I could quickly discover, years ago, which of my English friends were secret aristocrats. I would simply ask them what they thought about the accidental death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
My middle-class English pals would say something along the lines of, “It was a tragedy. She was indeed the ‘people’s princess’.”
But my upper-class friends would say something more like, “Good Lord, just as well she’s dead. Mad as a brush.”
It was a pretty simple act of detection. But then, the English class system is essentially transparent, despite their pretensions otherwise. Make your way through television’s The Crown or, better, Anthony Powell’s hilarious and heartbreaking series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, and you’ve pretty much got it. All that’s left is to get your pronunciations straight—chumley and maudlin instead of Cholmondeley and Magdalen, and Anthony Pole instead of Anthony Powell—and remember not to use lavatory or cocktail when toilet and drinks are what’s on offer. Really, it’s quite simple.
This report appears in April’s Quadrant.
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The American class system, on the other hand, is a twisting web of complicated semiotics and social flags. A country as large and sprawling as the United States is made up of hundreds of constellations of social hierarchies.
Americans—even rich ones who live in Manhattan, or Highland Park in Dallas, or Chicago’s Gold Coast—will only admit to being in one of two classes. Americans will tell you either that they are middle-class or upper-middle-class. In fact, if you meet an American who claims to be in any other social class, or even suggests that other class categories exist, that person has revealed himself to be resolutely, irrevocably middle-class.
The other trick to locating an American on the social ladder is to walk to the back of his car and take an inventory of the stickers and decals he has affixed to the rear window. This is as 100 per cent reliable as asking an Englishman about Diana, Princess of Wales.
The back window of the car, and its adjacent areas of steel panel and chrome, are where Americans display their class associations. Mostly, it’s obvious. A Trump sticker, a trade union decal, anything vulgar along the lines of “Gas, Grass, or Ass—Nobody Rides for Free” and you can be certain you’re not dealing with an aristocrat. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and spot a decal supporting National Public Radio—the government-sponsored left-wing news outlet—or an expensive sport like sailing or crew, in which case you know you’re dealing with an upper-middle-classer.
One thing Americans like to do is tell perfect strangers where they went to university. There’s even an old joke about it:
“How can you tell that a person went to Harvard?”
“You don’t have to. They’ll tell you in the first three minutes.”
The backside of the car is where many upper-middle-class Americans make this announcement. Stroll through any upscale neighbourhood—the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the West Village of Lower Manhattan—and you’ll pass car after car festooned with university seals.
A few years ago, all of the stickers were exactly what you’d expect: Yale, Princeton, Harvard—maybe a Stanford or University of Virginia tossed in here and there. Expensive boutique colleges were also represented widely—places like Wesleyan and Bates and Williams College. Manhattan’s Upper East Side was where elite parents sent their elite children to elite schools, and they kept the general public notified of this by applying stickers to the rear window.
Lately, though, things have changed. There are fewer and fewer cars sporting the famous names and more and more festooned with places you’ve never heard of, like Elon, the University of Richmond, and Grinnell. The American class system is changing.
“I spent about $250,000 sending my kid to the most expensive prep school in New York,” a friend of mine told me. “And his college counsellor told us that he’s probably not going to get into Yale, or any Ivy League, or even Georgetown. He told us we should be looking at places like the University of Washington and Gettysburg College.”
My friend is a very successful corporate attorney. He and I met years ago when we were both in our first year at Yale, and at that time it seemed inconceivable that our children wouldn’t be able to follow in our footsteps. That, after all, is the reason to have an aristocracy in the first place, to hand class privileges from generation to generation.
The annual tuition at the Dalton School, one of the best private schools in New York City, is about $58,000. And if you ask the people paying that astronomical number every year—multiple times if they have more children—what, exactly, they’re getting for their money, they’ll probably mumble some pleasant-sounding bromides about the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of knowledge for its own sake. But they’ll be lying of course.
The reason parents send their children to places like Dalton is to make sure their kids get into the prestigious colleges—the ones with rear-window stickers—that form the backbone of the American elite. Going from Princeton, say, to the University of Illinois in one generation feels alarmingly like backsliding, like slipping down the ladder of power and money, which is why my Yale classmate seemed so embittered. He’s paid a king’s ransom in school fees, he’s played the game by the rules, and now he’s discovered that the rules have changed.
It used to work this way: rich parents went to elite schools and colleges, and made regular and hefty financial contributions to those institutions after graduation. They would respond to annual appeals, alumni newsletters, capital campaigns—whenever their alma mater stretched out the open palm—by sending a cheque.
The unspoken understanding was that this generosity would be repaid later when their children applied to the same places. A Harvard alumnus who had been a reliable donor to the university had a fair expectation that his child would get a little extra consideration when the time came. Not undue consideration, of course—elite universities wouldn’t take a clearly unqualified kid unless the parents were very very rich. But for the ordinary rich kid, the rule was that he or she needed to be intellectually prepared or at the very least a useful addition to a sports team.
But as in any quid pro quo arrangement, once the quid loses its value, the pro quo starts to disappear. When I graduated from Yale in 1987, the American economy was on the cusp of a very long boom. Thanks to the policies of Ronald Reagan, inflation was tamed, productivity was rising, and the stock market was in the early stages of a thirty-year bull market.
This made nearly everyone happy, of course, but no one was happier than the people managing the endowments of America’s prestige universities. In 1987, Harvard University had about $4 billion in the kitty. Yale trailed miserably at $1.7 billion.
In 2021, Harvard had about $42 billion in the bank, and Yale had about $32 billion. Both universities have spent recent decades building out their campuses, expanding their course offerings, growing international programs, and in Yale’s case offering more generous financial aid packages to its students. They spent an enormous amount of money and they still have billions in the bank.
This is a good thing, I suppose, unless you’re a Manhattan parent with a Princeton sticker on his car who has been sending in his alumni fund cheques without complaint, only to discover to his horror that Princeton does not need his money any more.
Princeton, in fact, is a perfect example of the collapse of the old system. Its endowment is roughly $32 billion, and when the size of its programs and expenditures is factored in, it’s fair to say that Princeton doesn’t need anyone’s money anymore. As long as it stays at roughly the same size, Princeton is a perpetual money machine.
Freed from the need to accommodate the children of their mostly white, mostly wealthy alumni, the elite American universities are able to pursue their passion for social and political change, which comes under the umbrella of “diversity”. And if there’s one thing you can say about most of the kids who grow up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and attend expensive private schools, it’s that they ain’t diverse.
Which is why a stroll though the residential streets of New York City’s rich neighbourhoods displays a lot more car rear-window stickers from formerly second- or third-tier colleges, and a lot fewer Yale insignias celebrating Lux et Veritas. But that’s created a second-place squeeze, where the privileged children of the city’s elite need to start looking a little lower on the university totem pole. If Princeton is out, what’s the most prestigious second (or third) choice?
“Vanderbilt is such a hot school,” a mother of a kid at an elite Brooklyn private school told me recently. “But I don’t think our kid is going to get in there.”
Her child is a very bright student, with excellent test scores and distinction on the squash court and a couple of summer holidays filled with character-building volunteer work. He is also, unfortunately, rich and white. And while his mother knew that Yale and Harvard were long, long shots, she always assumed that Vanderbilt, in Nashville, Tennessee, was a realistic alternative. So did all of the other parents with bright students at fancy schools.
“We like Elon University,” she said, and I nodded politely as if to say Oh, sure, Elon’s great, even though I have zero idea what or where Elon University is. “And of course Wittenberg.” I nodded again. (For the record: Elon is in North Carolina. Wittenberg is in Pennsylvania.)
This slipping-down process has not been lost on Vanderbilt or Elon, by the way. In the past twenty years, both schools have raised their tuitions by more than 100 per cent, proving once again that the law of supply and demand is alive and kicking. A lot of rich kids looking for a limited number of spots at a few newly fashionable universities is exactly the kind of financial bonanza the administrators at third- and fourth-tier institutions are dreaming of.
For parents of the laptop class—that is, parents who can work remotely without suffering financial consequences—there is one remaining Hail Mary tactic to get their kids into Harvard or Yale.
“We’re thinking of moving to Kentucky,” an old friend of mine told me recently. His wife has some family there, apparently, and the Louisville airport is a reliable portal to New York and Los Angeles. He and his wife were terrified of their children’s college futures—both in expensive private schools in New York; good students and so on; but whiter than rice—and they heard that in the college admissions world, there’s such a thing as “geographic diversity”. It turns out that a rich white kid from Kentucky—the fifth-poorest state in the country—is a lot more interesting to college admissions officers than a rich white kid from the Upper East Side. I reminded my friend that Mississippi and Alabama are poorer still, but he held up his hand in a Let’s not go crazy gesture.
But if moving to a smaller, poorer state seems like a drastic step, I have another former Yale classmate who is experiencing a very contemporary parental crisis.
“My youngest kid announced that he’s non-binary,” he told me over a drink last week.
“He?” I asked.
He sighed. “They, okay? They announced that they’re non-binary.”
He then ranted a bit about the current trend for privileged Manhattan children in expensive prep schools to declare all sorts of baffling and fashionable gender identities. Like any parents in 2023, he and his wife are torn between supporting their newly non-binary them and rolling their eyes and praying for this particular phase to be over before anyone starts talking about hormone supplements and surgery.
He took a big swig of his drink and then sighed.
“On the other hand,” he said, “it’ll make him a lot more interesting to the admissions people at Harvard. He’s just another rich white kid from a Manhattan private school otherwise. This non-binary thing may make him seem a little more … you know, diverse.”
“Him?” I asked.
“Them, okay? And shut up.”
Adding another Yale sticker to the car has never been more expensive. Or complicated.
Rob Long lives in Manhattan. His most recent Letter from New York appeared in the November issue.