By Robert Weissberg
To hear politicians tell it, the college diploma is the guaranteed gateway to middle-class life, so everybody should probably go to college. The argument seems self-evident--over a lifetime, college graduates far out-earn those without a degree ($2.1 million, supposedly), so go to college, live the American Dream. Unfortunately, as many recent college graduates have discovered, diplomas no longer guarantee success. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study, for example, reported that in 1992 some 119,000 waiters and waitresses had college degrees. But by 2008 this figure had soared to 318,000. The study also found similar increases of under-employment in other low-level occupations. In 2010 the unemployment rate for college graduates was the highest since 1970.
Why does this "attend college" mania flourish despite ever more graduates struggling to find jobs worthy of a college degree? Many factors are involved, but one deserves special mention, namely how modern social science altered the definition of "middle class" so just getting the degree, it was claimed, secured the American Dream. And with this new definition in place, a government committed to economic improvement began pushing as many young people as possible into college. What an uncomplicated solution to generating wealth--just award scholarships, build more colleges, hire more faculty, and just watch as the American Dream comes to everyone.
To understand this transformation, begin by recognizing that there is no single, universally accepted definition of "middle class" other than the obvious one of a class between upper and lower. But, let me offer one definition, albeit a hazy one, that prevailed in the 1950s (and earlier) when I first encountered "middle class."
This older understanding rested on psychological traits, and these were manifested in certain outward behaviors. The core of being middle class was a strong work ethic, self-discipline, a willingness to defer gratification, an aversion for flashy consumption, and an embrace of what might be called "respectability," i.e., sobriety, a morality that stressed honesty, a solid family life, being law-abiding, and valuing education (though not necessarily being "intellectual"). These inner dispositions were associated with speaking clear, grammatical English, exhibiting decent table manners, never using profanity in public (and almost none in private, too), being "clean cut" in appearances, and always acting politely. Middle class members also abhorred the thought of taking government handouts. If you want to see such people in the flesh, watch popular TV programs of the 1950s: Ozzie and Harriet, the Stu Erwin Show, even I Love Lucy. A bit complicated for a definition, for sure, but you knew it when you saw it.
Yes, these "square" traits were associated with material well-being but this prosperity was a result of middle class values, not its defining elements. Nobody believed that the causal flow was reversible--home ownership could inculcate middle-class values. In principle it was possible to be lower class despite owning middle-class doodads. A well-paid entertainer may live well but could still be considered white trash if he dressed in tattered clothing, beat his wife, openly philandered, cursed and spit in public, and spent a dime for every nickel earned. By contrast, families could sustain middle-class status by sticking to these outward respectable behaviors even if their incomes certified them as "poor." To repeat: outside of inherited money, being middle class in the psychological sense brought material success. Home ownership, for example, was only the visible sign of thrift, sobriety, and a stable marriage among multiple other conventional virtues.
Beginning in the 1960s, university-based social science research began altering this understanding. To condense a long story, empirically-based quantitative social science research needed a simple, clear-cut measure of "middle class," and utilizing multiple, often nebulous psychological inclinations like delayed gratification was just impractical.
"Middle class" merely became a mid-point on some Socio-Economic Status (SES for short) Scale and was made concrete by boiling it down to income or education levels. Researchers (including myself) would now take these data and divide it into upper, middle, and lower class categories. More detailed measures might include occupational status. But, no matter how sliced and diced, the underlying psychology of being middle class, e.g., a strong work ethic, probity, and all the rest, was replaced by one or two easy-to-measure traits that were separate from any underlying dispositions. It was just assumed, for example, that anyone who had a college diploma also had the fortitude to get it.
With passing decades this simplified university-manufactured definition came to dominate. To appreciate the depth of this shift, imagine if a presidential candidate in 2012 announced that his anti-poverty program entailed teaching the poor old-fashioned morality, a passion for work, self-reliance, restraining one's consumption, and saving for future purchases versus credit-card debt. That is, traditional (pre-1960s) middle-class values. He would be vilified, accused of imposing "white" values, and clobbered by a rival who instead promised instant cheap college loans as the instant pathway to the American Dream (see here).
It gets worse. Conflating outward appearance with underlying traits is typical of poorly educated Third World nations and, sad to say, America is increasingly drifting in that direction. In these societies, possessing a fancy paper saying "diploma" becomes irrefutable proof of being "educated." "Education" may also be acquired by dressing as an educated person--glasses, a three-piece suit, a briefcase, a fountain pen and similar theatrical props. Translated into current American society, one becomes "middle class" by owning a college diploma even if the acquired learning is less than what was once gained in high school and acquiring the degree required a small army of helpers.
Today's policies trying to build a "middle class," absent promoting the core psychology, makes failure inevitable though a financial windfall for those supplying ersatz diplomas. Employers will quickly grasp that the "college graduates" they interview are imposters with little self-discipline who lack the tenacity for tough tasks. If forced to hire them by some Department of Justice fatwa, the employer will relocate or substitute a machine rather than deal with an employee unable to show up in time. In other words, with no effort to inculcate old-fashioned middle class values, "middle class" status is being counterfeited and the shoddiness is quickly discovered by employers.
An important message about university research lies here. What transpires in obscure corners of the academy may eventually matter, so pay attention. The re-definition of middle class is hardly unique. Books could be written about how professors labored to show that objective truth is a fiction imposed by "the patriarchy" or that any statistical disparity in wealth automatically proves discrimination. How about the wonders of diversity to make America strong? All university concocted. The social sciences are not the hard sciences, but there is one parallel worth noting. As with scientists working in germ warfare laboratories, be very careful lest something toxic escape.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.