David Brooks’s column today is, like all his columns, cynical and manipulative — in this case, because he dismisses concerns about Mitt Romney’s experience as CEO as irrelevant to his likely performance as a president, but then lists desiderata that clearly lead one to conclude that Romney is the man for the job (as opposed to Obama, the insecure social climber). Nevertheless, he does manage to get at something true here:
First, successful presidents tend to be emotionally secure. They have none of the social resentments and desperate needs that plagued men like Richard Nixon. Instead they were raised, often in an aristocratic family, with a sense that they were the natural leaders of the nation. They were infused, often at an elite prep school, with a sense of obligation and responsibility to perform public service.
While the last sentence is probably a little over-optimistic, I do think he’s pointing toward a little-discussed consequence of class division, namely, the “emotional overhead” of being lower class. And I think this is particularly relevant in academia, where many young academics are making a shift in class status.
Here I can draw on my own experience. I was a first-generation college graduate. My father is a truck driver and though my mother went to college shortly after I did and ultimately became a teacher, she spent my childhood helping to run a small business and then doing various service jobs. At every level of my education, my parents were of little assistance in helping to discern what I should do. My mom opted not to put me in the “gifted program” when offered the opportunity in elementary school. I applied to only one college: Olivet, where I knew I would qualify for a full-tuition scholarship. It seemed obvious to me that I couldn’t afford college anywhere else, even though I had a 4.0, excellent test scores, and a strong record of extra-curricular activities. And when it came time to do grad school, I was already far out of their range of experience.
My ignorance of the practical mechanics of these kinds of processes was exacerbated by a lack of the skills associated with success: social networking above all. But perhaps most important was the emotional burden. Every step I made, it seemed to me, could be my last. One small mistake could lead me tumbling back down to where I really belonged. This sense of the fragility of my position has had profoundly negative emotional effects. The job market is always stressful, but for me it was devestating — far out of proportion to the actual results, which turned out to be really good in the end. I deal with groundless anxiety in my teaching, somehow convinced against all evidence that one small mistake will spell the end. I am also overly sensitive to “pride”-related issues like recognition for my work from other academics.
Perhaps the strangest and yet most vivid illustration of this tendency crystallized the weekend after I got the job offer at Shimer College, which surely counted as a moment of triumph and vindication. The Girlfriend and I were doing our grocery shopping at Whole Foods, as we had done countless times before, and I was following my normal routine of pushing the cart while she picked everything out. At one point she darted off to get something we had forgotten further back, and as I stood there alone, I was suddenly struck by the anxious feeling that someone was going to realize I didn’t belong there and kick me out.
Now it is the case that everyone has some degree of insecurity in academia. Yet I don’t think that the children of doctors and lawyers and professors and successful executives normally feel quite the same thing I do. They may wonder if they really have the intellectual chops or discipline, and they may question whether what they’re doing is worthwhile — yet I would be surprised if there was the same sense of existential dread, the same feeling of continually being in danger of falling over the edge and becoming a total failure.
This class-related anxiety certainly intersects with other axes of oppression. The anxieties that minorities experience in white-dominated institutions are well-known. And my own experience shows me that even among the children of the upper classes, women are often at an emotional disadvantage in higher ed — for every lazy male student convinced that he’s a genius who can get an A by virtue of his unmediated brilliance alone (and hence there’s no reason not to stay up till 3am playing video games the day before the paper’s due), there is a female student fighting feelings of inadequacy who doesn’t realize that she not only has the potential to do great things but is already doing them.
It’s hard to imagine that these feelings of inadequacy don’t feed into the maintenance of precarious academic labor. We often hear that adjunct work is bound to become the province of trust-funders and those with rich spouses, but is that actually true? Is someone from that background really going to tolerate that kind of position for more than a year or two? How many class-aspirational types are barely scraping by with adjunct courses and visiting positions, secretly thinking that was as good as they ever could have hoped for?
On the other hand, it’s obvious that the sense of entitlement enjoyed by the upper classes is not an unalloyed good. For all the disadvantages of having a meritocratic social climber like Obama as president, I doubt anyone is eager to get back to the blind self-assurance we witnessed in the son of a former president. Yet I do wonder if I would be happier if I could just be confident — not putting up a fragile facade of confidence, not simply able to talk myself into brief bursts of confidence, but just confident.
I wonder if something like a sense of entitlement is a power that could be used for good. For instance, I wish that those brilliant and insecure female students could somehow come to understand that they really are doing great and there’s nothing to worry about. By contrast, I wish that the lazy and self-assured male students could come to be confident in the right way — confident that they can do the work, rather than confident that they don’t really have to. Perhaps it’s not the sense of entitlement in itself that’s so toxic, but rather its unequal distribution. Perhaps the hope for the future is that everyone can have confidence, that no one has to work with either an artificial excess of self-assurance or with the crippling emotional overhead that comes from its lack.
We have all experienced flashes of what this looks like in our intellectual lives, or at least I hope we have — moments defined by an intellectual affinity in which no one has a need to prove anything, in which everyone can simply get to work. We also hopefully experience this in our most intimate relationships, at least at their best, where there is no need to prove oneself, no fear that love will be revoked at any moment. One task of those hoping for a better society is to think what that kind of genuine equality of confidence would look like on a larger scale.