CONOLLY: Dismount the high horse

Privileged students and wealthy politicians should learn to relate to middle-class struggles

The friends I have made at the University of Virginia run the gamut of high school education. I have friends who attended boarding school, friends who attended private day schools, friends who attended charter schools and friends who attended public schools. And while they are all very bright, their educational experiences differ in several notable ways.

An important component of quality education is the ability to converse well; a cocktail party skill. And in this respect — and I am using extreme generalizations here, where there are, of course, exceptions — my private school friends typically outstrip my public school friends. Their familiarity with upper class social norms and polite, simple conversation is remarkable. They are schmoozers, in the best sense of the word, masters of the five-minute conversation. They make brilliant first impressions.

In contrast, the friends I have met from public high schools largely do not possess the same social polish, and they often do not possess the occasionally stunning confidence that many of my private school friends display. They may not have traveled as widely as my private school friends, may not have the same cultural literacy and may even possess an inferior academic education.

But in many respects, I would argue that public education — particularly a public school of socioeconomic and racial diversity — offers an educational experience that provides what private schools frequently lack.

I make this argument for numerous reasons. Chief among them is that while private school graduates might possess skills more conducive to business dinners and comparable social occasions (and again, not to belabor the point, but these are extreme generalizations), the public school graduate often possesses the skills to interact with a greater variety of people. This, I think, is important. Whatever your political inclinations, it is disheartening to watch some American politicians and think, “this guy is completely out of touch with what’s going on.” Think George H.W. Bush walking into a grocery store and being mesmerized by an electronic scanner — a device that had already been in grocery stores for at least 10 years. Think of John Kerry in 2004, struggling to convey an “everyday guy” image to contrast his hundred million dollar fortune and privileged upbringing.

At a time in American life where income inequality is at the forefront of the political agenda, and where debate over the War on Poverty — entering its 50th year in 2014 — dominates the news, those making the policies that impact underprivileged Americans should have some conception of the problems they are facing. Whatever you may think of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, it is easy to admire his willingness to live in a Newark housing project. Not only did this bring him closer to voters, but it also brought him face to face with the very issues they were facing — a rarity among politicians.

And the logic is not only applied to politicians. Business executives with some conception of “how the other half lives” might adopt different policies towards their employees. Teachers and professors at prestigious institutions who have experience dealing with the poor might be more willing to expose their pupils to these issues.

I have met many students at this University whom I know will reach great achievements in politics, in business and in other fields. But I worry that those who have no conception of poverty, no conception of what it means to live paycheck-to-paycheck and no conception of the struggles of the lower class and some of the middle class in America will initiate policies that will reflect their isolation from these problems.

That being said, I know that many of my friends who attended private school have had experiences volunteering and working in less privileged areas, and as I said before, some of my points in this column are largely generalizations. But I would certainly stand by the statement that exposure to different types of people is a necessary component to a complete education, particularly for those who one day will be leaders in our country. Private school, for all its benefits, might not offer this particular educational experience. Public school, for all its drawbacks, generally does.

John Connolly is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Thursdays.

Published January 30, 2014 in Opinion

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