Questionable Quote of the Day

From The Atlantic‘s 150th Anniversary issue on "The American Idea," novelist and journalist Tom Wolfe writes:

Even today, in the 21st century, an era of political democracies throughout the West, the great mass of ordinary citizens in Europe remain resigned to their ordinariness because they still feel the presence of “that certain class,” that indefinable but nevertheless eternal status stratum forever destined to be their superiors. In England, France, Italy, Germany, rare are the parents who urge their children to live out their dreams and rise as far above their station as they possibly can. As a result, such dreams, if any, don’t last long. Only in America do visitors to other people’s homes routinely ask their hosts’ children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” In every other country on Earth the question would seem fatuous, since it implies that the child might have a world of choices.


7 comments on “Questionable Quote of the Day
  • I don’t know much about the rest of the EU, but I must say this is largely the case in Greece, where I have many relatives. It blows my mind everytime I’m remembered about it.

    There is an allocated amount of slots for certain vocations; examinations and tests decide what level and career you can aspire to because most of the universities and the state itself have imposed limits. These limits are based on how many people want the same vocation.

    That is, if everybody wants to be a doctor, the state becomes very very strict, and only makes the top percentage doctors. All the people who are left out need to become something else! No matter what.

    So, somebody might want to grow up to become a veterinarian, but if during that time many people want to do the same thing, that person may end up in the hotel business or managing a restaurant because they need to fit in somewhere else and the system won’t take him.

    When I found out about this I flipped. There is no world of choices there. Just another thing that makes me very grateful I was born in this country.

  • I just got back from 3 weeks in China, and was fascinated to learn that it was common practice for parents to choose the child’s university major for them, based on the premise that they’d learnt with all they’ve been through in the last turbulent few decades of Chinese history what were the best survival tactics. The implications there were really fascinating to me!!

    When’s our next Junto meeting? 🙂 I hope you’re well, and that the Claremont life is fulfilling!!

  • I am surprised with the comment from the person from Greece. I am from Bulgaria and even thought we were communist up until 20 years ago, I have to say we were never told what we should be and people have asked me quite a lot what I want to be. My parents never influenced me on what I should major in, what I should be or what I should do. It may be just me, but I still believe that this statement is very questionable. I am not familiar with things in western Europe, since I have gone there only on vacation, but if things were that way in a post-communist country, they have to be even better in western europe. As far as I am concerned that author got it wrong. I have also seen many people here in the US that say they were unable to accomplish their dreams because they were poor, not good at school or whatever…

  • “In every other country on Earth the question would seem fatuous, since it implies that the child might have a world of choices.”

    Tom Wolfe needs to travel more. The world no longer comprises just Western Europe and the USA. Indeed if he is blind to this basic fact of geopolitics, then his view is indeed questionable, as Ben suggests.

  • The fact is that many Americans really don’t believe this either.

    I am struck all of the time by people I run into that do not understand that you don’t have to have a “job”. For 20 years, my parents did not understand at all what I did. Mostly because my life rarely consisted of going to a “job” that was easily defined.

    I still have a hard time at dinner parties and get-togethers explaining what a venture capitalist/entrepreneur is. If you are not in Silicon Valley (which I am not), the concept that you can build a technology company and sell it, is totally foreign to 99% of America. And to think that you don’t have a “job” is down right scary to most Americans.

  • The idea that your environment implies boundaries to develop yourself to the best of your ability is a valid one. When born in an (for example) low educated, less wealthy or less stimulating environment, it’s hard to challenge yourself to seek out more possible ways to develop oneself. As a psychologist, I can underline this finding. There are ample examples that can be found stretching trough the reams of politics, science and arts alike.

    However, these rules aren’t as strict as Tom Wolve suggests. There are more than enough examples of influential citizens who came from a poor or low educated background. With the coming of the period of individualization in western Europe, I can only see that this development enlarges more and more.

    The ‘class’ Tom Wolve relates to, is poorly defined. There aren’t any ‘physical’ boundaries. There isn’t an aristocratic class any more. In my opining, if there is anything like a class, you could define it as well educated and poorly educated. Nowadays wester Europe is more translucent, in other words, we have a very large middle class, and a very small upper and lower class, mainly defined by income. So, if classes are generally alike, and the only visible difference is education (and secundary, income), why should one need to a strife to become the greatest?

    Also, one should not forget (contrary to the u.s.) that the government makes it sure that everybody who has the talent can develop themselves if they have the necessary motivation. Basically, there is a bag of money waiting for any young dutch citizen who would like to educate themselves, with high exams marks or not, with either a wealth family to back them up or not.

    The problem with Wolf is a cultural misunderstanding. In the united states (as is my opinion), in the middle class people strive to be some body. In Europe, people a strive to becoming themselves. It implies that the whole notion from Wolf that people never ask their children what they want to be is biased. Parents in western Europe urge their children to develop. And we leave it free for them to figure that part out how and what, knowing that a lot of stuff in life generally happens at random, and that dreams do change with age.

    Choices in The Netherlands are abundant. We are usual in the top 5 countries of the world with the best climate to study and find a corresponding job. Latest survey indicated 7 out of 10 citizens are able to life up to their dreams about education and job. So where is this class difference in Europe prohibiting me from realizing my dreams, if I cannot find it here?

    I’m from western Europe, I’m a university student, and I life in Amsterdam.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *