Tal Fortgang, a first year at Princeton, ignited a firestorm when he said, privilege is not race-based but culture-based. As a society, we are afraid to talk about culture. Class, gender and race are increasingly part of the national conversation, but culture, which arguably permeates every part of our lives, is often left out to dry -- itching to be discussed but always swept under the rug. He argued, "I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me."
Certainly, these values are not limited to any subset of society. But the argument made by either side of the aisle -- privilege is the sole determinant of success on one hand, and values are the missing piece of the equation for poor, often minority communities -- is a gross oversimplification.
I am the son of college-educated immigrants. My parents' income -- not their cultural attitude -- gave them an opportunity to move to a middle class suburb where they raised my younger brother and me. Our zip code, a stronger predictor of success than the fact that my parents are South Asian, gave us access to a host of middle class institutions, including great public schools and a strong civil society. I never had to worry about paying for school trips or having enough money to eat out with my friends.
Did my parents read to me when I was young? Yes. Did they encourage me to pursue extracurricular activities? Yes. Would most other parents, who had enough time and money, done the same for their children? I firmly believe the answer is yes.
Culture is not something that is created in a vacuum. Culture is supported by the context in which it breathes. To argue, as authors like Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have, that the most successful economic groups in America are beneficiaries of a superior culture is problematic.
We can learn something from research in the developing world here. Poor families, often faced with income crunches, do not always send their children to school. But when these same families are given an unconditional cash transfer -- they can use the extra cash on anything they want -- more children go to school. This research seems to indicate poor families are aware of the benefits of education, but they simply can't afford the cost of books, uniforms and supplies for their children all the time.
Parents, generally, make good choices for their children when they have the economic flexibility to do so. And strong public institutions that carry some of the burdens of raising a child aid parents like mine.
Call that culture if you will. But the values that Fortgang and his advocates are putting on a pedestal are fairly universal -- feed your child, educate your child, and do everything in your power to make sure he succeeds. It takes a good faith effort, this is where Fortgang has a point, but it also takes a collective, societal effort.