I was thinking about the geological strata the other day and the way each level tells a different story about the earth’s development. What interested me was the thought these strata never mix except at a time of cataclysmic upheaval. In a way, social classes are similar. A person is born into a stratum of society, and, if statistics are to believed, most of them stay there, just as it has been true throughout human history. (Click) The American Dream persists, of course, and sometimes it becomes a reality. Most often, however, the prize goes to Ivy League dropouts, not to those who leave high school without diplomas.
In our society, our opinions about whether or not we need more or fewer government programs often stems from what we’ve learned in the stratum into which we were born. The top stratum, the one-per centers, for example, haven’t a clue about life on the bottom and vice versa. Explaining the need for social programs to the wealthy can be like explaining color to a person born blind.
Recently, I came across an essay written in Harper’s, reprinted from 1922. (“Class Struggle,” by Grace Irwin, Harper’s, October 2016, pg. 41.) Grace Irwin was a teacher when public schools truly were a melting pot — before we decided to starve the educational system financially and give much of the funding to anyone who imagined he or she could build a better mousetrap — which few have accomplished. (Click) Her complaint wasn’t that classrooms lacked diversity, but the challenge of treating children from all walks of life as they were “cut from one pattern – socially, mentally, morally.” Nor did she believe all children could achieve “the same results in the same length of time.” (Ibid pg. 41.) In failing to recognize the deeply rooted needs of the poor, she predicted, education would get worse, to the detriment of our society and our children. How right she was.
I don’t know how to get the strata in our society talking to one another in a way that would increase mutual understanding, but we need to find that way. We have big decisions to make about gun control, race relations, religious discrimination, violence in the streets and in our schools. So far there’s been more shouting than talking; more demonstrating than working together. What’s more, the lines of social strata seem to be hardening.
Still, I place no faith in social upheaval. It’s a slow march with as many steps taken backward as those going forward. Either way, our distrust of one another remains impervious to reason. How long will it be before we realize nobody wins unless we all do?