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How Class Starts In The Classroom

How education has created a modern caste system

Education is supposed to be a social ladder, but it's fallen over and turned into a cage. Some kids can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and it all comes out cleanly laundered as a degree. Some kids can't and they get told it's their fault, that they're just dumb.

We are a gaslit generation, told that class and caste are our fault, that money is merit, that grades make inequality fine. Feudalism was at least honest about the class system. The myth of capitalism is that class doesn't even exist. But of course it does. Just look at our classrooms. Just look at me.

I'm one of the kids that made it and, looking back, it was complete bullshit. I thought I was just smart, but behind the scenes my parents were spending huge amount of money and time on me. And the whole process started when I was just five years old.

Five

When I was still unable to wash my ass, my family emigrated to America (at the time this was considered a good idea). My parents rented a small house at the edge of a good school district because they understood the first requirement of the American class system. Property.

American public schools are funded by local property taxes, so the richer neighborhoods have much better schools. Like absurdly so. My old town recently approved a $230 million bond issue for schools. For reference, this is almost as large as the yearly primary/secondary budget for the country I live in now. They didn't call my town Upper Arlington for nothing. It was upper class.

My parents were not rich and they certainly couldn't buy a home there, but they found this little apartment complex that costs $1,800 a month today. It wasn't even technically in the school district, but the developers had some deal and the school bus came by. It was a loophole, but I was in.

I quickly learned English and was almost fully-formed as a writer by 7th grade. The town's library was one of the best I've ever been in and I spent a lot of time there. I had bad skin and good grades. For most of my life I thought this was all me, all my effort, but I have kids of my own now. I realize that children don't just 'get in' to schools. Kids don't just get through school on their own. My parents had to put me in, they had to pay extra rent, they had to put money and time in, year after year.

Now I'll also note that my parents are one of the exceptions that's supposed to prove the rule. They were immigrants that educated themselves up to PhDs and worked constantly. But what's that gotta do with me? I was just a baby. What if my parents were unfortunate, or just sucked? Isn't the point of school to give children a chance, somewhat independent of their parents?

The fact is that table stakes for raising an American kid could be $200,000 (before college) and some parents just can't ante-up. So their kids lose, through no fault of their own. And getting kids into school is the easy part. It costs even more getting them out.

Fifteen

As a teenager, everyone in my school was obsessed with this strange American ritual called 'extra-curriculars'. It was a few lines on your college application, but people spent thousands of dollars and countless hours filling them in. This was supposedly to show colleges that you were 'well-rounded' but I realize now that this was bullshit.

Extra-curriculars are just a way of saying "I have money" without saying "I have money." You can't just write down 'rich' on a college application, but you can say 'lacrosse'. Same thing. Then you write a personal statement about how moved you were seeing poor people one summer and you're good to go.

So I did extra-curriculars, which seemed like an elaborate way of my parents torturing me, but in hindsight they were right. I played the clarinet and rowed, all of which I hated, but the temples of higher education demand sacrifice. Countless rich American kids are furiously laundering money into merit this way. Can you put "survived poverty and helped raise my siblings" on an application form? No. But you can put some half-assed "volunteering".

Your prize if you can get through the property, time, and money requirements for applying to a competitive college is that you get to spend even more time and money. You're not done yet. College is the final hurdle, where capitalist class finally becomes caste.

College

As an adult, I had the benefit of four more years of parental support to do bong hits and read books and take essentially a dope vacation for four years. College is a weird ritual wherein you prove that you deserve better jobs by not needing one. University was nothing but benefit for me (I graduated without debt from a Canadian public school), but this is an increasingly unusual experience.

On the one hand, 43 million Americans have $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, an average of $37,000 each. This makes them essentially indentured servants, paying off these loans for sometimes decades.

On the other hand, rich Ivy Leagues admit 10-15% children of graduates and then mostly rich people (ie, people on 'sailing' scholarships). They let just enough poor people in to give it the illusion of a meritocracy, but it's really a caste system laundered through secular temples.

This is all capped off by the fact that most college graduates marry other college graduates, thus literally reproducing privilege. If you look at college as an anthropologist, humans send their mating age children to isolated campuses, filtered by income and applications, then leave them alone to get drunk together. It's secular arranged marriage, and it works. I married another graduate and now we're compounding both of our families advantages onto the next generation. And so class becomes caste. This has all become terribly clear during a pandemic.

Caste

In this year of our lord COVID-19, it's becoming quite obvious that education is not  a ladder because it has fallen over and collapsed into our homes. Today, my TV room is the classroom. My Mac desktop is my daughter's desk. If you don't have these class privileges you're just not in class.

Luna uses a $1,000 TV, a $1,000 computer, $50 in monthly Internet, and many hours of me and a grandmother to go to school. She goes to a private school that's able to administer Microsoft Teams. And that's all per child. Until recently we let the younger one go feral, now he's using my wife's PC. Meanwhile other children are climbing trees to download a few lessons from WhatsApp. The class class difference has never been so stark.

Before the pandemic, if you could just get your kid dressed and physically into a school they had a theoretical chance. Not a fair one, but something. Now even that bare fiction has gone. Even the gaslight has gone off. You're on your own, in your home, with whatever resources your caste implies.

Now that I'm sitting in first grade again with my daughter, I can see the whole circle that binds. I can see how class becomes class, how class becomes caste, and how meritocracy is a lie. My daughter has every advantage and so did I.

My parents put me in a good school district, they paid for all the extras, they let me escape debt peonage, and then I stood up as an adult and thought it was all me. It wasn't me at all. I was a child when it started and I was pretty stoned at the end. I just followed the path I was on thinking it was a ladder, when in fact I was just tracing the walls of a cage. We've got to turn this thing over. We're doing it all wrong. Class starts in the classroom and that's not how it should be.