I teach middle school English in the town of Frisco, which is a northern exurb of Dallas. When I was a kid, Frisco was a water tower that we whizzed by on the way to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle up in Denison, near the Oklahoma line. Now, if you know the area, you know that it's a booming city, with a huge mall, the area's only IKEA store, and a school district that will eventually have 9 high schools.
Our principal refers to Frisco as Fantasy Land at times. He should know; he's taught in school districts that are a lot less affluent, and where parent involvement is nil and student behavior is ridiculous. Before I came to Frisco, I taught in another Dallas suburb that had mostly poor students (as defined by the Title I standards set by the federal government) and an administration that, frankly, was more interested in giving jobs to as many family and friends it could find than paying attention to instruction, and our financial hijinks almost sent the district the way of Wilmer-Hutchins.
All this is to say that I know what it's like outside Frisco. Or outside Highland Park. Outside any of the enclaves that have grown up in the midst of Greater Dallas. Enclaves where those who have worked very hard and done very well for themselves have settled, to pursue the American Dream, in the form of mansions and overseas vacations and Hummers.
Jonathan Miller, a friend from my freshman dorm at SMU, sent out a link to an article by the columnist Charles Murray on what he calls the "New American Divide," in advance of a book about the new separations in society, and about the best way to bridge those separations.
But here's his main idea: while there's nothing wrong with doing well, or even extremely well, by separating themselves off into neighborhoods of mansions, spending all of their time at country clubs, only getting involved with charity at fancy functions, the very successful are doing themselves -- and the rest of the nation -- a disservice.
What Murray calls "cultural inequality" is an intriguing notion. You see, it's not OK anymore to tell other people what to do, or how to do it. As a result, too many people in the working classes of all cultural backgrounds are opting out of the institutions that teach self-sacrifice, hard work, and cooperative effort. Marriage, participation in the work force, and philanthropy are all dwindling in the lower classes.
Murray's argument is that this has happened because (1) policies in the 1960's made it much easier for unmarried mothers to survive economically without a partner and for people to subsist without employment, and (2) those who are still marrying for long periods of time, working very hard and doing very well for themselves are checking out of mainstream society.
They go to their own churches, move to their own secluded neighborhoods, and participate in charity work by sending checks and going to galas, rather than mingling with those that they would help. They don't have any people to mentor who come from less privileged backgrounds, or from homes in which poor decisions have been made, because they don't associate with them.
This, for Murray, is the new segregation. His solution: for people to choose to move, yes, to move, into neighborhoods and to go to churches and to visit social institutions where they will have to help people. As Murray puts it, "Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile."
As an example in Dallas, I would hold up that group of parents that still sends their kids to Lakewood Elementary School in Dallas, all the way up through Woodrow Wilson High School. They believe that their school district should be great -- and many of the parents there believe that part of participating in a community means attending your public school, and contributing to the community by being a part of it.
What if, instead of razing tenements and turning them into high rises and condos and row houses that just become new enclaves, urban planners sought to create more zones like North Oak Cliff, where residents mingle from a variety of backgrounds and work together to make a strong community? If more of the extremely wealthy demanded it, more of those sorts of developments would grow.
Please put your comments below -- I'm curious to hear all of your thoughts about this. The idea that we all need to cooperate as members of a larger community is decidedly old-school. But there's nothing wrong with that. Here's the link to Murray's column: