Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 3

After I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1991, I changed my career plans from law to academia. I was clearly better suited to the latter, and circumstances seemed favorable. There were many reports of a glut of lawyers on the labor market. Also, the early ’90s were a rare time when people expected a boom in academic hiring. Experts on the academic world predicted the boom based on two demographic facts: (a) many older professors would soon be retiring and (b) the Baby Boomers’ children would soon be going to college.

In the end, of course, the new golden age failed to arrive. When old profs retired, colleges cancelled some positions and hired many adjunct professors. For myself, I tried to overcome obstacles through hard work, but found a remarkable amount of corruption. I did meet professors who were honest, open-minded, and fair, but they were in the minority.

I obtained an MA in history at Virginia, specializing in modern European, and particularly British, political history. I wanted to continue to the PhD, and I applied to programs at other, higher rated institutions. Virginia was deficient in both funding and placement, and I wanted to give myself the best chance possible.

Over the next couple years, I wound up teaching community college to pay the bills and obtain experience. I applied to different PhD programs in history. I applied to institutions that had leading experts in my specialty fields, as well as overall prestige. On that basis, my first choice was Columbia University.

There was another reason that Columbia appealed to me. I wanted to get into non-academic writing as well. In fact, I had considered journalism school. But every J-school person I spoke to said that it was important to have experience, at least with student newspapers, before you applied. I had wanted to write for one of the two student papers at Virginia, but, for reasons I discussed in Part 2, I didn’t have time for any extracurricular activities.

Had I enrolled at Columbia, I would have had a home base in New York City. I planned to pursue summer internships at prominent newspapers and magazines. I figured that with clips, contacts, and an Ivy League doctorate, I would be able to publish writing on politics and particularly issues related to my academic expertise.

My grades and recommendations were excellent, and I achieved high scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). I ranked among the top 1% on the verbal test and on the history subject test. I believe my writing samples and personal statement were very strong. In the latter, I tried to show how adversity had made me relentless in my studies and enthusiastic about scholarship.

I was admitted to Columbia, but denied funding. I contacted the professors and tried to change their minds. They did not relent, but encouraged me to apply again later. After compiling some community-college teaching experience, I re-applied. I was admitted without funding again. So there is exactly one reason why I don’t have an Ivy League degree or experience at leading New York-based publications: I was not born rich.

I tried other graduate programs as well. Cornell rejected me outright. I inquired about the program at Brown, but the professor who would have been my advisor told me not to bother applying.

When I looked at the undergraduate institutions of the students who did enroll at Columbia, Cornell, and Brown, I noticed that a grossly disproportionate number had bachelor’s degrees from the Ivy League. No one has compiled detailed statistics on the social backgrounds of grad students at the Ivy League, but it has been clear for some time that those institutions are socially exclusive at the undergraduate level.

I wonder how many sons or daughters of manual laborers enrolled at Columbia’s Department of History during the 1990s, that alleged era of new-found diversity consciousness. Did it happen even once? I wonder about Brown and Cornell, too. What I can say is that of all the graduate students and professors whose backgrounds I came to know, none were working class. They were mostly upper-middle class, and that was especially true of Ivy Leaguers.

I was admitted with funding to the history PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis and enrolled in 1996. I suppose that Wash. U.’s defenders would say that the university deserves credit for admitting and funding someone from my background. But the truth is that the administration funds graduate students in history mainly to provide cheap grading and teaching assistance for the bourgeois Ivy Leaguers and Oxbridge grads on the faculty. History grad students at Wash. U. don’t really have the chance to rise to the same professional level as their professors, and the administrators know that.

Of course, I should never have gone to Wash. U. In my defense, the program’s placement efforts were more successful at the time. The academic job market got worse thereafter. Also, I knew that I never wanted to go into business. I had seen what standard business practice meant for workers like myself, my friends, and family members. I wanted to work to change that system, not join it.

As I entered the dissertation phase of the program at Wash. U., I decided that I needed to try to reach a wide, non-academic audience with writing on social class in America. No other writers dealt with that issue properly. I submitted a lot of articles and looked for better career alternatives than college teaching.

The Wash. U. history PhDs who got jobs tended to get them after years on the academic market. Even then, some became adjuncts or high-school teachers. Many of those who had to wait had someone to support them in the meantime. I didn’t. Also, those who landed tenure-track jobs generally wound up with bad jobs. They had low pay and heavy course loads that made writing of any kind difficult. Finally, I got hired as an archive assistant at Wash. U. Hey, it seemed like the best option at the time.

Over the years, I have sent countless submissions and pitches to publications around the English-speaking world. I’ve applied for many entry-level magazine/newspaper jobs, and tried to land research positions in the union movement and at progressive think tanks. Those applications were unsuccessful. I published a lot of articles in alternative publications, but never made any real money. If you look at the people who hold the paying positions in academia and the writing business, you will see a proliferation of Ivy Leaguers (and disproportionately preppies). Likewise, many paid writers previously held unpaid internships in NYC. I was locked out of that world due to my social class.

I don’t deny that I made mistakes, but my mistakes should not have been so costly. Had I been from the right social class, they would not have been considered mistakes at all. That is the issue.

I never wanted another working-class person to face the elitist barriers that stood in my way. But it happens all the time, and no major media outlet will take the matter seriously. Working-class people should not be so grossly under-represented in leading undergraduate and graduate programs. When we overcome obstacles and achieve at a high level, we should not be excluded because we “only” attended public institutions.

Access to a leading university should never be a matter of ability to pay—at either the undergraduate or graduate level. Nor should anyone have to take out loans to pay for higher education. It is now almost impossible to make a decent living in safe working conditions without a college degree. Making a profit off someone who needs access to college is the moral equivalent of charging a fee to exit a burning building.

Likewise, hiring and promotion decisions about people in their 30s and older should not be based on which colleges admitted them when they were teenagers, or which graduate schools admitted them when they were in their 20s. Success in landing paid writing gigs should not depend on attending an elite college or prep school, nor on working free internships in New York City while your parents pay your bills. Those means of determining fitness for top jobs were devised to keep those posts in the hands of a rich, well-connected elite. It is class bias hiding behind the terms “academic excellence” and “professional development.”

That problem is endemic to society, particularly in the class-ridden U.S.A. But the realms of academe and writing are ruled by class bigotry at its most fanatical.

If you’re a working-class person with stories to share about your experiences in higher education, please e-mail them to me at


Overstating Diversity at Columbia, Part 2

I heard back from U.S. News & World Report on the error I reported to them. (See Part 1 here.) “U.S. News Webmaster ” wrote:

Thank you for contacting U.S. News. We are relaying data supplied by the university.  If you have concerns with the data, you should contact Columbia’s office of institutional research. Regards,

I replied:

OK. I’ll check with Columbia’s institutional research office.

But I believe that U.S. News ought to investigate and fix the error. It is certainly an error. On the Columbia University web page, there is a list of annual enrollments. The figures for 2012 and 2013 undergraduate enrollment are even higher than the ones reported by the U.S. Department of Education: 8,274 and 8,365 respectively.

There is simply no basis for the 6,084 enrollment figure stated by U.S. News or the resulting claim that 30% of Columbia undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients.


Chris Pepus

Well, you see how it is. I can’t help thinking that if this issue had involved a category of diversity other than socioeconomic, the error would have been discovered by now by someone whose actual job is to write about education. And U.S. News & World Report would have made a correction.

This is turning into a mini-series. Stay tuned and see what I find out.

Update: Ultimately, I decided not to bother asking Columbia officials about this. The links I cited from the federal government and the Columbia web site prove that U.S. News is wrong about that university’s enrollment and its percentage of Pell recipients. There can’t be any doubt about that, and I have more pressing subjects to address.

Overstating Diversity at Columbia: U.S. News & World Report Rankings

Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

While doing some research using the U.S. News & World Report rankings of top colleges, I discovered an error. In one set of rankings, the magazine’s staff takes its list of 25 highest rated national universities and compares economic diversity at those institutions. The benchmark used is the percentage of undergraduates who receive Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for students with financial need.

To make a long story short, U.S. News exaggerated Columbia University’s percentage of Pell Grant recipients by 30%. A couple days ago, I sent U.S. News staff the message below. I pointed out the error, explained why it was misleading, and urged them to correct it. I’ll let you know if I receive a reply.

Dear Editors:

I discovered an error in your report on economic diversity at the 25 highest rated national universities. You judged economic diversity by comparing percentages of Pell Grant recipients enrolled at each institution. The report states that 30% of Columbia University undergraduates received Pell Grants in the 2012-13 academic year.

That is an error caused by understating Columbia’s enrollment, which you list as 6,084.

According to your accompanying introduction, the enrollment figure for each institution was the “fall 2012 total undergraduate enrollment collected from the colleges themselves by U.S. News.” I checked enrollment data for several of the colleges on your list at the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics. The 2012 enrollments listed there do not match yours, and Columbia’s is not close. However, the 2013 enrollments do match the ones on your list that I checked, except (again) for Columbia.

You can find the NCES statistics at this page, by selecting an institution, then selecting “Reported Data.” Next, you have to select the year, then “Fall Enrollment.” Then, scroll to the end.

According to the NCES data, Columbia’s fall 2013 enrollment is 7,970. To be accurate, and consistent with the other enrollments you listed, that is the figure you should use. The federal government also reports that 1,819 Pell Grant recipients were enrolled at Columbia in the 2012-13 academic year.

That yields a percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Columbia of 22.8% or, by rounding up, 23%. You have exaggerated the percentage of Pell Grant recipients at Columbia by 30%.

That error is very misleading. If we look at economic diversity at top U.S. colleges, there is a striking gap between the two leading University of California institutions (36-39%) and the Ivy League (between 12% and 23%).

Placing Columbia’s percentage in the 30s, along with UCLA and UCB, creates the false impression that the socioeconomic gap in American higher education is much smaller than it actually is.

I urge you to correct the error.


Chris Pepus


War and the American Elite

Francisco de Goya, The Consequences, Disasters of War, Plate 72, circa 1814-15.
Francisco de Goya, The Consequences, Disasters of War, Plate 72, circa 1814-15.

In 2013, the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq prompted media-makers to look back on that shameful time. There was some discussion of the media’s ready acceptance of the Bush administration’s fraudulent case for attacking Iraq. But no one seemed to notice that top journalists and commentators were amenable to warmongering because nearly all of them were born into the war-profiting class rather than the war-fighting class. So I wrote an article pointing that out. It was published in the print edition of Razorcake and has not appeared online before now.

In a previous post, I discussed social elitism in the media, using The Paris Review and Vanity Fair as examples. If you read that one—thank you—but wondered what the big deal was, perhaps this article will answer that question.

War and the American Elite (Razorcake # 75, August 1, 2013)

This year marks the tenth anniversary of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The war’s horrific toll is still being discovered, but here are some current totals. To date, 4,488 American troops died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the Department of Defense. The best estimate[i] for the number of Iraqis killed as a result of the war comes from The Lancet, the leading British medical journal. The figure is 654,965 dead. That count does not include deaths that took place after July 2006. Neither figure includes U.S. civilians or nationals of other countries who died in the conflict. Nor do they account for soldiers or civilians who were wounded or for Iraqis who were tortured in U.S. detention centers.

As for the war’s cost to the U.S. economy, two leading economists—Joseph Stiglitz (winner of the Nobel Prize) and Linda Bilmes—produced a 2008 study placing it at $3 trillion. Of course, not everyone suffered from the war. Oil companies received colossal profits when the price of their product more than tripled. Defense contractors such as Halliburton (where Dick Cheney served as chief executive officer) also achieved huge financial gains.

As the 10-year anniversary passed, corporate media took time to look back, reflect, and try out some new excuses for publishing lies to support the case for war. This past March, for instance, The Washington Post published a piece by Paul Farhi on whether the press failed in its prewar coverage of Iraq. You might think that is a simple question. The Bush administration and prominent media outlets claimed that Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and was involved in the 9/11 attacks. They also warned that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was on its way to acquiring more, including nuclear weapons. Of course, none of that was true.

Did the media fail? “‘Failure’ grossly oversimplifies what the media did and didn’t do before the war,” Farhi explained. “Thousands of news stories and columns published before the war described and debated the administration’s plans and statements, and not all of them were supportive.” Apparently, the news people can only be judged as failures if every story turns out to be bullshit. The propaganda ministries in history’s worst totalitarian regimes could have beaten that standard.

In further defense of his colleagues, Farhi protested that “it wasn’t impossible for skeptics of the war to connect the dots.” Shouldn’t we assess the media’s performance based on what the average person learned or didn’t learn from the news? If you already had to be a skeptic to “connect the dots,” then what chance was there for people who lacked specific knowledge of the issues—and who sought that knowledge from their news providers? The only problem with applying the word “failure” to the actions of corporate media outlets is it implies that they intended to find and tell the truth in the first place.

Journalist Greg Mitchell has reported that The Washington Post recently asked him to write a piece assessing press coverage of the case for war. But Mitchell stated that the paper killed his article, which was critical of the media, and ran Paul Farhi’s instead. The “failures” continue.

Some writers have offered explanations for the media’s eagerness to rubber-stamp the Bush White House’s lies. These include ownership of news companies by giant corporate conglomerates and reporters’ reliance on access to government sources. Those are important parts of the story, but no one seems to have noticed that, like the Bush clan, top media-makers come from the war-profiting class rather than the war-fighting class. As such, they are exempt from the costs of war but not from its positive impact on stock values and dividends.

Our economically segregated society is to blame for that, and higher education plays an especially large role. Most leading journalists come from a small number of prestigious private colleges and universities. Those institutions are remarkable for their social-class biases. Most grant admissions preferences to rich and well-connected applicants, while systematically discriminating against working-class ones. The Shape of the River, a 1998 book by education scholars, including the former presidents of Harvard and Princeton, revealed that only 1% of white students and 12% of black students at the most selective universities were of “low socioeconomic status,” as defined by the authors. (Not that the authors were concerned about that.)

Conversely, a series of polls conducted by the Pentagon in the 1990s showed that money for college was the top reason potential recruits considered military service. Which will it be? Risk death or give up on going to college. If you went to one of the right schools for landing a top job in journalism, you could hardly be farther removed from that dilemma.

Of course, class doesn’t always predict someone’s political views, but when the social elite hold a virtual monopoly on top posts in government and media, politics gets reduced to promoting the interests of the rich. Need I point out that George W. Bush is the poster child for hereditary privilege? After graduating from prep school, Bush followed numerous ancestors by enrolling at Yale University, despite his obvious difficulties with rational thought and the English language. Bush’s presidency is best understood as a medieval royal court, where longtime family servants of the House of Bush, like Dick Cheney, bled the peasants.

Servants in corporate media joined in as well, and a look at the backgrounds of top media-makers will help us understand why. The relentless push for war by Fox News Channel is explained easily enough. That network is the fiefdom of Rupert Murdoch, who got his start as a press mogul when he inherited a group of newspapers from his father, Sir Keith Murdoch. Murdoch’s media have campaigned for pro-rich, far-right policies in every country where they set up shop, launching vicious campaigns against their political opponents or just everyday people. As you may have heard, some of Murdoch’s British reporters got caught running their own spy network, hacking into phones, including one belonging to a 13-year-old murder victim named Milly Dowler. In response to that scandal, a committee of Britain’s House of Commons issued a report in 2012 concluding that Murdoch was “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company.” Now they tell us.

Hereditary succession is common among rightists in the media. John Podhoretz is editor of Commentary magazine, a job once held by his father. Likewise, L. Brent Bozell III, a conservative commentator and pollster, is the son of L. Brent Bozell Jr., a crony of right-wing icon William F. Buckley Jr. from the days when the two were students at Yale. Bozell Jr. died in 1997, but all these other country-club philosophers supported the invasion of Iraq.

Another aristocrat of the right is prep-school and Harvard graduate William Kristol, whose father, Irving, was a famous conservative writer and editor. (Among the magazines Irving edited was Encounter, which was funded by the CIA.) During the year or so before the attack on Iraq, Kristol the Younger hyped the coming war relentlessly, offering memorable promises of easy victory. Here are just a few:

“American and alliance forces will be welcomed in Baghdad as liberators.”

“This is going to be a two-month war, not a year war.”

“Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.”

Shortly after the war started, Kristol dismissed concerns that Iraq’s deep divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims would lead to sectarian violence. He blamed those worries on “a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni.” Someone should have told the Sunni and Shia that, because a bloody wave of religious cleansing swept Iraq after the U.S. invasion.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Kristol also smeared opponents of the war as disloyal. In that task, as in others, he was simply carrying on the family business. In 2002, he wrote:

“But the American people, whatever their doubts about aspects of Bush’s foreign policy, know that Bush is serious about fighting terrorists and terrorist states that mean America harm. About Bush’s Democratic critics, they know no such thing.”

Journalist Eric Alterman noticed a striking similarity between that passage and one written by Kristol’s father. In 1952, the elder Kristol praised Senator Joseph McCarthy (R., Wis.), who lodged countless false accusations of communist spying against Americans who were far more loyal to the country than he was. Here’s Irving Kristol’s tribute to McCarthy:

“For there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”

War-mongering and far-right punditry are big business these days, just as they were in the 1950s. In the case of the Kristols, we see the shameful spectacle of a hereditary elite quoting its own lies across generations.

When Fareed Zakaria endorsed Bush’s invasion plan, he lent credibility to the argument for war. Zakaria was less stridently conservative than the usual parade of right-wingers on Fox News Channel. He also possessed greater cosmopolitan credentials than many other war-backers. An immigrant from India, Zakaria had edited the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs and met numerous world leaders.

In an interview with New York magazine shortly before the start of the war, Zakaria explained why he agreed with Bush. “[Iraq] is so dysfunctional, any stirring of the pot is good. America’s involvement in the region is for the good.” In other words: Oh, what the hell? Why not? Just stir the pot and see what happens. Zakaria’s words do not spring from a careful weighing of the consequences of war—for the soldiers who fight it or the civilians who become “collateral damage.” They are the words of a rich kid haphazardly deciding to place a bet at the roulette wheel. To Zakaria, Iraq was just a game, a puzzle of dysfunction that the U.S. elite might be able to solve by tossing other people’s lives and money into it.

Like George W. Bush, Fareed Zakaria inherited his place in the game. His father was a high-ranking politician and his mother was a newspaper editor. After graduating from prep school, Zakaria received degrees from Yale and Harvard. Referring to his privileged upbringing, he told New York “I grew up in this world where everything seemed possible.” “We saw the best architects, government officials, and poets all the time,” he added. “Nothing seemed out of your reach.” That was the problem. Coverage of the war debate would have been better if the media’s anointed “experts” had come from a world of limited possibilities or had experience dealing with the consequences of destructive policies.

Liberal writers and media outlets also played an enormous role in building the fraudulent case for war. In fact, Bush & Co.’s preferred means of planting false information in the public mind was The New York Times—and, specifically, reporter Judith Miller. Here is a short list of bogus claims presented as true in Times articles either written or co-written by Miller.

1. Saddam Hussein was seeking components for nuclear weapons.

2. Saddam already had an array of chemical weapons, including anthrax.

3. The Iraqi military was attempting to make a biological weapon, using smallpox.

The Bush gang’s puppeteering of Miller was so tightly controlled that on September 8, 2002, when another set of their planted lies appeared in the Times under Miller’s name, Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press to tout the article. “There’s a story in The New York Times this morning,” Cheney said, wearing his somber face. “And I want to attribute the Times.” Say “Times” again, Dick.

For her part, Miller later looked back on her false reports and said this: “If your sources are wrong, you’re going to be wrong.” Actually, the last time I checked, journalists were supposed to assess the credibility of their sources.

Why did Miller align herself so closely with the administration? Also, how did someone with so little understanding of how journalism works rise to a top position at The New York Times? While you’re pondering those questions, allow me to mention that Miller is a graduate of Barnard College, an expensive, private women’s institution in Manhattan, affiliated with Columbia University. She also obtained a master’s degree from Princeton.

After Miller’s reporting was exposed as a sick joke, NYT management initially defended her. But criticism of Miller grew so widespread that she ultimately resigned and took a job on Fox News Channel. Sources at the Times stated that Miller had been specially protected by the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who inherited that post from his father. Doug McGill, a former reporter at the Times, said in 2005, “Arthur’s social closeness to Judy is making it hard for him to see things clearly.” I like that word choice. “Social closeness” sums up not only the politics of the NYT but the larger problem of corporate media’s cozy relationship with the Bushites.

Let’s consider the case of another liberal in the front rank of the media’s war lobby. Bill Keller is a longtime writer and editor at The New York Times. In February 2003, Keller wrote a piece titled “The I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk Club,” in which he discussed how prominent liberals were giving Bush political cover during the march to war. “The president will take us to war with support—often, I admit, equivocal and patronizing in tone—from quite a few members of the East Coast liberal media cabal.” (It figures: an NYT writer finally apologizes for the patronizing attitudes of East Coast liberals, and the recipient of the apology is George W. Bush.)

All you need to know about Keller’s reasoning in the column is illustrated by this passage:

“We are hard pressed to see an alternative [to war] that is not built on wishful thinking. Thanks to all these grudging [liberal] allies, Mr. Bush will be able to claim, with justification, that the coming war is a far cry from the rash, unilateral adventure some of his advisers would have settled for.”

Keller condemned wishful thinking and then allowed himself to fancy that liberal support for Bush’s war prevented it from being a “rash, unilateral adventure.” It seems that, in Keller’s mind, he and his colleagues formed a sort of magic ankle-bracelet clinging to George W. Bush, radiating an aura of benevolence and consensus.

Such narcissism and illogic are hardly surprising, but they don’t get to the root of Keller’s war-mongering. Again, the writer’s class background may offer an explanation. Unlike many other top liberals in Bush’s war chorus, Keller is not an Ivy Leaguer. But he is a member of the You’d-Better-Believe-I’m-One-of-the-Elite Club: his father was chief executive officer of Chevron.

Here are some key events and dates to consider when weighing Keller’s contributions to the war debate. On the day Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, the benchmark price of a barrel of oil stood at $30.01. Five years later, the price was $103.25. In 2003, Chevron reported an annual profit of $7.23 billion. In 2007, the company’s annual profit was $18.68 billion. And here are two other facts that might warrant being placed next to each other. In January 2003, executives from major oil companies, including Chevron, met with Dick Cheney to discuss what to do with Iraq’s oil. (Chevron later turned out to be a major winner in the race to acquire new Iraqi oil contracts.) The following month, Keller’s “I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-a-Hawk” column came out.

In July 2003, Keller rose to the rank of executive editor of the Times, a position he held until 2011. With gas prices skyrocketing, Keller published news articles blaming that development on “speculators,” rather than, say, a relentless effort by the Bushites and oil executives to craft policies that increased Big Oil’s profits. Having provided such journalistic service to his country (or should that be “company”?), Keller now advocates bombing Syria and cutting Social Security. There is no word yet on whether he is still surprising himself.

Looking back to the eve of the Iraq War, we see a group portrait of the social elite at its most incestuous. Some of that group held positions in government. Others were in the media. Still others sat on the boards of giant corporations. But those distinctions mattered little. Whatever sector of society they officially occupied, members of the elite closed ranks to ensure yet another round of profitable carnage.

[i] Some have criticized the Lancet report, citing other studies that arrived at lower death tolls. The Lancet’s approach includes actual surveys of Iraqi households, rather than just figures reported by newspapers and government entities. Many of those killed in Iraq died during breakdowns in civil order or during religious cleansing. It is ridiculous to expect that government or media organizations would possess remotely complete accounts of deaths under those circumstances.