November 17, 2009
By Margaret King and Steve Goodman
It’s time to stand up for the privileged — even for those who exhibit bad taste in being frank about their social status.
As many Georgetown students are aware, a sophomore with a declared interest in finance and entertainment recently posted an advertisement for a personal assistant to help him with various day-to-day activities. The student has been lambasted by many, not only for his crassness, but for the negative light he has shed on Georgetown as an institution.
But we must ask ourselves: Is it really a crime to outsource more peripheral tasks in order to conserve time to concentrate on what you’re good at? How many people fix their own computers or repair their own kitchen sinks? Countless political leaders, artists and engineers employ assistants in order to devote their energies fully to their crafts, and this focus benefits mankind as a whole. It is an issue of efficiency; we must manage resources to the best of our abilities.
Of course, one doesn’t expect such early specialization from a college sophomore. But the outrage here is really over a class issue, wrapped up in frustration about the uneven access to social capital created by an elite university’s reputation and its corresponding $38,616 yearly tuition.
Would there be the same response of disapproval to a 19-year-old auto mechanic advertising for an apprentice, as there has been to this college student willing to maximize his socioeconomic status? Class envy, not crassness, is at the root of this conflict.
In a developed nation like the United States, it is easy to pretend that class doesn’t factor in to our everyday lives. At the very least, we observe a norm that tells us not to talk about class or to bring excessive attention to personal privilege. So when someone violates that unwritten rule, we react negatively. It may be that the student in question was doing what he was raised to do: focus and delegate — and that our criticism of him is really a proxy for our ambivalence about excessive wealth and costly private universities. We see a similar ambivalence in efforts to help low-income students attend college; many are supportive of aid as long as spaces aren’t taken away from qualified applicants who are at an advantage socioeconomically.
As individuals, much of our time and energy is devoted to improving our socioeconomic status. Our sons, daughters, nieces and nephews follow (or will follow) suit. In fact, hundreds of thousands of high school students apply to selective colleges every year in the hopes of gaining admission and improving their future economic prospects. Should we reasonably expect ambitious students when they get to college to completely disregard 18 years of prior upbringing and not to focus on self-improvement?
Let’s break the class taboo and acknowledge what’s at stake here: our imperfect meritocracy and the educational system that fuels it. Instead of the outrage, we should work harder to lower the socioeconomic barriers to attendance at top colleges and universities.
Educational institutions need to open their doors even wider financially. Doing so will not only promote equity in the future, but will also ensure that future Georgetown students who behave in a less-than-endearing manner aren’t automatically presumed to be rich and spoiled.
Steve Goodman is an educational consultant and author based in Washington, D.C. Margaret King is director of the Philadelphia think tank Cultural Studies & Analysis.