Monday, November 16, 2009


My husband bought me an international Kindle for Christmas this year. He gave it to me early, which I am so very thankful for given all of my recent traveling. Even though the Whispernet function does not work in Taiwan, I still think it is the neatest thing since sliced baozi (or something...).

On my way to Japan last week, I read a book that had been on my Amazon wishlist for a while, namely The American Dream and the Power of Wealth: Choosing Schools and Inheriting Inequality in the Land of Opportunity. I hadn't bought it yet because the book itself was US$35 plus exorbitant shipping costs to get to Taipei. But with the Kindle, it was less than 15 bucks and took two minutes to download. Fantastic.

If you are interested at all in social science research, this book is pretty fascinating reading. Heather Beth Johnson, the author, is a sociologist who tries to understand how people make sense of two conflicting ideas in American society. The first notion is of the American Dream, which is the idea that anyone can succeed in America if they just apply themselves and try hard enough. The second is the empirical reality that school choice is very often driven by social wealth transfers, not by income. This means that the kids who get to go to the good schools, the better schools or even the very best schools are kids who are part of families with inter-generational transfers. Families without wealth, even if they have high incomes, often cannot afford to buy-in to the systems of superior education in the United States. They cannot afford down payments on houses in neighborhoods with the best schools, or they are too drained by making reverse payments back to their parents and extended families to make a differential investment in schooling for their kids.

Johnson's research is interesting because she directly investigates how American parents rationalize this apparent paradox. How can the American Dream really be a valid concept if people are so obviously impacted by disparate educational systems? That they are placed in a "good" or "bad" school through no merit and/or fault of their own? Apparently we do cling to this concept of success through hard work even when confronted with the obvious evidence that much of our own success or failure was based on a foundation of unearned wealth transfers. Period. Johnson's research shows that even small transfers, like a gift of $1,000 at a high school graduation can have a profund impact on life outcomes for ourselves and our familes. Some of us got much, much more, like college educations and cars and assistance with down payments on condos. Yet when asked how we became so successful, we tend to say "I worked really hard."

The problem with this is that it damages the people who were not born into a family with wealth to transfer. We tend to think that these people are not successful through their own failings. They just didn't want it enough, or they were too lazy. Those parents who send their kids to bad schools must not care as much as we do. Johnson's research shows that parents who are sending their kids to less desireable schools actually care just as much about their children's education. They just lack the resources to buy-in to the system, even when they make a reasonable income. Sadly, they also blame themselves for the inability to get their children better access to education. Perhaps they just don't realize that those of us who can buy our kids into the good schools were ourselves beneficiaries of unearned blessings. Where is the merit in that?

Johnson advocates for completely equal schooling in America so that everyone truly can start from the same foundation. I think the change associated with that would be so radical, so contrary to our social fabric that it would never be allowed. But maybe we can start by recognizing that the idea that we all have equal chances to succeed in school, in life, is really a big fat myth.


**Maria ** said...

Wow. I need to read this book. I'm dealing with this now. My husband's family were/are very fortunate in that they can afford to send their children to the best schools and don't seem to get why we can't. I wonder if it's worth working 2 jobs to pay the tuition and never seeing your family so that she gets the start she deserves?

NYC Lorna said...

Small world...but I'm pretty sure that the author of the book you mentioned is also an adoptive mama with a blog: http://johnson-mccormickfamily.blogspot.com/

(I occassionaly read your blog after you kindly sent me a little Waldorf-style dolly last year. Thanks!)

Anonymous said...

That theory is a bunch of bunk. I have several friends who's families were poor immigrants from south asia. Now these people have graduated from the most prestigious colleges and medical schools in the southeast. And they did it without a wealth transfer. what a joke

Rebecca said...

Thanks for the great discussion. In the future, however, please do not make comments annonymously on this website, especially if you are being nasty. Thanks for being respectful.

Heather said...

Just finding this now because of a crazy weird twist of internet linking. Just wanted to say thanks for reading the book! I also just spent a few minutes looking at your blog-- love it! Your commenter "NYC Lorna" is right-- I also am an adoptive mama with a blog! ;)
I guess we have a lot in common!