The Ivory Tower, Bastion of Privileged Ignorance

Once upon a time I was an idealistic undergrad with great intellectual curiosity who longed to spend her life in the academic realm. At the time I hated the term “ivory tower.” I hated the people who implied that academics were locked away from the world and clueless about the lives of real people. I have since changed my mind. I still think the common sense vs. book smart distinction that comes up so often in anti-intellectual critiques is a crock of shit. But frankly, I can’t argue with the tower metaphor. Not all academics are clueless about the reality of the world, of course. But enough are that if you invoke the broad-brush generalization I no longer feel any need to correct you. Perhaps the problem is less pronounced among less elite academics. But that poses little threat to the ivory tower image since the “ivory” part implies the very eliteness of the institutions in question. My experience is with academics in the big research universities. Indeed my experience is with academics in the big research universities who study inequality. And I will say without batting an eye that in nearly all cases they have absolutely no clue whatsoever what it is really like to be outside the realm of the well-educated elite.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t claim the problem is limited to intellectuals employed in the academic domain. Arguably the vast majority of the world’s economically privileged have no real clue what it’s like not to hold that privilege. Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s privileged have no clue whatsoever what it might be like not to hold whatever aspect of privilege it is they hold. So why do I feel a bit betrayed that the academic elite, taken as a group, seems to have no clue what it is like to be a have-not? Simply because I think they should know better. In particular I mean that if you are a sociologist or an economist who studies families, or inequality, or really anything other than the white upper-middle class, you really ought to have some clue about the subject at hand. I don’t mean you should be able to volley around statistics. I mean you should be able to bend your mind in such a way that you can actually see what life is like. And the image you get should not be some sort of Picasso-esque distorted tangle in which your frame of reference is the only right one and everything else is seen as inferior or weird. Apparently I was foolish to think that the research community as a whole had moved significantly away from the old anthropology attitude of studying the curiously strange native.

My first year of graduate school I took a class on forms of capital. We studied human capital, social capital, and cultural capital. The professor made a big deal about how important social capital and cultural capital were in reproducing class status across generations. More than once he made claims about the amount of social and cultural capital we had access to. His evidence for our privileged status was our presence in his classroom. Of course if we were well-educated, with strong social networks, and lots of cultural knowledge pertinent to middle-class life that must mean that the same was true of our parents. If our parents weren’t well-educated, with strong networks, and cultural knowledge there’s no way we could possibly be pursuing PhDs at UCLA. At the time I chalked his attitude and explicit assumptions about our privilege up to individual pomposity and ignorance. Since then, though, I have come to understand that though the assumptions are not phrased as directly as he phrased them in that classroom, the assumption is still there.

It is painful to feel that your background makes you alien. It is painful to experience this feeling of difference that you must choose constantly whether to mark or ignore. But more painful is the rampant and often offensive ignorance about the realities of day-to-day life for people with whom you strongly identify. I’m going to focus on the concept of poverty, because it is most salient to me. But I think what happens in these discussions happens elsewhere too. I don’t think the “othering” that occurs is particularly unique to the economic realm. It just feels most like a punch in a gut to me personally when it is focused on economics. There are two ways of thinking about poverty that I find particularly repugnant. The first I will call the romanticization of poverty. The second, I will call the fallacy of impossibility. I encounter examples of both all too often. And as the examples of each pile up higher and higher I become angrier and more disillusioned. I become more convinced that the tower is real, and maybe even intentional (after all, god forbid “they” try to interact with “us”).

In the case of romanticizing poverty, certain aspects of day-to-day life are drawn on to highlight how great being poor must really be. Here the simplicity of being poor is exalted. Poverty is equated with rejection of consumerism. Poverty is equated with strength and resilience. Being poor gives you something that you just can’t get if you have money. Not having money helps you realize that money doesn’t matter. Being poor makes you strong and noble and creative.

The most grievous example of offensive ignorance I have yet to experience from an academic falls into this category. I was at dinner gathering with a group of faculty members from a number of universities and disciplines. (I’m not going to go into specific details of what the dinner was, or who was there, as I would like to keep this anecdote and the players as unrecognizable as possible) A sociologist was talking to an economist. Let’s, for simplicity call the sociologist S and the economist E. S told E that she had grown up in Ohio. E asked her if she grew up in Appalachia. She said no. He asked if she was sure, since sometimes the boundaries of Appalachia were weird and some very wealthy zip codes ended up being counted as Appalachia. She insisted that she was quite sure that she did not grow up in Appalachia. E then commented that S seemed like she could be “white trash.” S was, understandably, somewhat taken aback by this comment. E assured her that he meant it as a compliment. He explained that he had once had a student who took great pride in being white trash. She was even born in a trailer. She was very vocal about her background. She was very proud of it. I interjected at this point and noted that your choices were either to proudly proclaim your background or to hide it. My comment was virtually ignored. E then went on to say how great he thought Appalachia was and how much he enjoyed going there. He insisted that the people there were just so ingenious. They took old car tires, filled them with dirt, and planted flowers in them. He extolled the virtues of this, noting how amazing it was that they could take something ugly and make it beautiful.

I could forgive E for his ignorance, his wild-eyed innocent “oh gosh being poor just makes you so strong and creative” though patterns if it weren’t for the fact that he is an economist in a powerful position in a good university. Even then, I could probably forgive the ignorance if he studied something unrelated. But, given that one of the things he studies is the economics of Appalachia and another is welfare use, I can’t help but think he should damn well know better. At the very least I would think that he could be counted upon to be smart enough to know that “white trash” is almost universally not a nice thing to call someone.

The other side of the coin from the “oh ain’t it great to conquer adversity” romantic image of poverty is the “oh it must be impossible to be anything but miserable constantly” school of thought. In this case the poor are persistantly “other.” This is very much like the school of thought that decrees that all mothers on welfare are lazy good-for-nothings that deserve their fate. The difference is that this line of thought is less negatively value laden. The thoughts aren’t framed as “the poor choose to be poor.” Rather the thoughts are framed as “being poor is horrible, miserable, all-consuming, and virtually inescapable.” Essentially the thought is that any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all.

My most recent example of this fallacy of impossibility is framed almost literally as any life besides the middle-class life is really no life at all. I was at a talk given by Katherine Newman. The focus of the talk was on a follow-up study that she had done on the lives of the fast food workers in Harlem that are featured in No Shame in My Game. She described what happened to the original research participants over the years after the time period covered by the book. Though fast food work is seen as a dead end, she showed that a sizable number of the workers actually were able to find stepping stones to better things. She reported some of the incomes of the respondents. Many of the success stories she cited were making around $30,000 per year. During the question and answer session a member of the sociology faculty who studies income inequality raised his hand and asked “do you really have any success stories here; after all, what kind of life can you live on $30,000 per year?” I give Newman a lot of credit for responding “what kind of life can you have on $30,000 per year? A lot better life than you can have on $12,000 per year, I’ll tell you that.” She then put the numbers into a bit of perspective. For a family of four, $30,000 is about 150% of the poverty line. This, of course, assumes that there is only the one income. Many of her respondents were able to become more economically secure through marriage or cohabitation. She points out that the respondents with income in the $30,000 range had an easier time meeting their basic expenses. They could pay the rent. They could buy food.

It is useful to put numbers into perspective, to recognize that at $30,000 a year a family is far from fully economically secure. Nonetheless it angers me to have someone who studies income essentially put forward the notion that you can’t lead a happy life on $30,000 per year. It is important to remember that a $30,000 a year job does not solve all the problems of these Harlem residents. But to imply that getting from a minimum wage job to a job that pays more than twice is not success, to my mind puts too privileged a lense on success.

In college I had a classmate once say “you can’t raise a family on $30,000 per year.” I wanted to drag him to the side of town where people regularly do just that. I wanted to respond “funny, my parents did.”

Being poor does not make you strong and noble and creative. Being poor also does not doom you to unrelenting, inescapable misery. The truth is a much more nuanced something in between. And if you need a tired, disillusioned graduate student to point this out to you, then maybe you need to get your ass out of your protective tower and actually talk to someone whose name is not followed by a string of letters. Either that or you need to start calling yourself an “expert” on something else entirely. Because tires with flowers planted in them don’t make everything all better. And are you really willing to pay enough for the services you consume to pay all those workers more than $30,000 a year to support your privileged lifestyle? The fact that my parents pays all their living expenses for less money than some of you pay for your children’s private school tuition does not make them better than you. But it doesn’t make them worse either.

As a final note, to put my anger at E’s comments about Appalachia into a bit more perspective I will offer a few details of my own background. My mother’s family comes from the hills of Ohio, which is to say Appalachia. My family tree is populated by genuine hill-billies, not the quaint, struck oil and now live in LA kind you can see in reruns. Plus, growing up my grandparents (who I always saw as the very archetype of middle-class since they owned a house with a swimming pool) had at least two tractor tire planters in the back yard.

Let’s just say that, a year later, I still can’t find the words for how I felt sitting in that conversation. I remember trying to find the words to answer the things that he was saying. I remember spending the rest of the night wondering if I should pull him aside and explain to him that nowhere is “white trash” a compliment. And I remember crying the entire drive home because it hit me during the course of that night–while eating fancy catered food in a house nicer than anything my high school self could ever have imagined affording, in a neighborhood where houses cost more than my father will have made in his entire work history–that I will likely spend the rest of my life making the calculations I made during that conversation. Can I afford to challenge this? How do I explain the degree to which I am offended by this without seeming rude, reactionary, or otherwise unprofessional? Ultimately, someone tactfully changed the subject before I could offer a rejoinder. Notably everyone else in the conversation seemed uncomfortable. But no one challenged E on his statements. In that night it became clear to me that the off hand problematic comments I heard and the offensive assumptions about the poor that are dropped into talks and sometimes even into research papers weren’t just idiosyncratic pieces of personal ignorance. In that night it dawned on me, much the way that the pain from a punch in the gut dawns on you, that what I was looking at was a trend.

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