’s for two reasons. The first is that many of the decision makers in this country are part of the noblesse de robe that dominates our government and, right at the moment, there are obstacles in translating that loftiness of rank into real material success. The second is that we are a strange country in that wealth isn’t measured in net worth as much as it is in income, and the credit one obtains from that income to flash the cash. Neither is my idea of wealthy, but what do I know?
But to the point: people desire wealth in whatever definition they have of it so that they can “do what they want.” But is that really what happens? What happens more often is that a) they end up doing what someone else told them to do with the money, i.e., keep up with the Joneses in the way to insure the Joneses are impressed and b) being forced to alter their style of mind and life to insure success is maintained. That latter burden falls hardest on the children, and that’s where things start to get interesting.
The first dirty secret people find out on the way to the top is that, to get there, you have to make that your priority, especially in our very competitive environment. I find it strange that Christians, for example, can so blithely swallow prosperity teaching when Our Lord clearly set forth the priority issue: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate one and love the other, or else he will attach himself to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matthew 6:24)
The first place this impacts the offspring is education. Nothing drove this point home for me than this, about my old prep school:
And as for the school itself? Well, it looks like they don’t have to worry about renegades like me any more. When I went there, the school had only Grades 7-12. Now they have them all, including pre-kindergarten. The alumni director told me that parents who were seeking admission for their children into pre-K were already asking about the Ivy League admission rate.
Once you do this, you’re placed your children past want to need on their destiny in life, no matter how you cover it up. And, of course, pre-K is only the start; you then have to drive them (to a greater or lesser degree, depending upon the kid) to the GPA that insures they’ll get the desired result at the end.
Unfortunately GPA isn’t the only determining factor. Elite institutions want “well-rounded” and “good” people to pass through their gates, and that means an enormous amount of extra-curricular activities. What that boils down to is time consuming corvée of “volunteer” service which may or may not be to the offspring’s interest or aptitude, but which looks good on the CV. (The phrase “CV” or “curriculum vitae” implies that the person has had a life, which may or may not be true in the full sense). On top of that we have all of the other activities which young people are pressed into, which these days become so numerous that they get in each other’s way on a daily basis. (That battle is one that my wife, who teaches piano, struggles with all the time).
By the time a person gets through the years of growing up and wending their way through the educational system to whatever final degree they get, what they really might “want” to do has been lost somewhere between ballet lessons and the debate team. But then things get fun for everyone: how do we, snobs, products of this elite system, keep the “ball in our court” so to speak and make sure that the unwashed never get the upper hand? It’s simple: you rig the system so that only people like you will move up, which explains what Walter Russell Mead refers to as the “guild mentality” we have amongst those at the top. It also explains such things as why our “best and brightest”, who have no problem with themselves or their children marrying someone of the same sex, would sooner die than marry “below their station”, to use the old phrase.
Under these circumstances it’s not difficult to understand why those at the top of this heap are baffled at best and contemptuous at worst by movements such as the Tea Party, which presupposes a country of flexible opportunity and success as a result of actual revenue generation. But that’s a country which is, as Margaret Mitchell put it, gone with the wind. The people at the top have no idea what real freedom is, why should they be sympathetic with those at the bottom who would like to find out?
The sooner everyone sees the reality of this the sooner we can put a realistic game plan to deal with it. And by “realistic game plan” I don’t necessarily mean a political solution to our problem. As my Computational Fluid Dynamics professor observed after a disastrous mid-term exam, we’re given certain cards to play in life and we have to play them. Waiting for some “righteous” solution to take place on a general basis isn’t, in my opinion, a good way of using the time God has given us on this earth. As I put it many years ago in Dear Graduate:
Prep schools are amazing institutions. One the one hand, they tell us that they want us to find fulfilment in life in a very idealistic tone, but when they turn from the abstract to the concrete they cast this fulfilment in terms of material success via getting into “good” universities and entering highly compensated (and/or politically powerful) careers. You, for your part, are doing your duty in both respects. But it isn’t their life, it’s yours. God has given it to you, and the road to fulfilment isn’t the one that school or society says, but the one He set forth for you from what I like to call “negative infinity.” (The ultimate goal, of course, is to be with Him at “positive infinity,” where this site gets its name.
This page and its companion highlight the result of my own voyage. When I sent my first two published books to my prep school’s alumni director, along with an account of my varied career, his response was that “you have lived an interesting life.” God has an interesting life for you too. It’s your choice: make it.