• Email
  • Print

Class Acts

In response to:

Class Dismissed from the March 7, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book The Imperial Middle/Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Class [NYR, March 7], Andrew Hacker misunderstands my assumptions and aims, and also has some facts wrong about my methods and work experience.

Mr. Hacker quotes my acknowledgment that class has to do importantly with people’s “activity as workers.” He doesn’t mention my insistence that, soundly understood, class is “the inherited accumulation of property, competencies, beliefs, tastes, and manners that determines, for most of us, our socioeconomic lot and our share of civic power.” Nor does he heed my repeated assertions that I’m concerned with attitudes about class—with people’s gut feelings about this subject—rather than with numerical, “objective” models of class difference. A writer who conceives of class narrowly, in terms of jobs and income levels, can reasonably be expected to meet the obligations imposed by narrowness. Believing himself (I think dimly) to be dealing with such a writer, Mr. Hacker chides me for failing to meet those obligations. My book, he complains, provides no data on income distribution (“an understanding of how [money] is distributed must underpin any class analysis”); my book “never really names the main classes of American society,” “never explicitly says that the problem is that some people are receiving too large a share of the income pie.”

But all this, surely, is slaying a straw man, and the same holds for Mr. Hacker’s social science apparatus of graphs and tables. Whether foolishly or not, my book seeks to deal with class as soul, not as statistical reality; blind to its perspective, Mr. Hacker is unable to engage its subject.

As for his mistakes about my methods: Mr. Hacker asserts that I draw my knowledge of class solely from “the press and television and the movies”—from what he calls “homework”—and he claims, further, that my book makes no reference to “interchanges [1] may have had with the public.” To the contrary, my book draws often, for pages at a stretch, on personal experience, and upon my “interchanges” with others as a resident of a neighborhood, as a parent of four children, as a member of various teaching staffs, even—it’s embarrassing to have to be explicit about this in the absence of a context—as a supermarket shopper.

Finally my employment record: Mr. Hacker contrasts my position, which he represents to be that of someone sealed off in an elite college campus office, unaware of the realities of public higher education, with his own position, that of a participant in public higher education by virtue of a professorship in a city university system (Queens, CUNY). I did indeed teach for decades at Amherst College (Mr. Hacker graduated from there), and I admit to having an intense aversion to dogooder one-upmanship. But it is a fact that during the period in which I wrote The Imperial Middle I worked at Bethune-Cookman (a black college in the South) for two years, and also at Baruch College in Manhattan, part of the CUNY system. I agree with Mr. Hacker that huge differences separate the academic worlds in question, but I think it unfair of him to imply that I lack knowledge of those differences. The contributions that Baruch students in particular made to my work are detailed in the text that Mr. Hacker was reviewing.

Benjamin DeMott
Worthington, Massachusetts

Andrew Hacker replies:

While I am happy to accept Benjamin DeMott’s word that his book draws on personal experience—what book doesn’t?—virtually all his examples concern actors, authors, and newspaper reports. (The single sentence on his supermarket trip simply lists some items another shopper had in her cart.)

  • Email
  • Print