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Understanding the problem

July 13, 2010

MICHAEL M. THOMAS (Exeter, Yale), journalist, author, and New York Observer columnist, writes about what happens when the familial affections disappear from guiding the youngest generation through our people’s requisite institutional training.

I… had a classic Manhattan WASP upbringing: Buckley (which has disowned me as an alumnus); Sunday school at St. James; supper on the help’s night off with Great-Aunt Mary Whitney Bangs, either at Hamburger Heaven or the Colony Club; squash lessons at the Racquet Club, and dancing class at Barclay and De Rham.

… reading Stuffed [by Patricia Volk] gave me – almost by opposition or elimination, you might say – insights into a matter that has vexed me for almost my entire adult life: how come the privileged, high-WASP family culture in which I and so many people I know were raised has proved absolutely catastrophic for our generation….

The short-form answer, for those of you who are wondering, is that the family life described by Ms. Volk is defined by human dynamics and relationships, while the old WASP way was defined largely in terms of institutional dynamics and relationships–of which “family” was one, to be sure, but pronounced mainly in the abstract (as in “Mayflower”) and rated alongside, but not above, schools, clubs and other signifiers of status and alienation.

And one wonders, of course, whether family values–East Side, West Side or elsewhere around the town–are still possible in an era which esteems the market as the measure of all things.

Excerpted from “In the Age of Paradox, Action Supplants Attitude,” by Michael M. Thomas, published in the New York Observer on January 6, 2002. The title of his article speaks to what this blog is all about.

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