My mother was proud to see me head off long ago to Saint Xavier High School in Cincinnati - an expensive, Jesuit school with demanding academic standards – tough to get in and its graduates were virtually assured of admission to the best colleges in the land. We were almost all white and almost all from upper middle class or better homes. We came to view the rest of the kids in the rest of the schools in Cincinnati with a sort of charitable condescence as less intelligent, and therefore less gifted and less capable. We were better than everyone else because we were smarter … or so we thought.
My father – a career manufacturing guy who raised himself by the bootstraps from what he graciously describes as "tough circumstances" to the executive suite at General Electric's Aircraft Engine Group – was even happier to see me transfer to the local public school, from which I graduated. That school had a few kids who were every bit the academic equals of the Saint X crowd, a few who went on to spend considerable time as guests of the state penitentiary, and everyone else in between. There were lots of ways the kids in that school defined success and self-worth, and academics was just one of them, and not the most common.
Saint X taught me Latin, literature, mathematics and world history. The public school taught me the 3 R's, but mostly about life and about people. Everything that is wrong with places like Saint X can be derived from an editorial in the Wall Street Journal written by one of my former classmates, who went on to Harvard and to a prosperous law career. It is dripping with the arrogance of one who went from one elite environment to another, never actually doing a real day's work, and never learning respect for those who do.
Tom Geoghegan wrote, "There are reasons workers in the North get $28 an hour while down in the South they get $14 or even $10. Adam Smith could explain it: 'productivity,' 'skill level,' 'quality'." It takes a life-time surrounded by wealthy intellectual snobs to have such words roll so easily off one's pen. It takes absolutely no concept of what words like "productivity", "skill" and "quality" actually mean to write off so many hard working people so cavalierly. Those are words about working people - not words for people who understand real work and life only as a theory.
Throughout Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama and Mississippi there are people who get up every morning and put in a full day accomplishing things the likes of Geoghegan will never understand. They are as skilled, productive and quality conscience as anyone in the world, and they take enormous pride from actually making real things that improve real people's lives, and supporting their families in the process. They deserve much better than the opinions of Tom Geoghegan. They rightfully have a sense of pride someone who believes the government has an obligation to prevent Boeing from "self-destructing" by going to South Carolina has never felt in his life.
The Wall Street Journal should be ashamed of itself for turning its pages over to someone who would denegrate millions of Americans on the basis of their zip code in such an off-handed manner. If he were to describe an entire class of people as a "low-quality workforce" based on their color, gender or religion the WSJ never would have printed it, but unfounded, vicious intellectual discrimination is fair game these days.
Manufacturing is in trouble in America in no small part because the people who dominate the culture have so very little respect for people who actually work. I appreciate my mother's desire to see that her boy got the best education possible, but I am more grateful I got out of the intellectual fast track and learned about real people, the value of honest work, and had a chance to get to know and work with manufacturing people all over the United States – and especially in the South – who make this country great. Had I stayed in the intellectual cocoon, I may well have turned out to be as ignorant as my old classmate.