Who would have guessed that my generation, and the kids five or ten years on either side of me, would prove so darn fertile? Babies everywhere. Also, given that the kids who were teens in the sixties spent so much time talking about egalitarianism, and the kids my age spent so much time speaking cynically of how much the prior generation missed the boat, one would imagine that a truly classless society might be on offer. After all, people established that nobody really has time for worrying about ethnicity, religion, and gender. The inclusiveness on such externals will soon expand to a few more protected classes, as people realize that you don't have to agree with people to write congenial "no, that was your job" e mails to one another.
Rather than reducing social class distinctions, though, the current set of parents loves to ensure that class distinction is enhanced.
In my little town, where we all, like the Simon and Garfunkel song, live believing that God keeps His eye on us all, the problem of being a teen who is "getting ahead" is a key challenge. You see, life is one big race, and if you're not running hard, you're getting left behind. There are crowds of competition to every place, and the rewards disparity is shocking, so the conventional wisdom goes.
In the old days, things were so simple. People were less fertile. Things did not matter so much. If one went through high school with a solid B average, and then showed up for the SAT examination, one went to the University of Texas or the Texas A & M University, depending entirely upon whether one wished to play Jimi Hendrix records, talk deeply about Marcuse, and major in sociology or if one wished to get a crew cut, stand during football games, and take pre-veternarian training. Moreover, schools did not matter so much then. A business major might go to SMU to make friends and influence people, while an engineering-student-to-be might go to Texas Tech, a person seeking the quiet, Catholic life might go to Trinity or U of Dallas, and a person seeking the quiet, protestant life might go to Baylor or Austin College. Schools did not matter, although if you wished to party around the clock you went to Southwest Texas State, in San Marcos, in which you were liberated from mundane concerns like academic elitism and showing up to class. If you topped your class, and you aced your SAT, and you were of interest otherwise (perhaps you played Carney Polonius in your school's bowdlerized production of "Hamlet the Circus Ham", in which the central speech is "to be juggling or not to be juggling, that is the question", or perhaps you can play "25 or 6 to 4" on the flugelhorn, or perhaps you can put on pads and slam into other people who put on pads during a womens' rugby match), you might head off to Vanderbilt, a seven sister or even to Yale. If you did not ace your SAT, but your family had money, you might head off to a tiny liberal arts school in some state in which they don't have good BBQ.
But now it's all different. Kids are pouring out of high schools like fire ants. In abolishing affirmative action, Texas' top universities put into place a "top ten percent rule", which admits the top ten percent of all high school graduating classes, to benefit inner-city and rural schools at the expense of suburban kids.
This system is by and large a good one. But it's caused panic in the streets.
Imagine that you've gotten your university degree and a great job in industry or commerce, or imagine that you built your million dollar business from scratch. You've made the money you deserve, and you drive a Lexus SUV. You've carefully bought your home in the neighborhood without crime, and you made sure that the schools in your neighborhood had top academics. You're been to the soccer games. You've joined the church the size of a gymnasium, and you don't even look at your watch until the sermon has gone twenty minutes. You've checked all the right boxes for a happy suburban life. You're 45, you've worked hard to have this life, the corporation will be putting you out to pasture soon, and darn it, your kids are going to have the opportunities you lacked. You could have been a CEO, if you'd had the things that you're giving them.
Then you find that you're defeated by, of all things, demographics. Mama, mama, there's too many of you. Oh, there are plenty of places at universities and at community colleges, and you've got the money to put your kid in them. But you did not buy this expensive and life-taxing ticket to have your kid ride the city bus. You want your kid to have the limousine to the stars. You paid for this, you deserve it.
After all, you're right about one thing. The society is obsessed with rank, and class and privilege. If your kid gets into Cornell, she'll do far better in the job market than if she goes to Texas A & M--Commerce. They pay kids 100,000 a year who graduate Columbia Law, while grads of South Texas make 40,000. That prestigious business school is a lot more impressed with a top school than with Texas--El Paso.
In your day, the difference between huge success and modest success was just the difference between a large tract home in more vividly Texan Mesquite and your own large tract home in upwardly oriented Plano. But now the difference for a young grad can be staggering.
In this "gotta be top" world, the difference beetween a B+ and an A may be the difference between your child getting into Harvard and your child having to go to the University of Oklahoma, a solid but not elite school which scavenges the Dallas suburbs for geniuses who couldn't get into Texas A & M. Fifty points on the SAT can be the difference between a top admit and a trip to Lubbock. Further, any sense of proportion you had is completely gone. If your best admit had been Texas Tech, then
you'd have gone and gotten your engineering degree, and not one single prospective employer in Fort Worth would have worried that your engineering degree was from Buddy Holly's home town instead of from MIT. But your kid has got to be a star, your kid deserves better. Your kid deserves it because you bought the ticket, you've gone through the turnstile, you've punched the right buttons.
Just ten years ago, they wanted your child to be "well-rounded", so you entered him simultaneously in soccer, Photo club, the Salvation Army soup kitchen server program and the Marine Corps junior reserve. But now it's all narrow-cast, they want your child to be a genius at something, and you're praying that this award-winning macrame qualifies. But you've learned the lesson of all this. Grades matter. Rank matters. It all matters.
Little wonder, then, that you've got your kid in there fighting for grades in ways you would have found demeaning and simply un-cool at her age. A B+ is not a notch below an A, it's the difference between a top educational resume and a bottom one.
The pressure upon the teachers becomes overwhelming, both at secondary and post-secondary levels.
It's no surprise, therefore, that grades inflate. Your own father finished with less than a 3.0, and still was in the top quarter of his class. Now, a 3.5 is the norm at some elite colleges. Parents don't pay that big tuition for a 3.0. Med schools and law schools admit on formulae, so that grades matter most. The schools are in the marketing business. The market demands grades. Grades inflate.
You see, it's not about merit anymore. The tickets have been bought. The military/industrial/suburban complex has admitted you. You're darned if quibbling about merit is going to deny your kid that chance.
So you become the kind of person you would have laughed at when you were 17. If your child goes to Kilgore Junior College instead of UT, then you're going to be abashed and embarrassed, despite the fact that at Kilgore they have those leggy high-stepping Kilgore Rangerettes who, in an earlier generation, would have married your son and bore his children, while working as a pediatrician. But you have a consolation. You're not alone. The whole nation has become a status-ocracy. We bewail the decline in education, and then cut funding for colleges. It's not important that we educate the masses--it's important that our children get educated. Similarly, we know that for our own economic well-being, no child must be left behind. But we issue mandates, and then don't fund them. It's not what you do, it's what you appear to do that counts.
So how do we perpetuate social class? Why it's simple--we create a world in which the children of elites go in disproportionate percentages to schools which guarantee them more advantages. We raise the bar by increasing tuition. We raise the bar again by stripping away recruitment for diversity. We then ensure that grades are inflated, to enhance graduate school admissions.
When we're done, it'll all work out. Our kids will be wheat, while other kids will be chaff. It's got to work this way, you see. We've already been winnowed. We've been ground up to make the bread of giants. Our children must rise to the top. Don't let anyone tell you that it's about being graded for your own work--take a look at any corporation's governing officers, particularly when they are on the witness stand.
Your high school English teacher was right. You can analyze any plot with "Appearance v. Reality". Only all those Maugham stories got it backwards. Appearance wins.