My Short Class Autobiography
By Bryan Caplan
I grew up in an upper-middle class family in a suburb of Los Angeles. My father earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UCLA when I was five; my mom went to college part-time at CSUN, and finished her bachelor’s degree in English a few years later. Three of my four grandparents went to college. My paternal grandfather owned his own pharmacy; my maternal grandfather had a law degree, but was employed as a railroad worker. (My mom blamed the Depression for her father’s failure to find work as a lawyer).
Photo: My father’s Ph.D. graduation, with me (left), and my brother (right)
My family lived in a nice single-family home with a swimming pool. However, my parents were always frugal. We never bought new cars until I finished high school, our vacations consisted almost entirely in camping, and my weekly allowance was $.05/per year of age (later I bargained for a raise to $.07/per year of age). Their fiscal restraint allowed my parents to invest in real estate, buying several homes as rental properties.
I went to public school for my entire K-12 education, with the exception of 4th grade, when my parents put me in a private Greek Orthodox school to avoid being bussed. I was always a good student, and fortunately, my elementary school offered ability tracking beginning in first or second grade, if I recall correctly. By junior high, I considered non-ability-tracked classes to be not only a waste of time, but very distressing. The “regular kids,” as I called them, were generally anti-intellectual and impulsive. There wasn’t much physical abuse, but there was a lot of emotional abuse, and the less I saw of the regular kids, the better.
Many readers will attribute my school performance and attitudes to my class background, but this is a deep mistake. True, virtually all of the students in my ability groups came from middle-class families. But most of the “regular kids” were middle class too, and I always saw my older brother, a mediocre student, as one of the regular kids. Furthermore, both of my parents discouraged my elitist attitudes, but I just ignored them.
My friends growing up all came from roughly the same social class as I did. The class background of my friends diversified only after I went to college. My best friend from my undergraduate days at UC Berkeley was the only son of immigrants from Latin America. My best friend from my time as a graduate student at Princeton came from a very poor family in the Poconos. But our class differences made no difference to us. Our common intellectual interests, values, and sense of humor were the glue of our friendship.
My childhood would have been much worse if I had grown up poor, but frankly, I doubt that my adult life would have been very different. As long as I had enough to eat, poverty per se wouldn’t have bothered me much. But based on my experience with non-ability-tracked classes, I would have been friendless and bored out of my mind. (These days, perhaps, I could have found solace on the internet at a public school or library). By the time I finished high school, though, there would probably have been plenty of scholarship money available for me. Even if there weren’t, I would have been fanatically motivated to put myself through college in order to escape from my origins.
You could say that growing up poor would have stifled my mental development, but I doubt it. Twin and adoption studies show that childhood environment has little or no long-run effect on IQ. You could say that growing up poor would have changed my attitudes. But I’m a difficult person to mould. I’m an atheist despite sixteen years of my mother’s Catholic indoctrination. If anything, I think that growing up poor would have made me more elitist than I already am, just as growing up Catholic made me more impious.
For my adult life to have been radically different, I would probably have needed to grow up in an absolutely poor family in the Third World, not a relatively poor family in the First World. My instinct in that situation would be to learn English and migrate to the U.S., but immigration restrictions would get in the way. This realization is part of the reason I have so much more sympathy for immigrants than I do for low-skilled Americans.
What if I had grown up rich? Again, I doubt it would have changed much. I would have gone to the Ivy League instead of UC Berkeley, but it’s not like Berkeley held me back. Perhaps I would have been less ambitious if I came from a rich family, but who knows?
From what I’ve seen, the standard function of class autobiography is to make middle- and upper-class authors feel guilty, and the lower- and working-class authors feel resentful. But reflecting on my class history doesn’t make me feel guilty. Rather, it confirms the common-sense view that in the long-run, differences in ability and character are the cause of class differences, and not the other way around.
Scoff if you must! 🙂