Why Schools? The Middle Class “Fear of Falling”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the middle-class exercise school choice through real estate decisions, and what that does to the fabric of our cities. Recently I came across a dissertation by Jennifer Burns Stillman that has some interesting references. Here, for instance, she addresses Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of the middle-class mentality. Much as material conditions matter, I suspect there is something to this analysis:

“Ehrenreich (1990) would call this a ‘fear of falling,’ a ‘rational fear’ held by the middle-class that their children will not also be middle-class if they don’t instill them with the right education and work values. She argues that unlike the lower or upper classes, where class is simply transmitted through birth, middle-class professionals cannot simply pass down their middle-class status to their children. The steep educational barriers to enter middle-class professions–law, medicine, engineering, business, etc.– keep out those who lack discipline and a willingness to delay gratification, something parents can’t simply give to their children. The only thing middle-class parents can do “…is attempt, through careful molding and psychological pressure, to predispose each child to retrace the same long road they themselves once took. If they fail in this task, their children could fall down the social class ladder. A child’s school experience is key to this careful molding process, with peer pressure viewed by middle-class parents as equally important to parental pressure. Evidence from recent school integration research suggests that children from a high socio-economic status do not learn as much in schools dominated by children from low socio-economic backgrounds as they do in schools dominated by children from high-socio-economic backgrounds (Rumberger and Palardy 2005), lending credence to the reluctance of [gentrifying parents] to utilize their neighborhood school.”

It shows just how much of school competition is due to a perhaps-impossible task: to preserve a family’s middle-class status intergenerationally, even as the jobs that guarantee that life change. With enough money, you can make a child upper-class, and without any money you can virtually guarantee a child lower-class. But the middle-class is anxious because we can’t guarantee our children’s future. And that anxiety drives everything else: de facto segregation, massive real estate bubbles, and ultimately the equation of poverty and race, of blackness and danger.

falling manBut what’s really at work is adverse selection: chasing great schools, the middle class follow each other from the city to the suburbs and back again, and from neighborhood to neighborhood within the city.

Real estate prices surge and plunge in our wake; people are left in “failing” schools” or congratulated and then displaced from improving ones.

The power to move from place to place is a privilege: it’s a white privilege, generally (though middle-class African-Americans do the same thing). But here I think a class analysis helps: because it shows us the anxiety that makes that privilege so very stifling. It shows us the fear that turns an advantage into a burden.






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