The Long Trail to Socialism

“Thru-hiking” long distances has exploded over the past decade. In addition to the millions of people who hike parts of the Appalachian Trail (AT) every year, those managing and surveying it report that the number of hikers heading north for the trail’s entirety (around 2,200 miles) increased 155 percent from 2010 to 2017. The two other premier long-distance trails in the United States, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), have seen similar increases.

Since the spring, of course, the number of hikers has tanked. Many of the agencies that manage public lands are shut down (it’s unclear at this point when they’ll reopen), making hiking through them illegal. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Pacific Crest Trail Association have called on people to ditch their plans to start on a thru-hike. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition has stopped its shuttle service to the starting point on the CDT, which borders Mexico. The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have reported that hikers are heartbroken about their dashed plans (likely accentuated by feeling cooped up indoors under stay-at-home policies), most recognizing that it would be selfish to risk spreading the coronavirus through the rural mountain towns that offer points of food resupply or a softer mattress for an evening. The amount of mainstream news coverage and debates on social media just go to show how much these long trails have grown in popularity in the years before the pandemic.

I witnessed this historical growth personally, as my family, from 2011 to 2015, dedicated our summers to completing as much as we could of the three trails. We were already experienced backpackers and wilderness travelers. We knew how to travel light and keep our base weight down, by sawing the handle off a toothbrush, for instance.

Still, there were experiences that were unique to thru-hiking, the most obvious being tramping for longer distances than we were used to. We learned how to navigate through snow. We survived wicked storms, camped in “tree holes” (a circle at the base of a tree that had dry ground even after a blizzard), crossed snow-gorged creeks that came up to our waists, and glissaded down 400-foot pitches, controlling our speed as best as we could with ice axes. Even with all these challenges, or maybe because of them, we came to love long-distance hiking, exhilarated by the natural beauty we saw.

As we trekked, we began to notice something of a subculture. We met fellow hikers with trail names like Wag Daddy, Hikes-a-lot, Hike-aholic, Optimist, Swami, Insane Dwayne, Mouse, and Cloud Walker. There was an ethic of providing one another information about trail conditions and sharing supplies. (Indeed, one guy saved us by giving us all of his chocolate-covered raisins when we ran out of food in the deep backcountry.) I’m more of a loner when it comes to backpacking. But I did enjoy the numerous encounters and conversations found on the trail, especially those that didn’t involve gear.

What surprised me most was how many working-class adults we ran into. I was expecting an exclusively young and wealthy crowd. But some of our favorite hikers were an industrial painter, a truck driver, an alligator-farm worker, and a clerk at an outdoor store. It’s not that expensive to do a thru-hike—once you’ve got your equipment, you’re left with buying food, after you’ve hitchhiked to the nearest town.

But there was a certain type we ran into over and over: middle-class white twentysomething male, confused about what he’s going to do with his life. I found myself listening to these young men confess their family problems and directionless drift—all of which was material for their forthcoming memoirs, or so they proclaimed. Sometimes but not too often, they might pull themselves out of their little world to ask me a question. Sometimes I’d tell them about the large books I had packed: Tolstoy, London, and Joyce (much to my wife’s chagrin, as she was a devoted weight-slasher). But more often, I’d stand up and put on my best mock-pandering tone and blurt, “I’m thinking about what you’re standing on right now: a quintessential work of democratic socialism!” I’d follow that up with an admonition to get out of their little universe and give glory to their predecessors who first imagined a long trail like the one we were standing on. I’d ask them to think about the politics of preserving long trails. If they engaged my spiel, I’d press them on the right to leisure (many of these young people never held a job) or the meaning of public lands or what’s really meant by socialism in today’s parlance. (This was the Obama years, when you still had to explain why Obamacare was not socialist.) Some drew back and I’d apologize, explaining that I’m a historian, I can’t help it. Or something to that effect, hopefully avoiding condescension.

The AT was the first long hiking trail built in the United States. It started as an idea of Benton MacKaye. Benton was the son of Steele MacKaye, an actor and playwright in New York City. Benton’s was not a wealthy family, but it was certainly a cultivated one. They owned a house in rural New England, where the then-open country became a source for young Benton’s naturalist explorations. From an early age, he loved to be outdoors. As social critic Lewis Mumford would later note, “The idea of long-distance trails had first been planted in MacKaye in 1897, when, at the age of eighteen, he took a six-week walking trip . . . in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.”

MacKaye attended Harvard University, first as an undergraduate and then as a graduate student. After obtaining a master’s in forestry, he moved back and forth between working for the U.S. Forest Service and teaching at Harvard. During this time, he became familiar with the Harvard Socialist Club (which included future journalists Walter Lippmann and John “Jack” Reed). By 1909, MacKaye was endorsing socialism as a way “to change a system and not human nature.” Eleven years later, he’d help edit the Milwaukee Leader, the newspaper run by the famous socialist politician Victor Berger. His fascination with socialism had sunk deep roots.

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Buying Your Way to the Top: A Cadillac Education

The idea that the privileged can “buy their way into college” has long been a cinematic cliché. While everyone seems to understand intuitively that the rich have an easier time getting into college than the poor, buying your way into Yale is not as simple as television makes us think, where a seven-figure check for a new business school or a phone call from a Senator is the preferred means of admission. In the real world, the most realistic means of guaranteeing your child’s entry into the educational (and economic) 1 percent is to throw money at private tutors and test prep throughout most of their childhood.

Since graduating from college, I have had several jobs at elite private schools and tutoring agencies, giving me a window into an industry in which education is assumed to be a commodity. Reared in public schools, I never thought I would be employed in the world of private tutoring, nor was it a place I even knew existed. I grew up in a firmly middle-class suburb in southern Arizona, where education was seen as a means to success, but not something to stress over. I am frequently astounded at the competitive pressure experienced by some of my agency’s students, who forgo summer vacations in favor of intensive test prep. Tutoring agencies were a non-presence in my hometown, in stark contrast to a place like Manhattan, where flyers for private tutors are ubiquitous on the tonier blocks.

At the high-end New York tutoring company where I work, I am trained in the art of interacting with the bourgeoisie: in one exercise, the new tutors and I receive a lesson in how to talk to the “Wall Street Dad” archetype. “I want you to understand that my child has to get into Princeton or Yale, maybe Stanford,” the actor barks at me. Wall Street Dad asks where I went to college and what I studied. “Physics at Oberlin?” he scoffs. “Bad school, though I guess your major’s not totally worthless. But I want my son to study physics at a real school like Princeton.” Later, our trainers will swear that all the interactions are based directly on interactions with real parents.

Indeed, Wall Street Dad’s hyper-competitive attitude toward education is common among my agency’s clients. Parents rush to put their kids’ names on the waitlist for elite pre-schools as early as birth. The education game’s “scores” are tabulated in two ways: via acceptance to private, prestigious schools at the primary, secondary, and postsecondary level; and through grades and test scores. Because of the intense focus on scores and acceptances, education at this echelon has no inherent enlightening function. Rather, it is reduced to a perverse arms race, where children receive training—in the form of paid tutelage—in an attempt to get ahead.

This fits with our clients’ conceptions of the tutor’s role. We are more akin to service industry workers than teachers, who are viewed as having a deeper, more moralistic mission. Consequently, most tutors are the epitome of contingent laborers. Most of us work without benefits, are not paid for prep or travel, and have careers that are subject to the whims of the market. Tutor assignments are made by the agency based solely on parents’ requests, without deference to employees’ survival; we are expected to adapt to cancellations, for which we usually get no pay. Likewise, hours vary wildly depending on the season; at my agency, some in-demand tutors from elite schools work twenty-five hours a week, while others teaching the same subject can get five or fewer. In the winter and summer, the workload drops to nearly zero. Perhaps most alarmingly, parents are billed upward of $150 per hour for our time; if we are lucky, we get 25 percent of that.

Fitting with the service-industry conception of education, tutors don’t teach students to be ethical or think critically but rather provide a “product” in the form of improved grades and scores, which ultimately translates to “value”—socially and later monetarily, when the student enters the job market. The tutor’s pedagogy differs from the schoolteacher’s, too: we are encouraged to simplify content, minimize details, and make education into a game with tangible rewards. In general, there is little room for critical thinking or deep engagement with the material.

This is not to say the tutors are not the kind of liberal, creative professionals you would expect to see working in education. The product the tutoring agency sells, however, is not progressive in the least. Indeed, we are only furthering structural inequality by providing the wealthy with the educational equivalent of “Cadillac” health insurance plans. Likewise, we encourage a reductive and simplified view of education, which is reinforced by the views of their parents, many of whom work in competitive, “results-driven” (and quantitative) industries like finance and business.

When you reduce education to an abstract game, students respond accordingly. Most seem acutely aware of what the private school admissions, the test prep, the after-school sports programs, and the constant pressure are all about, and see it all as some kind of Byzantine joke. Many respond to this pressure with languor; frequently we tutors act more as coaches than educators, trying to distract students from their electronic gadgets for long enough to earn them an A. The students take school just seriously enough to get by without thinking too hard. Most students seem similarly aware that their parents will always be there to bail them out. For these children of ultra-privilege, there is no educational goal that cannot be reached through money. At my agency, many parents use our services for years, even decades; at $150 per hour, this amounts to five or six figures over one child’s secondary school career.

It’s actually somewhat unexpected for the privileged to view education as a mere commodity. Education has long been an important means for those at the top to pass on their values and extend class privilege. Finishing schools, which provided etiquette lessons to young women, were perhaps the most obvious example. The values transmitted by an aristocratic, classics-oriented education had at least some positive social repercussions: in learning the classics, many children of wealth became patrons of the creative arts, and of artists and intellectuals themselves. This makes sense, given that the rich had the most leisure time to pursue these endeavors; as Thorstein Veblen commented in his 1899 tract The Theory of the Leisure Class,

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