Of gray men, athletes, and scholars

7 April 2011


I am a great believer in the importance of speaking to a wide variety of diverse people so as not to limit one’s understanding of the human condition to the handful of people that usually surround us and go through life with us. Of course, it is much easier to believe in this than to practice it, but there is some degree of awareness of the extent to which people voluntarily pigeonhole themselves. The well-known adage, “birds of a feather flock together,” is now expressed in sociology by the term “homophily,” while the recent book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart attempts to describe and explain the process of self-segregation that is increasingly concentrating like-minded people in particular geographical regions.

It has been an established genre of film comedy to examine the adventures of an individual placed in radically different socio-economic circumstances than those of their birth. We find this theme explored in My Man Godfrey, a very typical depression-era film (and a personal favorite of mine), or in Buster Keaton’s The Navigator (a typical roaring-twenties film), in which the privileged main characters must attempt to look after themselves and their difficulty in doing so makes of them figures of fun. Much more recently, the film Overboard explored similar territory, with the Hollywood twist of amnesia added. There is a sense in which these films are sending a message that different socio-economic classes are like oil and water: their mixing may produce entertaining comedy, but the subtext is “don’t try this at home.”

When one does manage to pass between socio-economic communities (or classes) and even (if one is fortunate) to hear people who are comfortable with each other speak openly, honestly, and bluntly about their way of life, their choices, their aspirations and ambitions (rather than the guarded communication in which individuals are likely to engage with a person outside their immediate community), certain patterns begin to emerge. I began to notice this while I was still quite young, and it fascinated me from an early age. I have particularly noticed this in relation to attitudes to higher education, and it is interesting to try to tease out how these attitudes reflect actual and expected ways of life.

Of the different attitudes I am going to attempt to describe, it is important to note that all of these decisions are taken in the spirit of a hard-headed realism that understands what needs to be done and knows the ways and means by which it is brought about. It is equally important to note that hard-headed realism leads people in very different directions.

Among those who enjoy at least a modest standard of comfort (or better, what we might gently call “well to do”), there is often an emphasis simply on getting into a “good” school. It is assumed without even being aware that it is an assumption that one will have to pay for everything, but the important thing is getting accepted into a good school, a school with name recognition and which name virtually guarantees material success. Among this crowd, there is a certain sense of accomplishment merely to make a passing grade (former President George W. Bush publicly joked about being a “C” student, although with grade inflation this is increasingly rare), and it is assumed that much hard work will go into getting good marks.

This attitude goes along with a certain amount of money and assumptions of a certain degree of material comfort both now and especially for the future life of the prospective student. He or she may be a merely mediocre student, but scholarship is far less important than the social networking among others from privileged families, as these social networks will last a lifetime while their time in school is likely to last four years. This class produces comfortable mediocrities who go on to assume positions on corporate boards and to produce another generation very much like themselves.

Another crowd that aims at a university education does not have the comfort and the cushion of wealth behind it, but aims to use its talents to get ahead in the world. This is the very heart of bourgeois ambition, and the aspiration for each generation to better the accomplishment of its parents. The route to this road of improvement is through sporting prowess. For a great many people, skill in some sport is their ticket to a higher education and a better future. Since a great many young people have a real joy for athletics, and therefore naturally become quite good at whatever particularly takes their fancy, and at the same time such “students” have little or no appetite or interest in academics, as with the above-described class, there is a certain relief merely in having been accepted into an acceptable school, and then merely to make passing grades. The sports scholarship pays the bills, and the sports involvement makes the academics palatable, like a spoonful of sugar that helps us to swallow a bitter medicine.

Among a third set, academics is central and crucial. Here academic scholarships (under which I also include scholarships for artistic and musical talent) pay the bills. For such students, academics really is the point that they are there. For some of them, the sports that pay the bills for others don’t even exist, and the struggling “C” students similarly exist on a far periphery of irrelevance. For these students, there is a feeling of anxiety about getting the best marks, and anything less than that is a cause of disappointment. Among these families for whom scholastic excellence is an assumption and a tradition, it is a matter of picking and choosing among the top universities, i.e., picking whatever one is offering the most rewards because they want a few top students to order to make up the averages that have been lowered by the above two described classes of students.

This last class embodies something quite perfectly described by Stephen Hawking:

“The prevailing attitude at Oxford at that time was very antiwork. You were supposed to be brilliant without effort, or to accept your limitations and get a fourth-class degree. To work hard to get a better class of degree was regarded as the mark of a gray man — the worst epithet in the Oxford vocabulary. At that time, the physics course at Oxford was arranged in a way that made it particularly easy to avoid.”

Stephen W. Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, “Oxford and Cambridge,” p. 14

The “gray men” that Hawking mentions are none other than the first of the socio-economic classes that I described above, for whom it is central to work hard to get a better degree and not to accept one’s limitations, while our third class above are those that are effortlessly brilliant. However, the vestiges of the English class system that encouraged this attitude are much less prevalent in US higher education.

Each of these attitudes to higher education, which is ever-closer to becoming universal in the US, is coupled to a particular outlook, to particular expectations, and to particular ways of life before, during, and after one’s “academic preparation.” Thus The Godfather’s litany of “Birth, School, Work, Death” takes different forms in detail for each, although the overall scheme holds good for all.

My above account makes no pretense whatsoever to completeness or exhaustive coverage. Others could do this much better than I ever could, as I am an outside observer in all this; a participant observer would have more detailed descriptions of a greater variety of classes, and perhaps a few juicy anecdotes to boot.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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