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September 2010
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Mind the gap

Education gap.006

I first became aware of sociologist Claude Fischer when he wrote a book on the social history of the telephone.

That was a sign of my own parochialism at the time, not his.

Fischer teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of numerous award-winning books on American society.  He's also that ultimate rarity -- an academic statistician who writes clearly and elegantly.   

Fischer is a skeptic on the issue of culture wars, he doesn't think ordinary Americans -- as contrasted with the political class -- are all that divided on major cultural issues. "On the so-called values issues," he writes, "with the possible exception of abortion, Americans cluster around the middle, not in two opposed camps."

That doesn't mean he doesn't see any major divisions. In fact, he sees three -- immigration, race, and class.  That last point of cleavage may surprise those who think of the U.S. as an egalitarian, classless society. But the roots of the class divide are what's really interesting. 

"Many people are aware of the widening gap among Americans by income," Fischer says. "But the split between the college-educated and others is perhaps the most profound division of all." 

Obviously, the better educated get better jobs, earn more, and accumulate more wealth than the less educated. But Fischer cautions that the division runs even deeper: 

"Increasingly, college graduates live in different urban areas and neighborhoods than the less educated do. Increasingly, college-educated (and post-graduate) Americans marry one another." 

In fact, the better educated are more likely to get married and less likely to divorce. Along with financial resources, they give their children certain cultural advantages like exposure to the arts and foreign travel. 

Fischer generally believes that the fragmentation of American society is somewhat overblown, particularly in terms of historical perspective.  But he fears that this education gap is only getting wider. 


Department of Understatement

Johnson Immigration Act I'm making some progress on the new book, Otherwise.  

Right now, I'm researching immigration ("the stranger at home").  I tapped out five pages today alone. Tomorrow, I'll see if they make any sense.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd mention just one of the surprising things I've run into.  File this under "understatement."

Back in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration act, he seemed to go out of his way to downplay its significance even though he flew up from Washington to sign it on Liberty Island at the feet of the Statue of Liberty.  

"This is not a revolutionary bill," he intoned. "It does not affect the lives of millions.  It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives, or really add importantly to either our wealth or our power."  

I was thinking of other things back in 1963, and I have no idea what Johnson was thinking, but he was wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.  

The new immigration act was revolutionary and it did reshape our lives for generations to come.  

The immigration law of 1963 replaced a series of laws and quota systems designed to keep the ethnic makeup of America basically as it was in the 1920s.  As a result of its passage, the ethnicity of immigrants coming to the U.S. went from 80 percent Northern European to 80 percent Asian and Hispanic in just 20 years.  

In 1960, 80 percent of all Americans were non-Hispanic white. Today, only 65 percent are and, by 2042, non-Hispanic whites will be a minority.  In some age categories, they already are.

The immigration act of 1963 probably did more to reshape America than any of the other bills passed in that historic period, including the Voting Rights Act and the establishment of Medicare.  

Johnson was too good a politician not to have figured that out. I suspect he knew what he was unleashing but didn't want the rest of us to figure it out until he had left the stage.  

In any case, contrary to his public estimation, it did add immeasurably to our wealth and to our power as a country.  

Unsocial networks

Facebook-sm Everyone who sees "The Social Network" seems to draw a different lesson from it.  David Brooks and Frank Rich, for example.

I also liked the movie but it suggested a modern paradox to me.  

For centuries, new communications technologies have made the world smaller and helped bring us all together. Now it seems that the most powerful of those innovations -- the Internet -- is doing the exact opposite: it enabled a decidedly unsocial network that isolates and divides.

 Consider the young Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington bridge because his roommate posted a video of him in a compromising situation. Or consider all the hateful email that fills your inbox every day.  Or the web sites designed to feed people's paranoia.

Of course, it has always been thus. Socrates ranted that the invention of writing would corrupt the young.  And I suppose some 19th century dude figured out how to use the telegraph for prurient purposes.

But it seems to me that we have reached a new threshold in recent years, one that requires greater consideration before we step over it too blithely.