When and how America works best

What happens to students who come from low-income backgrounds but catapult into the world of high-powered universities? For many, it is intensely unsettling, forcing them to bestride two worlds.

Jenna Shoenefeld/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Rudy Torres, graduate of Brown University, at his home in East Los Angeles, Calif.

This week’s cover story is even mightier than it might at first appear.

The story is fascinating: What happens to students who come from low-income backgrounds but catapult into the world of high-powered universities? For many, it is intensely unsettling, forcing them to bestride two worlds – the world they know but which holds little hope of a prosperous future, and the world of wealth, which can seem unfriendly and utterly out of touch.

In examining this tension, writer Laura Pappano opens a window to a world few see. But she also does something more. She offers a portrait of the very thing the United States – and the world – needs most. She hints at how nations actually grow and thrive.

In his book “Our Kids,” Robert Putnam tells of a small Midwestern town in the late 1950s – rich kids and poor kids, black kids and white kids. And he delivers one echoing truth: The barrier of class for kids of any background was far lower than it is today. The protagonists in Mr. Putnam’s story didn’t go to Ivy League schools. Yet they found a prosperity that was, in many ways, unthinkable to their parents.

To an astonishing degree, class barriers fell. Today, that spigot has tightened so much that the protagonists in Laura’s cover story feel like laboratory experiments. They are the exceptions, not the rule.

And that is the point. Economic mobility is perhaps the greatest engine of progress. And it is no longer America’s story to the degree it once was.

Economic mobility is so powerful because it spontaneously creates and broadens wealth. So often today, we feel like lions fighting over a water buffalo – more people scrapping over the same resources. But economic mobility creates wealth by growing the pool of people who can make more meaningful economic contributions. “We are what wealth creation looks like,” says one of Laura’s protagonists.

Economic mobility also renovates and reenergizes a society. The people in Laura’s story feel uneasy precisely because they are breaking down barriers that have become rigid. They bring fresh thinking. They become bridge builders. 

Now imagine if these people were the norm. Imagine the creativity and energy that can be unleashed, the sense of opportunity that can radiate from doing so. When the 1950s are held up as the time when America was great, it is because this was the norm. This is not a moment to recapture or entrench, but rather to commit to our economy’s transcendent power to expand and uplift.

*          *          *

In this issue we are happy to announce the launch of a new feature: a language-focused column called “In a Word.”

The column will be helmed by Melissa Mohr, a linguistics scholar with a PhD in medieval and renaissance studies from Stanford University. “In a Word” is the successor to the excellent “Verbal Energy” that flourished for almost two decades in the highly capable hands of Ruth Walker. Fittingly, Melissa’s first column is a tribute to Ruth, from one distinguished word lover to another. 

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