Saturday, November 05, 2005

Proms and inequality

You may have heard about the Catholic school on Long Island whose principal has banned the prom. As is so often the case with these sorts of things, apparently some controversy has been generated, with a tinge of right vs. left flavoring the debate. I gather the principal’s main rationale for his action was to curb the gross and over the top display of conspicuous consumption and decadence that increasingly characterizes these affairs, and all the attendant issues about class and inequality. Matt Yglesias has followed the goings-on. He writes:
My problem is with the pundits cheering him on. If you're worried about inequality, you should use this prom story as a jumping-off point for a column about inequality.
Matt apparently is of the opinion that kvetching about expensive proms is a meaningless diversion from actually doing something about the increasing inequality that characterizes this country. Although to some extent I’m in agreement with him, I think there nonetheless exists a legitimate issue involving, well, peer pressure, competition, and the social disapproval that must surely touch the unfortunate high schooler who can’t compete with the Joneses. Thing is, I do worry about inequality, and wish more would be done about it. But until something is done about it, we'll occasionally have these sorts of situations.

Now, I'm aware the particular school in question is private, but I really think there is something troubling about these $5,000 proms when it comes to public schools. Granted, in America these days, there's an increasing amount of income-based segregation. Not many rich kids live in poor towns, and not many poor ones in the rich. If the socioeconomic strata of 2005 mirrored those of 1970, these insanely expensive school functions would probably be yet more problematic. But still, even in 2005, there are no doubt some poor or merely middle class kids living in places where many of their classmates have a lot more money. I think for such young people, it's not merely a matter of only being able to afford a domestic-made limo, or an off the rack prom gown (as opposed to their Bentley-driving, couture-wearing classmates). It's very likely a matter of not being able to afford to go to the prom at all.

That must hurt if you're a kid.

Balkanization along class lines is not something that America is likely to get out from under any time soon. But there's no reason the public schools have to intensify this process of balkanization. Putting proms back in high school gymnasiums would be one baby step toward a more sane, and more sensitive, social environment for our children.

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