Education as salvation, part II

In an article I wrote some time ago, I described a quest for ‘salvation’ pursued by means of receiving the best possible education. I also noted the disillusionment some of these seekers experience once they’ve summited their educational Everests.

My article presupposed that this ‘education as salvation’ theme is characteristic of Confucian cultures such as Hong Kong. But of course nothing in our world is so simple. A few weeks ago I came across another article that lays out the western equivalent. Titled 'The Disadvantages of an Elite Education', it's from the American Scholar, and it's by William Deresiewicz, a Yale English professor who finds it difficult to talk to his plumber:

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work.

Deresiewicz’s essay is a remarkable concatenation of genuine self-reflection and analysis, unattractive self-pity, noblesse oblige, and a measure of hard-headed thinking about the way the world really works – especially in those bastions of privilege, America’s Ivy League universities. Witness all of these themes competing for air in just a couple of paragraphs:

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I'm from a background -- rural and blue-collar -- quite unlike the author's, so I found his agonized interactions with his home-maintenance contractors a bit hard to sympathize with. I also find his description of recent presidential candidates unintentionally hilarious in its ingenuousness.

But this, you see, is simply unintended -- and hence thoroughly convincing -- proof of Deresiewicz’s very thesis: his elite education really has blinded him. He seems genuinely to think – even in the very act of writing this article! – that so many members of the US electorate disliked Al Gore and John Kerry simply because these men were unable to communicate with the less educated and the unsophisticated, when of course their real problem was that we rubes seemed to grasp without much difficulty who they were and what they thought about the rest of us. Similarly, does Deresiewicz really think his plumber is incapable of understanding him, and would have warm collegial feelings for him if only he (Deresiewicz) had learned better to communicate with commoners? Or could it be that his plumber just thinks he’s a pompous jerk?

I agree, however, with Deresiewicz’s bedrock insight: learning how to talk to, and work with – and possibly even value – people unlike yourself is priceless.

And in spite of my down-home bona fides, I have some sympathy with Deresiewicz’s dilemma. As a kid, I was the complete four-eyed bookworm. I knew from a young age that although my parents weren't college graduates, I was going to be, one way or another. My parents loved me anyway, but at school I took some ribbing, as most nascent geeks do.

That was as nothing, though, compared with the s--t I took in my summer jobs while I was in high school. My dad worked for my home town's public utilities as a younger man, and still had the connections to get me work as 'summer help'. This meant doing good honest manual labor for the water department, the electrical department, and -- hold your breath; I mean it! -- the sewage department. I mowed, I painted, I dug and filled in holes in the ground (I know how to run both a jackhammer and a 'Wacker Packer', for instance), and I handed a lot of tools to men who knew what to do with them.

And day by day I learned that although I thought I was pretty smart, there were whole worlds of knowledge of which I was innocent. I also had my will and my wits tested by the full-time workers, who loved nothing better than sending the summer help off to tackle some filthy and quixotic task (pumping sump water out of manholes, anyone?) and seeing how we'd take it.

By the time I was in college, I'd found other summer work -- camp counselor, housepainter -- and although I didn't miss cleaning out the scum chamber at the sewage treatment plant, I did miss the guys I'd worked with. With an exception or two, they were decent, hardworking men I respected and wanted to emulate. They taught me that you can goof off sometimes – and gripe about your work a lot of the time – but when it hits the fan, you shut up and get your job done. And you don't leave the hard part of a job for the next guy; you do it yourself if you can. If the power goes out in a thunderstorm at 3:00 and you're called out to fix it, you don't bitch because the guy next door gets to stay home in bed. You took the job, and until you quit, you do it.

When I was back in my hometown on my most recent trip to the USA, I had a long talk with one of the guys I'd worked with over twenty summers ago. He was still working for the city, and was now head of the electrical department. But he was no longer the man I knew. He'd been electrocuted, literally. A couple years ago, a high-voltage transformer blew up as he worked on it. Miraculously, his face hadn't been scarred, but the charge ran through him from his shoulder to his leg and foot, blowing out much of one of his calves, along with other smaller pieces of flesh all over his body. He described to me how he laid in the hospital for days, feeling himself burn as the lingering fire smoldered inside his muscles and bones, wrestling with who he was and what he'd done and who God was and what He wanted. He washed right up to the brink of death, but then was pulled back.

Now he was still funny and irreverent, but he was reborn, and he didn't have time anymore to leave unsaid the things he'd never have admitted twenty years ago: the things of this world don't matter much, except for how we can know and love God, and know and love each other.

So I would venture that there certainly is a lot to gain if you can talk with your plumber – or your electrician – and the school or university you go to likely won't help you much at all. Even poor William Deresiewicz has at least learned something that some of us are lucky to have had jackhammered into us long ago:

One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.

I am religious, and I know God does not love them more. But not less, either.

I worry sometimes that Daughter Tall, with all her classes and activities and hopefully 'good' education, will likely miss out on the chance to learn this in the brutally effective way I did. I'd like it if 30 years hence she felt no difficulty talking with her plumber.

Anybody know where I can get a good deal on a Wacker Packer?


good education doesn't keep people from being idiots

Hi Mr. T,

 Mr. Deresiewicz 's  was writing about my alma mater and my education did NOT teach "... me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me."

My education (in high school, undergrad, and grad school) taught me a lot about history, literature languages, and science but not that I was "the best and the brightest". When outside speakers occassionally used that phrase, a wave of discomfort (almost disgust) went through th audience. I did learn also, that I was incredibly privileged; I also knew (having learned before I set foot in a college classroom) that there were and are many people who are brilliant who did not go to Ivy League schools, or university at all, or in some cases, finish primary school.

Maybe he just hung around the wrong crowd? I don't have a problem w/ talking to people from different backgrounds and non-eite schools - maybe it was because I was a public school kid at an Ivy as were many of my friends? But I had friends who had gone to prep schools who were able to hang-out and enjoy non-scholars. Or, maybe it was my paid work in high school and college (working as a clerk in a police impound lot, as a clearner, as a library clerk, as a plant-waterer) that led me to know it. But, I don't think so.

I think the author was attributing his lack of social skills and pomposity to his college, when it is likely based on his upbringing and temperment.

Or, maybe the school has changed a lot since I attended it, which he said it was known as "the gay Ivy"? There were hippies and punks there then, and now... - I had assumed (falsely?) that it was hippie-types who formed the "Yale Anti-Gravity Society" (juggling club)

My late step-dad who told me it was only when he went to Harvard in the early 1950s that he first sat down in a class w/ a Jew, a black person, or a woman - he had no problems talking with anyone no matter what their education. Maybe it was being a Red Sox fan? Maybe it was having worked in mills during summer months? Maybe it was just that he was a sociable guy who loved people and had a religious faith that led him to believe in the worth and equality of all people? Maybe it was that he was humble enough to be aware of his own inadequacies?

My dad as well - private schools, Ivy education, was always very aware that there are many different types of "smart" - maybe it was the example of his grandad who never got beyond 3rd grade who was much smarter and more successful than his own dad who went to a good college? Maybe it was his summer jobs - or his sociable personality and love of sports?

Mr. T, I share your concern that my kids not grow into pompous adults who think there are "our kind" and N.Q.O.K.D ("not quite our kind, dear"). I think by showing good examples, admiring people w/ all sorts of talents, and having them take some paid employment in working-class jobs after school or in the summer, that will help them come to develop that knowledge themselves.


re: "wacker packer" - I'm so ignorant, I thought that was another word for Wacky Packs -


 Rachel Toor also wrote a good response to  it in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled "God and Jerk at Yale"




Education and social class

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, SKMama. I think Deresiewicz certainly accomplished little in terms of improving perceptions of your fellow Yalies, although I guess it was likely one of his aims. That's why I find the essay so convincing, as I tried to explain: even when he's writing about how Yale made him incapable of relating to [those he sees as] ordinary people, Deresiewicz can't help utterly miscalculating how those same people will perceive his essay! He's the opposite of self-refuting, although in this case I'm not sure that's a good thing . . . .

Anyway, given your repeated good sense and collegial comments, I'd never have guessed you'd gone to Yale!

No, seriously, I actually got to know quite a few Yalies in my first couple of years in HK. They certainly did not fit the Deresiewizc model of class cluelessness -- although there were maybe one or two exceptions.

Having grown up pretty poor, but then having met lots of people who didn't, I'm quite interested in questions of social class. Paul Fussell's hilarious little book on the subject is one of my all-time favorites. He divides the US population into nine classes, from 'top-out-of-sight' to 'bottom-out-of-sight', although his real work focuses on the two strata that comprise the middle class, plus the 'high' 'middle' and 'low' proles. Since I'm definitively a prole, I found his analysis of the middle class, especially the upper-middle class, particularly fascinating, since so much of it's foreign territory to me.

Fussell's genius is his ability to identify and isolate 'class markers', and not just the obvious ones (such as 'Did you learn how to sail as a child?' or 'Did your parents have a summer house?' For example: do you wear a short-sleeved shirt with a necktie? Then you're a high prole. When you can't hear what someone said to you, do you say 'Pardon?' 'Excuse me?' or 'What?' (The latter suggests higher class.) And so on -- brands, fabrics, vocal patterns/word choices, home decoration, and yes, of course, where you went to school/university -- all of these markers reveal social class.

I'd love to learn more about 'class markers' in Hong Kong. Any tips on this?


Class markers in HK

 Hi Mr. T,

I too enjoyed Fussell's book (the illustrations were also great!).  Vance Packard's " The status seekers : an exploration of class behaviour in America" is also good, although a bit out of date, it was useful and fascinating for me to read as a teenager.

 Another book that you might enjoy is "Thought Styles: Critical Essays on Good Taste" by the late Mary Douglas. She talks about consumption and what lies behind what we do and also what we eschew. I think one of the essays is titled "On Not Being Caught Dead In".  

Then there is Bourdieu - hard to read  except in small doses (at least for me) but with some amazing nuggets of insight and lots of data on French class systems in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

On to the main theme -  

Class markers in Hong Kong are a little harder to figure than in the USA, because there's even less OLD inherited wealth & only the middle-aged generation (my generation...)  and later were born here. I think things are still solidifying.

I think that schooling and club membership are some markers - is he an Old Boy of Kings College 1971? Did she graduate from St. Stephen's Girls School? DBS? DGS?   Is the family a member of any club? If so, which one? The Hong Kong Club, or the United Services Recreation Club? American Club? Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club? Shek O Golf and Country Club?

Then there is ethnic origin - is your family Chiu Chow and come to HK in the 1970s, or are you from a northern family that came in the late 1940s? I remember watching one of those night-time soap operas a few years ago and the main character girl was having dinner w/ her boyfriends family (an important Getting to Know You meal in a restaurant) and there is disdain on the boy's mother's part when she finds that the girl's family came from Toi San (too "common") whereas they came from Shanghai. 

Then the different ethnic communities have their own special variations and subtelties. 

Vacations -- I've heard that kids who vacation in China are sometimes looked down on by kids who vacation in Thailand, or better yet, Europe - at least in the international schools. 

House size & location - Do you live in a 1,500 square foot house? WHERE? 1,500 on the Peak is more prestigious than the same space in Disco Bay. 

The book "Consuming Hong Kong" edited by Gordon Matthews and Lui Tai-lok has an interesting chapter called "Hierarchy of drinks : alcohol and social class in Hong Kong" by Eric Kit-wai Ma. I found it very useful and revealing.

What voluntary associations does someone belong to - a local Kaifong association or electrical workers association, or the Po Leung Kuk? 

Elizabeth Sinn's book "Power and charity : a Chinese merchant elite in colonial Hong Kong" gives some insight into the development of the Tung Wah hospital and class and power in HK.

I think that much of the energy HK parents pour into their children's educational success has to do with their quest for "distinction" and  the desire to accumulate and to pass on cultural and social capital to their kids.

Rubie Watson also wrote a book on social class in HK, but rather old (published in 1985) and I only skimmed it, "Inequality among brothers : class and kinship in South China".

Manual labor is looked down on - I have young relatives who do not want to help out in their parents' pork stall while they are pursuing a degree, because they think that the neighbors will look down on them - that they must have failed exams and not been able to do any better for themselves.

The quest for paleness has definite class implications.

I think you may have a topic for several posts  - Hong Kong and social class (or hey, why not a PhD...?).


Class, status

Ah, I knew you'd be the source to turn to for sociological insight, SKMama! Thanks so much for that extremely rich and useful post. I've already reserved that Mary Douglas book from the public library (although I suppose the fact that I'm too cheap to buy it and hence cannot leave it lying around my living room further marks me as the mid-prole that I am).

I read Consuming Hong Kong (on your recommendation, I might add) and enjoyed it, but I found that chapter on drinks very limited. I mean, it was good, but its focus was so narrow -- I want lots of markers, like Fussell provides!

Your list of class markers is excellent. I would say you're on to two different systems, though -- one set of class markers for Hong Kong Chinese people, and one for expats living in HK. The two may overlap at points, but they're surely divergent as well.

Another interesting aspect of class here is the extent to which English class status/markers have bled into and taken root in the local status system. For example, the very act of calling someone an 'old boy' or 'old girl' of a school just drips of British class consciousness (or at least so it seems to me; this is more terra incognita as per my upbringing).

You're right that this is an area with great, great potential for further exploration . . . .

Class in Colonial Hong Kong (British or Euro)

Hi Mr. T,

 I agree that there are differences and convergence in the class systems of the "Expat"  and Chinese communities (which is what I meant by my comment on different ethnicities). This is not surprising. In the USA there used to be class differences within the Jewish community between the so-called German Jews ("Yekkies") whose history was well documented in  "Our Crowd": the Great Jewish Families of New York by Stephen Birmingham and those of Eastern European descent (Russians,  Poles, Litvak's , etc.). There was a great YA novel  about it  called Growing Up Rich  by Ann Bernays about a 15-year-old  who moves to Brookline to live w/ a family of academic s of Russian-Jewish descent on the death of her mother and stepfather. But, to WASPS (or other groups) they were all "Jews".

Every community and sub-community has it's pecking order. 

But, I digress.

I was recently re-reading The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham and there's a great little section about class distinction in the Colonial elite in Hong Kong in the 1920s.


Chapter 4

Kitty, coming to Hong-Kong on her marriage, had found it hard to reconcile herself to the fact that her social position was determined by her husband's occupation. Of course every one had been very kind and for two or three months they had gone out to parties almost every night; when they dined at Government House, the Governor took her in as a bride; but she understood quickly that as a wife of the Government bacteriologist she was of no particular consequence. It made her angry.

'It's too absurd', she told her husband. 'Why there's hardly any one here that one would bother with for five minutes at home. Mother wouldn't dream of asking any of them to dine at our house.'

'You musn't let it worry you.' he answered. 'It doesn't really matter, you know.'

'Of couse it doesn't matter, it  only shows how stupid they are, but it is rather funny when you think of all the people who used to come to our house at home that here we should be treated like dirt.'

'From a social standpoint the man of science does not exist,' he smiled.

She knew that now, but she had not known it when she married him.

'I don't know that it exactly amuses me to be taken in to dinner by the agnet of the P and O.' she said, laughing in order that what she said might not seem snobbish.

Perhaps he saw the reproach behind her lightness of manner, for he took her hand and shyly pressed it.

'I'm awafully sorry Kitty dear, but don't let it vex you.'

"Oh, I'm not going to let it do that."



then and now

Interesting article as always.


Funnily enough, a couple of alumni from my MBA class are having an email discussion about the book reviewed in the Economist "The factory for unhappy people" (


The consensus amongst those in the email, who all graduated between 10-30 years ago is that we weren't unhappy then and we're not that unhappy now.  HOWEVER (and I suspect this may be a partial response to the much protestations of skmama), one of the conversations I had with a professor when I was at the alumni event in July raised an important point.  He's been a professor there for around 20 years.  His concern about the current intakes of MBA students was that they were just not any fun anymore.  He was regailing us with stories of the major characters over his time of studying (some of whom we studied with), and his point was that a few mavericks, eccentrics, extremists, had more to contribute to the class than all the well turned out academically brilliant, tutored, pampered and prepared students he was seeing lately.  He sighed that he couldn't fault their 'intellect' or analytical skills or preparation for his classes.  But that the joy had gone out of it.  The controversy.  He found it a little scary.

I suspect that has a lot to do with pressure of conformity that Deresiewicz was alluding to.  Although we did have HUGE national differences, in a class of 90 I think there were some 30 nationalities, which is something that the so called diversity of the USA schools couldn't muster.  

Kids these days...


Hi Gweipo, interesting addition.

The other day, I was talking to my sister (who teaches a foreign language and literature at a small well regarded liberal arts college) about the impressive young people that I meet who are applying to colleges and how we were not so impressive when we were that age. She said something along the lines that she did not think they were more clever or intellectually engaged or public spirited, she said she thought it was that perhaps they were more or better packaged. Hmmmm. Food for thought.

Or, are these articles and this discussion we're having just typical "Sheeesh, kids these days...!" comments that have been going on for generations?

Or, are these young people (age 18-28 - birth years 1980-1990) just a group of "conformists" similar to the Silent Generation of the 1950s, the so-called Organization Man <> or Man in the Grey Flannel Suit <>

Perhaps this conformity is something that our genereation X/ Generation 13 (Mr. T & Mr Deresiewicz and me, I think Gweipo may be younger) find uncomofortable about the "Millenials". Complaints about conformity and lack-of-joy may be what our geneartion finds to be The Problem instead of whatever "grown-ups" complained about in young people 20 or 30 years ago.

An interesting book on  intergenerational differences (in the USA) is called Genereations: the History of America's Future, 1590-2069 by Neil Howe and William Strauss <>. I recommend it, as an interesting pop-history w/ some useful insights.

Mr. T,

One caveat for Mary Douglas's Thought Styles, the first chapter I remember as being boring and irrelevant. The work is a collection of essays, so you can skip it w/out fear of losing the thread of discussion.

I agree that the chapter on drinks left me wishing for more in Consuming Hong Kong.

Class, kids these days

Thanks much to Gweipo and skmama for continuing this thread with excellent comments.

The more I think about it, the more interesting I find the question of social status markers in HK. I don't know enough to speculate on local Chinese markers, beyond the obvious ones such as what car you drive, designer clothes, and so on. The ones you mentioned, skmama, such as 'where did your family originate and when did they come to HK' certainly seem to ring true.

But then as an expat I'm of course far more sensitive to our own little status games. Certainly where you work has something to do with it, but where you live may be the single best indicator, because in HK's hothouse environment, it says sooo very much! There's of course the assumption that living in Kowloon is declasse, which is obvious to almost anyone soon after arrival here, but after that it gets more interesting. Is the Peak still higher status than, for example, Shouson Hill or Repulse Bay or Red Hill? Is Saikung acceptable even though it's not on the island (I think yes, now it is, although it didn't use to be; SKMama, I'd love to hear your thoughts), is there a more middle-class-intensive place on earth than Discovery Bay, and so on. 

I wonder about this argument that college kids today are so dull, they can't think, etc. There may well be something to it, but I think we have to remember that there are many more kids going to college now than there were even one generation ago, especially in places like HK. They can't all be academic stars, that's for sure. 

The article in the Economist is interesting, Gweipo -- I found it quite comforting, in a schaudenfreudenische (sorry!) sort of way, I have to admit! 

Oh, and thanks for the tip on the Douglas book, SKMama; I'll keep that in mind.


Class will tell

In the spirit of Fussellian class analysis, I came across a stellar example in the Weekly Standard. Sam Schulman analyses the unmistakable class signs communicated by the presidential campaigns in the USA, complete with a nod to P Fussell himself. 

Also, I've read that Mary Douglas book, and will be back with more soon on class in HK . . . . 

Is it real or fake...

Here's perhaps an overly-simplified HK class marker:

Check the watch that the person in question is wearing.  Is it a Rolex?  If yes then -- BINGO! -- upper class!!!

A Singaporean-Chinese friend of mine (who lived in Hong Kong for a while) told me this recently.

No offense intended to Rolex wearers, of course.   Lovely timepieces you have -- congrats!  Just my tongue in my cheek...   :)


There's "old" but then there's OLD...

I think that it is interesting that some inherited money in HK might be considered as old.  Would it be exclusive of old money from pre-PRC China that was invested there, I wonder?  Or would it include pre-PRC money and thus be the continued maintenance of a family's wealth?

The books you've listed look like they should make very interesting reads.  I wonder how I would fit in as a Chinese-American if I moved to live there?  I know that the ultimate goal of many Chinese was emigrate to the US, but without sponsors or other restrictions, that was not possible for them.