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SUNDAY READING

Making It

January 12, 1986

From "The Case Against Credentialism," by James Fallows, in the Atlantic, December, 1985. In measurable economic terms the rate of social mobility in the United States has changed very little in at least a hundred years: people still rise out of poverty and fall from affluence about as frequently as in the days when no one had heard of IQ or tracking or MBAs. American society is more open than most others, but it still rewards the wisely chosen birth. Researchers who dug through estate records in Cleveland in the 1960s, for example, found that if a man was born into the wealthiest 5% of families, the odds were 2 out of 3 that his own adult annual earnings would exceed $47,000 (in 1985 dollars). If he was born into the poorest 10%, the odds were 1 in 100. As far as economic historians can determine, at most points in American history actual mobility rates have been about the same as they are now.

What has changed with the coming of the meritocracy is the air of scientific inevitability that surrounds the results. If only 1 man in 100 makes it out of the lowest rank, is it because the other 99 just aren't smart enough? Even while angrily denying that a college degree is necessarily a sign of intelligence, or that executives and members of the clean-hands class deserve the privileges they enjoy, many working-class Americans seem to nurse the fear that they really aren't good enough to make it anymore. If the "famous self-confidence" of the businessman, as David McClelland put it, made a tangible difference in the growth of American industry, might not this induced self-doubt do equivalent harm?

"I used to go past Johns Hopkins all the time, practically every day," Robert Ward told me earlier this year. Ward is a gruff, wisecracking novelist in his early 40s who had recently published "Red Baker," a book about the travails of a laid-off steelworker. Ward himself grew up in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood similar to the one he described in the novel.

"I went past there probably a thousand times, and it just never occurred to me that somebody like me could go there. It wasn't like, Gee, I wish I could go there and isn't it too bad I can't. It never entered my mind! I wasn't ever bitter about it, because I just understood deep down in my soul that of course I'd never go to a place like that." In the end Ward applied at the last minute to Towson State, "only because my mom asked at the end of the summer what I'd think about going to college." He moved on to teaching English at a variety of private schools, wrote his novels, and this year became a story editor in Los Angeles for "Hill Street Blues."

"When I'd seen a little more of the world, I started thinking, Hey, I could've gone there! I'm as smart as these people! But it wasn't till years later that I saw how you're tracked unless somebody happens to push you in a different direction. One of my teachers used to tell me, 'You're smart, and the only person we've got to convince of that is you.' "

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