• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Social Capital Begins at Home

Thoughts on a conversation with The Girl.

October 11, 2022

Actual conversation with The Girl this past weekend:

TG: You know that author, Barbara [butchers last name]?

Me: Barbara Ehrenreich, yeah. I’ve been a fan of hers since college. She died recently.

TG: Someone referred to Nickel and Dimed the other day in class. I recognized the title from your bookshelves.

Me: (chuckle)

TG: I recognize a lot of titles I hear about from your bookshelves. I don’t know what the books are about, necessarily, but I know what the bindings look like.

The Wife: What about mine?

TG: Yours for fiction, Dad’s for nonfiction.

Me: So now you know these weren’t just my quirky taste.

TG: (side-eye)

Being both a parent and an egalitarian requires making choices. As an egalitarian I know that children raised in educated households acquire advantages that other children don’t, and that the larger culture reifies some of those advantages as “merit.” That’s unfair, and the world should be much more open to people of different backgrounds.

As a parent, though, I’m unreasonably attached to my own kids, and I work to give them the best education and experiences I can. If some of that advantages them, well, what’s the alternative?

I can try to finesse the tension between those two views by pointing out—correctly—that other parents offer other advantages. For example, I was never able to teach the kids much about car repair, or home repair, or basketball, or hunting, or other languages. I’m bereft of musical talent (although TW is a terrific singer), and there’s no family business to inherit. If a literary bent is what we can offer, then offer it we shall (and have).

There’s truth in that, but only to a point.

I’m heartened that both kids have arrived at a pretty thoroughgoing egalitarianism themselves. They’ve each found their own paths to it, and each has a distinctive flavor. In the time-honored tradition of idealistic young people, they aren’t above calling out their dad when he falls short.

I take it as a sort of compliment; if they’re bothering to raise an objection, they must not consider me too far gone to hear it.

My grandfather grew up on a farm in what was then a rural part of Michigan. He dropped out of the ninth grade, found his way to a lineman job with Detroit Edison and eventually sent both of his kids to college. Sending his daughter—my mom—to college was considered progressive at that time and place. (Mom’s winning argument to get to go: “I want to marry a doctor. Where am I going to meet one?”) Although he was raised in Klan country and wasn’t entirely immune to its influences, I saw him continue to make a conscious effort as he got older to do better. There weren’t many books in his house, but he had one of the more sensitive BS detectors you’ll ever find. His egalitarianism was Midwestern in the best sense; it was rooted in the idea that nobody is that special. I admired that and admired the way he continued to challenge himself to adjust as the world changed. That looked to me like wisdom.

When TB and TG point out where my egalitarianism falls short, I try to imitate Grandpa’s example. The combination of experience and openness is less common than I’d prefer, but when you see it, it’s impressive.

I hope the kids inherit the same thing. That’s an inheritance I wouldn’t mind passing along at all.

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Matt Reed

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