Cop-Out On Class

I'm a part of this so-called overclass -- and so are my bosses and many of my colleagues at NEWSWEEK and elsewhere in the national media. There's no point in denying it. Whether by birth, effort, ability, luck or some combination, we are more successful and have more options than most Americans, and that inevitably pulls us away from the lives they lead. Neither eating pork rinds (George Bush) nor boasting of humble origins (Bill Clinton) can erase that fact for politicians any more than it can for the rest of the overprivileged. The object should be to achieve consciousness of class, then work hard to make the divisions it creates smaller instead of larger.

Until the 1970s, race was the rage in public debate. Class remained almost a secret -- discussed in private and delineated by taste but subsumed in the assumption growing out of World War II that everyone except the very rich and the very poor was part of the great American Middle.

Exposing the existence of an overclass began in places like The Washington Monthly, a little political magazine. One day in 1970 the wife of the editor, Charlie Peters, was in a bookstore and overheard a hip-looking young man discussing the Vietnam draft. "Let those hillbillies go get shot," he said. When Beth Peters told her husband about the comment, Charlie turned the line into a cause: to convey to American elites the emergence of an unthinking and dangerous class bias in their ranks. Working-class Americans knew that Vietnam, unlike earlier wars in this century, had become a rich man's war and a poor boy's fight. But the people who ran the country hadn't yet faced up to the price of that division.

Five years later, a young Washington Monthly editor named James Fallows drove home the point by graphically describing his feelings of guilt after he starved himself at Harvard in order to flunk the physical for the draft. The widely reprinted article, entitled "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" angered many veterans, but it kicked off some serious soul-searching among baby boomers about their anti-military, anti-blue-collar bias.

Unfortunately, the chasm remained. I was too young for Vietnam (and never enlisted). But by the time I joined The Washington Monthly in 1981, my generation was beginning to face its own less bloody yet no less serious class issue: public education. To deny the existence of a class problem in the United States is to ignore the flight from public schools by perpetually anxious, upwardly mobile parents trying to cover their bets on their children's future.

I know the feeling, as my parents did before me. Starting in kindergarten, I attended the finest, most diverse private schools and have good memories of them. Yet the fact remains that private schools stand apart from society. They can compensate for that apartness with scholarships and good works but never fully bridge the gap from what America, in its Jeffersonian ideal, is supposed to be. I heard recently that at the tony St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. -- alma mater of Vice President Gore -- some teachers will tell a badly behaving student that if he doesn't shape up he may have to ship out to public school. They make it sound almost like going to Vietnam.

My wife and I have chosen public schools for our children in part because of the eagerness with which other parents we know are abandoning them. Instead of organizing to fix the public schools, they nearly bankrupt themselves escaping, often without even personal visits to see whether their assumptions might be wrong. Here's where race comes in. When they say "bad" they usually mean "black," even if they won't admit it. The result is often overclass children who aren't educated in a larger sense -who don't know their own community and country. They are what my wife calls "under-deprived" kids. They think the world owes them a nice vacation. I know. When I was 12, I was like that, too.

Stay and flight: Does this mean our three children will never go to private school? No. Children should not have to sacrifice their education to their parents' principles. If the public schools in our area fail-either generally or for our particular children -- we'll be gone. But in the meantime we should stay awhile and fight -- for high standards, for choice and for accountability. (Beyond safety, a great advantage of private schools is that they can more easily fire bad teachers and administrators.) The single biggest reason for the decline of American public education is that so many capable and committed parents have opted out. That in itself is a bad lesson for their children.

Even if they don't send their kids to public schools, successful people should invest time there. Call it the case for Overclass Hypocrisy. "If you feel the public schools can't be changed in the time your kids are that age," says Charlie Peters, "you should take on an extra burden to make sure that the next parents coming along don't have that excuse." My own parents anticipated that point. After putting their children through private school, they now volunteer in Chicago's inner-city public schools.

To really break down class divisions, we need a draft that would require every young person to serve either in the military or in the community. John F. Kennedy went to private schools, but he shared a PT boat during World War II with a mechanic and a fisherman. That doesn't happen much today. While some overclass parents make a commendable effort to see that their children meet people from different backgrounds, this risks being just another resume entry. And many others actually believe that it is supremely important to introduce their children to more People Like Us -- to create social shelters instead of real communities.

Ambition for yourself and for your kids is good; it's what makes the country go. But what really matters is how you view the rungs below, and how you use all of the extra choices you have for a purpose broader than getting into Princeton. The best answer to American elites is not to bash them or indulge in reverse snobbery. It's to pull them (us) into the great work of the country.