Home > Uncategorized > “Screw ’em All”: The Unsettling Connection Between Anti-Intellectualism and High School Culture

“Screw ’em All”: The Unsettling Connection Between Anti-Intellectualism and High School Culture

New Yorker writer Atul Gawande’s most recent article examined the question “Is Health Care a Right?”.  He researched the article by interviewing his hometown classmates in Athens, Ohio, all of whom were forthcoming with their opinions and many of whom held different levels of employment. Like all of Mr. Gawande’s essays, this one was well researched, well crafted, and full of insights. One section of the article jumped out at me. In discussing the need for replacing employer-provided health care with some form of government provided health care, Mr. Gawande recalls a conversation he had with one his his classmates about the well of resentment voters feel toward the biggest government provided program— Medicaid:

My friend Betsy Anderson, who taught eighth-grade English at Athens Middle School for fifteen years, told me something that made me see how deep that well is. When she first started out as a teacher, she said, her most satisfying experiences came from working with eager, talented kids who were hungry for her help in preparing them for a path to college and success. But she soon realized that her class, like America as a whole, would see fewer than half of its students earn a bachelor’s degree. Her job was therefore to try to help all of her students reach their potential—to contribute in their own way and to pursue happiness on their own terms.

But, she said, by eighth grade profound divisions had already been cemented. The honors kids—the Hillary Clintons and Mitt Romneys of the school—sat at the top of the meritocratic heap, getting attention and encouragement. The kids with the greatest needs had special-education support. But, across America, the large mass of kids in the middle—the ones without money, book smarts, or athletic prowess—were outsiders in their own schools. Few others cared about what they felt or believed or experienced. They were the unspecial and unpromising, looked down upon by and almost completely separated from the college-bound crowd. Life was already understood to be a game of winners and losers; they were the designated losers, and they resented it. The most consistent message these students had received was that their lives were of less value than others’. Is it so surprising that some of them find satisfaction in a politics that says, essentially, Screw ’em all?

In the 1950s and early 1960s the message that some students were “unsocial and unpromising” was more explicit, but it was mitigated to an extent by the fact that communities were building new schools and by the fact that jobs paying middle class wages were still readily available. The resentment a middle-of-the-pack student of the homogeneously grouped classes felt was offset the community support evidenced by new school buildings and the availability of decent paying jobs open to any high school graduate. By the late 1970s, that was not the case. Contentious local debates over school funding echoed the state and national debates over taxes and as budgets withered school boards bent over backwards to provide what kids with “money, book smarts, and athletic prowess” needed while fulfilling the Federal government’s mandates to provide a free and appropriate education to special needs children. The “un-special and un-promising” middle of the road students were ignored at school and at home they were being told that the only employment that waited them was on the Miracle Mile where big box stores and fast food joints abounded. When these largely ignored or de-valued students rolled up their sleeves and went to work, they resented anyone who failed to do so for whatever reason… and when they went into the ballot box their “screw ’em all” mentality brought us the Trump presidency. 

So how is a politician today going to win over a group of voters who has been systematically ignored by the system? My belief is that someone needs to make it clear that their grievances are every bit as valid as those made by Black Lives Matter. They should explicitly call out our K-12 schools for unwittingly ignored large swaths of students by focussing time a resources on those who aspire to go to college and those with learning disabilities and require them to develop programs to address this deficiency. They should offer tax incentives to any employer who provides entry-level training for jobs that do not require a four-year degree and offers ironclad ten-year contracts to employees who successfully complete those programs. Congress should explicitly call out employers who undervalue the employees who work in the retail and service sector of our economy and those who deliver goods to stores and our homes. Our politicians rail against outsourcing, downsizing, and off-shoring when they run for office… but once they are elected they have passed no laws penalizing such behavior. Governments at the state and local level are no better. Several states and local governments are engaged in a battle to offer tax incentives to Amazon, a company whose tactics have emptied small-town storefronts and malls, and whose intention to use drones for deliveries will leave many more people unemployed. Someone needs to make it clear to those voters who are marginalized by our economic system that the government sees this and will be taking action to rectify it.

And who will pay the price for this? The answer is clear: “…the honors kids—the Hillary Clintons and Mitt Romneys of the school—who sat at the top of the meritocratic heap, getting attention and encouragement.” Those of us who clearly benefitted from the system in place have been given much, and we should now be required to give back…. and not in the form of philanthropy but in the form of higher taxes to restore government services. To do anything less will move us ever closer to plutocracy.

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