Michael Wolraich's picture

    Marching on Pittsfield

    Williams College was never Berkeley. Founded in 1793 among the minor mountains of western Massachusetts, the red brick buildings of this tiny liberal arts college housed generations of white, Protestant elites from the East Coast. In 1961, the New York Times Magazine described Williams as "a gentleman's school -- fashionable, mildly snobbish, not too obtrusively intellectual."

    But by the time I entered Williams College in the fall of 1990, the school was more intellectual and, judging by the ubiquitous sweatshirts and jeans, less fashionable. While still mildly snobbish, Williams had heaved off its stuffy conservatism in favor of earnest multicultural liberalism.

    We were, most of us, the children of baby boomers. Our parents had filled us with stories of their turbulent age. We inhaled their nostalgia for heroic youth and aspired to hurl our own young bodies against injustice and oppression.

    The only trouble was finding it.

    In January of my freshman year, President George H.W. Bush launched the Gulf War. A rumor circulated around campus that the draft would be reinstated. The young men anxiously tried to determine how the draft had worked and calculate their odds. One student hung a banner from his window promising, "If I am drafted, I will serve!" which inspired several hours of heated conversations in the all-you-can-eat cafeteria.

    Some of us gathered on one of Williams' charming lawns to protest the war, but it wasn't easy to stoke our passions. Saddam Hussein was, after all, a brutal dictator, and he had invaded a sovereign country. And then, before we'd even begun to study for mid-term exams, the war was over.

    Next, we aimed our golden lances at racial inequality. The Jim Crow laws and segregated schools were long gone thanks to the courage of civil rights activists a generation before. Williams College, which had once shunned minorities, now avidly recruited them. Yet many African-Americans and Latinos remained desperately poor in America's inner cities, where they suffered gang violence, drug epidemics, police abuse, and widespread unemployment.

    We assailed gender inequality as well. My mother, in her day, had campaigned to end curfews for female students at her college. Curfew had never been an issue at Williams, since the college did not admit women until 1971. My incoming class, however, was evenly split between men and women. We shared co-ed bathrooms and enrolled in Womens Studies. Nonetheless, the gender ratio among professors was still skewed. Out in the real world, women earned less than men, and they were virtually shut out from top management positions.

    Unfortunately, it's hard to fight entrenched social inequality from a privileged mountain redoubt. Trying to reverse crushing cycles of endemic poverty, of which we hadn't the faintest experience, was an exercise in confusion. Creating job opportunities and raising salaries, when we ourselves earned only minimum wage if we worked at all, was beyond our skill.

    What we needed was a villain—a person or institution responsible for all the social injustices at whom we could roar with rage or humiliate with wit. We found our antagonist in the White Male Power Structure, a massive network of powerful white men that had wrapped women, African-Americans, and other disadvantaged classes in invisible chains.

    But the White Male Power Structure is a wily opponent. It does not arrest you or spray you with a fire hose. You cannot outlaw it or sue it or beat it. And it stubbornly ignores the objections of earnest college students, no matter how passionately or cleverly presented.

    So we read our Foucault, smoked our clove cigarettes, and bided our time. Then something happened. White cops in Los Angeles savagely beat a black man named Rodney King. We watched it on a video. Real live American racism in all its horrific splendor!

    In the spring of my sophomore year, a mostly white jury added injustice to injury by acquitting the police officers involved in the beating. Los Angeles exploded in race riots. Williams College quivered with righteous indignation.

    On May 4, 1992, more than 500 Williams students, a full quarter of the student body, marched 23 miles to a federal building in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to protest the verdict. Pittsfield is a small, depressed town with a miniscule black population. The federal building has no relation to the California court system, but it stood in for the White Male Power Structure. And it was a convenient marching distance from Williams College.

    At the protest, student speakers eloquently harangued federal employees and the citizens of Pittsfield about the injustices of modern America. An enterprising group of Poli-Ec majors sold "I Marched on Pittsfield" tee shirts. Then everyone came back to campus to study for final exams.

    In 1994, we graduated and eventually became doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, management consultants, investment bankers, and other white-collar professionals. The tee-shirt-selling Poli-Ec majors founded an Internet startup and made millions.  A few of us went into non-profit work. One worked as a union organizer for the telecoms until she became disillusioned with union politics and took a telephone repair job with better pay and fewer hours.

    The inequalities we protested still exist, though they have somewhat receded. You don't hear much about the White Male Power Structure these days. Many of us rallied behind the historic election of a black president, but the novelty soon faded. We live on with a nagging sense that the world remains sick, but we cannot diagnose the pathogen, and our attempts to cure it have all the effect of a march on Pittsfield's federal building.


    But you did bring down the White Male Power Structure.  Glenn Beck told me so.  Well, not really.  But I am proud that we're even more tolerant and urbane than our parents.  In a lot of very real ways we're better behaved.  I don't believe in any sort of automatic progress but just try going back to the early 90s and trying to have a serious conversation about same sex marriage.

    One of my best HS buddies went to Williams, probably class of 1977. Being focused on Architecture, I hadn't even been aware of the school. He studied his own major, Chemo-Classics, and now teaches Chemistry and SciFi in LA.

    You're too dismissive of the march on Pittsfield and the other OK things you and your peers did. There were others who couldn't be bothered or actively disagreed. And in your case you've written your book which will do a lot of good.

    As well as being fun to read.

    In truth, I wasn't one of the people who marched on Pittsfield, though many of my friends did. I thought the march was pointless. I don't think that my book will do a lot of good either, but maybe it will do a little good.

    That said, this post wasn't really about the march on Pittsfield but rather an attempt to explain the apathy of my generation and those that have succeeded it.

    More than that.

    (That applies to your evaluation of your  book)

    I was lucky enough to have the Vietnam War to shape my anti-colonial, anti-militarist outlook. (Not so lucky: nearly 60,000 Americans and 2 million Vietnamese.) By that conflict's end, it felt like America had learned the limits of imperial power, but apparently not.

    So I had to make a new sign and join tens of thousands greeting George Bush on his state visit to Ottawa in late 2004. (By now, I'm under no illusion that such protests influence decision-making. They're just things you have a duty to do, like vote and brush your teeth.) Anyway it was fun party, if chilly.

    A friend and I took a break from the main demo to eat and shoot some pool, and were heading back to Parliament Hill when the presidential motorcade turned onto our side street, heading for a state supper with the PM. We were the only protesters on the block, so I waved my sign vigorously at his limo's tinted windows. If George was looking out, I'm sure he could read it. I even rotated it, so he could read the French version, equally clever, on the reverse side. Good times!

    It must be harder when you live in the States, and the government is doing protestable things just about every single day. How do you decide which ones are bad enough to warrant a trip to the capitol? Fortunately, more and more state governments are getting in on the act, so there's less travel required to form an angry mob.

    And Flavius is right: your book may, just may, open some minds.

    Well obviously, elite college students are part of the power structure already, and are being steadily recruited into the power structure. Forward-thinking policies might turn that White Male Power Structure into the Multiracial 48% Male Power Structure, but there's still elitism and privilege of various kinds. That doesn't mean that the people entering the power structure should decide it's dandy the way it is, or that it needs to get even more structurally powerful. Every society has *some* kind if power structure, and you should try to get the most reasonable, flexible, and open one that you can manage. On the other hand, sticking it to The Man while you're being educated to be The Man in a school where you were carefully selected for your Man-being potential is always a tricky business. You want to be in the highly selective seminar AND be the Voice of the Common People? Don't hog all the gigs at once.

    I think protest marches are great things, but like all tactics they're good for different situations. Sometimes, they're absolutely the best move to make. Sometimes they're counterproductive. But some people are drawn to particular tactics by the romance that go with those tactics, whether they're the right thing to do or not. My thiking in college was that if the march was too small, you shouldn't hold it. For God's sake, don't let the powers that be figure out that there are only six of us!

    Marches are good to show that huge groups of people are deeply angry, and so they work best when the Powers that Be are trying to pretend there's not a problem. Segreationists want to pretend that most black folk don't have a problem with Jim Crow? Can't say that anymore, just like you can't pretend that Mubarak has a lot of popular support. Mass protests are about the problems that have been swept under the rug. They're not great for making detailed policy demands, or for working out a public debate where the general positions are already clear.

    Sometimes, the better move is to write your legislator or your book, to work on a campaign or an op-ed for CNN.com. It's not that one move is better or nobler than the other. It's that they are useful in different ways, at different moments.

    For God's sake, don't let the powers that be figure out that there are only six of us!

    Why am I suddenly considering the idea of holding an ill-prepared, under-advertised march protesting the findings of the climatological community?

    You and me. Nobody else. Our symbol of defiance: underwear on our heads! SCIENCE AM WRONG!!!

    I think we should also invite this guy:

    (I'm not sure, but I think it's quinn - the "GO USA" thing is just a decoy.)

    I can confirm that is indeed quinn (the moron never could spell). The pic is from a demo we both attended in the early '80s, held to urge Canadian comic Rick Moranis to do the smart thing and move to the U.S. Rick followed our advice, and the result was Ghostbusters. You're welcome.

    Huh. I always thought that quinn WAS Rick Moranis.

    Wait ... Quinn is me?

    This confuses me.


    1. Yes, I am a Cardinals fan (Stay, Albert, Stay!!!)

    2. Yes, I think many Americans (see: commenters above) are indeed, Morans. 

    3. No, I don't rock bandanas. I'm a helmet kinda guy. See: below. (Left.)

    The whole thing is maybe the best comment I have ever read.  My favorite part:

    sticking it to The Man while you're being educated to be The Man in a school where you were carefully selected for your Man-being potential is always a tricky business. You want to be in the highly selective seminar AND be the Voice of the Common People? Don't hog all the gigs at once.


    So Cool.

    Thanks for the considered comment, Doc. I don't think that we had many illusions about our privileged status. We weren't trying to become prophets of the people. We were trying to become our parents. We wanted to be the kids that marched in Alabama or burned their draft cards.

    The Pittsfield march symbolized our longing to make a difference. I didn't tell the story of the march to make a point about effective vs. ineffective protest but to illustrate our frustration. By the time we came of age, the greatest structural injustices of American society had dissolved, and the remaining injustices were tight knots that we felt powerless to untie.

    Here's another anecdote that didn't quite fit into the piece. One day, we woke to find racist graffiti scrawled in the student union. As you would expect, the administration and student body reacted with all the righteous condemnations that a liberal arts college can muster, which is substantial.

    But then they caught the culprit. It was an African-American student who was active in the Black Student Union. This poor guy was so hungry for overt racism to attack that he manufactured it. And of course, we were all too happy to join him. We wanted evidence of racism almost as much as he did.

    Yes, I never doubted that you understood that you were privileged. You're very smart.

    I guess what set me off was the romance of the protest, the desire to have the same experience that the Boomers had gone through. It's the desire to do good, but also the desire to do good in a particular way, even when there was no special need for that particular kind of do-gooding. But I also think every 20-year-old would rather go to a rally than sit stuffing enevelopes or phone-banking. It's pretty natural.

    And let's say that it's not only kids who sometimes want to take the cool action and not the most effective one. I read your post with a recent conversation in my mind, and it colored my response a little.

    The romance was definitely a major part of it. Frankly, I assume that the romance is always a major part of civil protest, and that's OK. It gets people off the couch.

    Our problem was that we had very little that was tangible enough to protest. Our feeble protests were empty.

    Sometimes it gets people onto the couch. Mmm, post-rally sex. Post-envelope-stuffing, not so much. Seriously, when political militancy was cool, it got you laid. Or increased that possibility. No?

    Hey, I went right to the "Block Bork" rally my first semester. I wanted to have my College Protest Days, too. (And, as acanuck says, meet some young ladies with congenial politics.) I'm all for big political romance, the same way I'm for charismatic candidates who look good on TV.

    And if I'm talking in too much detail about the all-riled-up-and-nowhere-to-go problem, it's because I've felt that pain. Where were my barricades, man? Why did the kids in the Sixties have all the fun?

    The funniest take on this I ever saw was by the stand-up comic Eugene Mirman, who I knew a little when he was a college kid. One Saturday I was walking through green and pleasant Amherst, Massachusetts and there was Eugene and seven or eight buddies from Hampshire College. They were having a "protest" on the town green. Their signs said things like "Pro-Good" and "Anti-Bad."

    Eugene asked me if I wanted to picket with them, but I said I was busy.

    This was an enjoyable read.  You have such a pleasant writing voice/style.  

    Thank you for the sweet compliment, Emma. I'm glad that you enjoyed the piece. Personal pieces are my favorite to write, but I often feel that I have so little to say about my life that anyone would want to here.

    Here is something I heard the other day. I was talking via Skype with the son of a Spanish friend who is studying International Relations at Brown. He speaks perfect English and was an A student in one of Madrid's most academically demanding schools. In order not to suffer too much culture shock, before going to the states to study he decided to do his freshman year at the Madrid campus of the Saint Louis University, which is run by American Jesuits mainly for rich Spanish kids, whose grades are not good enough to get them into the public universities. There are a lot of Americans there too because it is considered a fun, Mickey Mouse way to spend a year in Spain in a diploma mill. My friend's son said the teachers were OK, but the American kids were amazingly ignorant, however, though dumb, they were nice kids.

    What was his surprise on entering Brown to discover that the students of IR at top drawer Brown were also amazingly ignorant, also dumb, but also very narcissistic... because of course, they were at Brown. Dumb and narcissistic is a very unattractive combination in his humble opinion.

    He is now exploring the other areas of study there to see if the problem is International Studies, that maybe he would be better off studying history or even law. He can't believe that they are all going to be that dumb. 

    He can't believe that they are all going to be that dumb. 

    Does he include himself in that assessment because he would have to be fairly naive not to have realized that some fields, like IR, are dominated by a power elite who sometimes allow in new members to refresh the gene pool but still reserve the top decider slots for themselves.  

    Something related:  http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/2011/02/government-by-the-rich/

    I think another way of saying this is that while all fields contain bright people, some fields are much better than others at keeping out the idiots.

    I used to think that.  Now I am not so sure we have any 'best and brightest' anymore or that we ever did in my lifetime. That is without even yet reading Tyler Cowen's e-paper, The Great Stagnation.  It has created quite a buzz among econ and some name bloggers.  I have read some of the buzz as Tyler usually links to reviews both good and bad.

    What I think my friend may be discovering is that even the elite universities in the US have been dumbed down enough to fit what American high schools are turning out. In short, it is all a fraud, an educational Ponzi scheme. American education has been decontented.

    I get the impression that this is just another chapter in the saga of Edward Bernays.

    I blame the Wizard of Oz and the Scarecrow.


    The Bernays "movement" was about making people "feel good" about themselves, without basing that on any reality. Creating what Hoover called "happiness machines" instead of grown up citizens.

    I would respectfully submit that this claim is a folk belief and not a description of empirical reality. Disgruntled nostalgia about how back in one's own day everyone learned more than these kids today do is not actual evidence.

    I didn't teach any students at an elite university today, but I've taught and advised elite-school undergraduates within the last ten years or so, and they were superbly prepared. There is always a transition from high-school-level to college-level work, but my students had clearly gone to excellent high schools, who turned out some alarmingly smart young people.

    (At less elite institutions, there are also brilliant students, but the mix of preparation levels is much higher, and less elite schools do have to cope with students who were not adequately prepared for college. But Williams College is surely not having any such problem.)

    Thanks, Doc. I concur that the caliber of Williams students skyrocketed in the 1970s and 1980s and has remained stellar. Older alumni routinely say that they would never have gotten into Williams under the current admissions standards.

    And with all due respect to Mr. Seaton's adopted country, my fellow Williams students who studied in Spain and other European countries found the universities to be unchallenging, and that's a major understatement. Even Oxford, where I studied abroad, was less rigorous than I and my American classmates were accustomed to.

    (My apologies for the defensive pique.)

    I had a professor from the U of Texas Austin, tell me in the mid-90s that she could never demand of her students what was demanded of her when she was a student... she'd be in her mid-60s today. Where I think you see some difference in favor of US universities is at the post grad level... European high schools are definitely tougher than American ones. Spanish kids who have gone for the "year of American high school, living with an American family" all say that they got straight A grades without even cracking a book in US high school as juniors, everything that was being taught they had already studied in the 8th grade and that they had a devil's old time catching up when they got home.

    So I would say that where they separate the sheep from the goats in the US system is at the post grad level and that an American bachelors degree is fairly Mickey Mouse and a US high school diploma nearly worthless if compared with a French Lycee "bacc".

    The only thing I can think of that would account for such a huge improvement at Williams would be if before the 70s there had been some sort of "gentleman's agreement" that excluded Jews. Obviously if that were removed there would be a huge jump in academic achievement.

    The only thing I can think of that would account for such a huge improvement at Williams would be ...

    Maybe you can't think of many reasons because you actually don't know a lot about American higher education. Maybe you shouldn't spend so much energy trying to squeze surprising facts into your cherished theories, but try to change your theories to fit the facts.

    One thing that would account for such huge improvement is that the admissions rate has plummeted (and keeps getting smaller) at selective American colleges. Williams College currently admits only about one in five students who apply. No college in America had admissions standards that strict, or nearly that strict, in the 1960s. In short, Williams College has improved because it has become much, much harder to get into. Every elite college in America has gotten much, much harder to get into. Did you not know that?

    This is a fact. It is easily confirmable public knowledge. You'll forgive me if I pay more attention to those drastically-shrinking admissions rates than I do to your friend muttering about how much tougher it was in her day. It was always tougher back in your own day, David, because you were the one taking the test instead of handing it out. But that isn't evidence.

    You're clearly very attached to your story in which students at elite schools don't learn anything and focus on self-esteem rather than accomplishments. But those students have actually been selected through the most grueling college admissions process ever, and they got there by compiling an absurdly impressive track record of accomplishments. They are competitive, ambitious, and focused on tangible achievement in ways that actually border on unhealthy. Almost no group of people in the history of the world fit your description of self-satisfied self-esteem junkies less than these kids would.

    This comment  deserves a bravo  to you DocCleveland, well said. I am in complete  agreement. I haven't had those students Seaton describes, the majority of students I have had are hard working, most hold down jobs, they study hard, they work hard. There isn't anything I can say really, except I am in 100% agreement.

    You make it all sound so wonderful, but if you look at the international rankings, you'll see that American students are quite mediocre in most fields measured. What my friend said is that the teachers are rather good, but that the kids are very ignorant and at the same time very narcissitic.

    As to the difficulty of entering Williams there is an prosperous American friend of mine who is married to a Catalan and her son got into Williams on a scholorship because his mother is 1/8th Cherokee indian 1/4 African-American and he has a "hispanic" last name. Go figure.

    What I think my friend may be discovering is that even the elite universities in the US have been dumbed down enough to fit what American high schools are turning out.

    -David Seaton, italics in original

    How does your chart, which covers the entire United States, say anything about elite college and universities? Harvard and Yale and Williams and MIT haven't slacked off. The rest of the country has been allowed to suffer. The top 1% of the educational system, like the top 1% of the economic arrangement, does just fine.

    And of course, you were educated decades ago, and don't know how to use figures like means. So maybe mathematical concepts weren't taught so rigorously or effectively

    Look at the first column in your little chart, the column for income inequality. Do you see how the US is getting a banana-republic level of social stratification? Do you think those kinds of changes might, just might, be reflected in other arrangements.

    But by parrotting the talking point about elite colleges being dumbed down, a point you make not from knowledge or evidence but from your own boundless self-esteem, you help cover up the ugly reality. Elite education is more elite than it ever has been, and the American plutocracy makes sure it stays that way. It's the poor kids who are simply allowed to go to hell.

    Doc I think we agree totally that the elite of America are every day more elite. The question is are they any smarter than they were. That they may be just as dumb as the rest, would fit perfectly with the new situation. The whole point of an established oligarchy as against a democratic meritocracy is for the oligarchs to be able to find good positions for their dumb children... as smart people always find some way to get along. To maintain the prestige of certain institutions while in fact dumbing them down, would be a perfect fit.

    And yet those elite schools are vastly more academic and less oligarchical in their admissions policies then they once were. George W. Bush would not get into Yale today with the kind of grades he had.

    Come with facts, or don't come at all.

    Dubya would come under "legacy", wouldn't he?

    Although being a legacy gives you an advantage, it doesn't guarantee your entrance. Whether or not Dubya would be able to get in today, it wouldn't solely be due to him being a legacy. (Note: I'm not supporting the legacy advantage.)

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