Anyone who has been following the news in Illinois must be familiar with the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, which was convened to investigate allegations of public officials and other influential people using clout to secure admission for otherwise unqualified prospective students to the University of Illinois. Today, the intrepid reporters over at the Chicago Tribune broke another story, this time uncovering the use of clout to obtain admission to the elite magnet schools of the Chicago Public School System. Is it unfair that some students get an advantage based on who their parents are? Yes. But it's also nothing new, and I can't help but wonder if all of this newly fomenting rage over the use of privilege is grounded not in a fundamental discontent with the disparities between the classes, but in the recent economic crisis.
By and large, America is an aspirational society. We have bought into the Horatio Alger myth that if you work hard, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, great wealth and fame are well within your reach. While I could go on at length about the inherent dichotomies of the so-called "American Dream" and its hold on our collective imagination, I will merely point out that our belief that riches are just around the corner often leads us to protect the rights of the wealthy. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the "death tax." Legions of Americans who are far from feeling the burden of a 55% tax on inheritances of more than $1.5 million have worked themselves into a lather over the maximum limitations on the uppermost echelon of the tax brackets. Americans pulling in a modest salary, struggling to pay off their credit card debts, their mortgages, and afford decent health care are still concerned about their ability to protect their non-existent wealth, because they are under the belief that they will someday become rich.
So, in my estimation, this sudden outrage over the inequities of the educational system must be rooted in the precarious state of the economic system. With the American Dream under assault, Illinoisans are less willing to accept that the privileged classes are exercising their clout when it seems less likely that they will someday enjoy the same advantages themselves. Wealth has always brought privilege; if it did not, there would be very little incentive to accumulating it. The rich have used their influence and connections to obtain special treatment since time in memoriam. The only reason this story is now attracting so much indignation in the press is because people have less hope that it will be them in the future, calling in a favor to get their children a better opportunity. When the economy recovers, people will be more than willing to accept the status quo.