Monday, June 06, 2011

Every possible advantage

The letter Flavia responds to here stuck out to me when I saw it in the NYT as well, although my own reaction to it was more fish, barrel. A more intelligent/successful/tuned-in child of that level of privilege (significant but not extreme, straightforwardly-UMC) would never write a letter like that, would be well aware that having parents who can and will pay in fact does make it easier to get into college, that 1300 on the SATs is not the achievement of the millenium, and that, if you've got three elite colleges and universities on your resume, the System hasn't exactly screwed you over. It is precisely the forms of privilege the letter-writer lacks - the ability to do well enough to get a spot regardless of affirmative action, the noblesse oblige or whatever we're calling manners it takes to not complain in this way, the self-awareness necessary to realize that if you've since been at UPenn and Oxford, maybe you don't want to draw attention to your high-school era mediocrity-despite-privilege (let alone to your continued preoccupation with this sort of ancient history) in a national publication - that makes her such an easy target. Nobody likes entitled.

After reading the interested thread at Flavia's, however, I'm moved to respond to a few aspects of this discussion.

Without delving into this too deeply, it seems possible that scores are higher among children of parents who were high scorers themselves for reasons other than that said parents pour money into tutoring, prep courses, etc. (Anecdata upon request.) What if this kid's parents had a college account for her from family money or a lucky investment or something, but were not super-meritocratic-high-achievers themselves? We don't know the nature of the letter-writer's privilege, other than that her parents footed the bill for college.

Society looks least favorably on kids who fail to parlay every conceivable advantage into results. Much is made at Flavia's of the fact that 1300 is not a fantastic score for a child of privilege. This, presumably, because SAT scores go up according to household income, and because common sense has it that if you're wiped out from supporting your family at 17, you arrive at the testing site at a disadvantage. As Flavia herself puts it, "a person with all her time, money, and alleged talent should do better than 1300 on the SAT [...]" Setting aside the "alleged talent," which we can interpret as a sign that the letter-writer's, uh, privileged with healthy self-esteem, let's focus on the time and money. What do these alone do for a kid's SAT score?

One way to look at it that would be less condemnatory is to compare the letter-writer not with the less-advantaged, as she herself does, to the detriment of her cause, but rather with those who are more so. What separates a given privileged 1300 kid from a 1500 one may be that the latter was more privileged in ways relevant to this kind of test - more tutoring, more Chuaing of the artificial or real-immigrant variety, more of a tendency via nature or nurture or both to have the focus and sort of thinking required to do well on these things.

In other words, we tend to look at 18-year-olds (and everyone, really) as falling into fairly set categories of privileged and not. Which is really the only way to assess advantage on a large scale, but which leaves us with, a kid from suburban PA whose parents paid for her college probably isn't privileged in the Chua's-daughters' sense. (This is leaving aside all the unknowables - whether there were non-financial obstacles this woman had to overcome - but the entitled tone of the letter, combined with the fact that the letter-writer doesn't mention that her parents paid her way but such-and-such happened, suggests this was not an issue here.)

So on the one hand, lack of disadvantage =/= every advantage in the world, yet the super-privileged end up getting judged in the same heap as the regular-privileged, putting the regular-privileged, who are still, of course, snottily privileged overall, at a relative disadvantage. If the letter-writer was that determined to be hung-up on long-ago rejection, this would have been a more productive angle for her to take.

On the other, the more interesting issue it brings up is the mediocrity question - that we as a society have no way of discussing the kids who, despite privilege, do poorly, but not so poorly as to suggest a particular disability is causing the poor performance. We somehow know what to make of kids like Chua's older daughter, of the children of successful parents who, in turn, excel. We don't admire their 1600s the way we do those of kids who had it tough, but we figure, given everything they'd gotten, this is the least they can do.

I've attempted, above, to come up with a less-insulting way to look at such trajectories, but am finding that, too, unsatisfactory. Sometimes those who have had every possible advantage still get Cs for no special reason, or those who've had many but not all advantages manage to do poorly, considering. In a sense, the NYT letter isn't really the best springboard for this discussion, because the mediocre-child-of-privilege doesn't by definition have a massive sense of entitlement. But is it (just) the entitlement we're responding to when we read this letter, or a genuine sense of disgust that someone could have so much and score so low with it?

6 comments:

Flavia said...

So on the one hand, lack of disadvantage =/= every advantage in the world, yet the super-privileged end up getting judged in the same heap as the regular-privileged, putting the regular-privileged, who are still, of course, snottily privileged overall, at a relative disadvantage.

This is a good point (if not about the letter-writer, necessarily, then in general about college admissions).

But in response to your final question, for me it really is the entitlement. I don't think I would have responded differently to the letter had the writer announced her SAT score as 1400 or 1500 (piling on her not-especially-impressive score was something I certainly succumbed to in the comments thread, but isn't ultimately relevant).

I share your fish, barrel sentiment, though. And you may be right that part of what's astonishing about this letter is the writer's apparent unawareness that People Like Us don't say such things, dear.

Britta said...

I have some self-aggrandizing anecdata re. SAT scores. My parents were from stable but lower/lower-middle class families, my parents were the first generation to go to college, and they were extremely high SAT scorers themselves. None of my siblings and I received any SAT tutoring or took classes (in fact, my parents actively opposed any SAT prep, since they saw it as an unfair advantage. To them, the SAT was supposed to be an aptitude test, measuring innate ability, and to receive tutoring was akin to cheating), and we all scored really highly (like, failure in my family is getting 98th rather than 99th percentile). Of course, getting back to relative privilege, my siblings and I grew up in a stable, comfortable household where intellectual curiosity and high-level cultural consumption was prioritized, and we had access to enough cultural enrichment stuff (museums, music classes, etc) to be pretty advantaged. In terms of innate ability, my grandparents, who grew up in abject poverty (e.g. my grandfather sold newspapers on the street as a teenager, and had to drop out of school at 15 to help his mother farm), all scored off the charts on IQ tests, as did my parents and aunts and uncles. Not being a neo-social Darwinist, I don't think IQ measures intelligence in any meaningful way or is a genetic trait, but it does seem to measure an ability to think in certain ways that are privileged in standardized tests like SATs and seems in some ways to run in families.

In terms of elite college admissions, middling student from top school vs. top student from middling school is an interesting issue. On the one hand, being the top shows a certain drive and ability, whether it's top of the class at Exeter or top of the class at some school in rural Kentucky. On the other hand, a middling student at Exeter may indeed be more prepared for elite college than a top student from rural Kentucky. An A+ in algebra 1 may not be as good as a C+ in calculus 2. Schools are always looking for that diamond in the rough, and in that sense, the top Kentucky student may have more potential than the middling Exeter student, who has probably been given all the resources to excel but for whatever reason hasn't, whereas the other student may have faced external barriers, and either might be brilliant or might fall flat on their face in college.

In terms of relative privilege though, while we can obviously distinguish between working full time to support your alcoholic non-English speaking mom and 7 siblings while going to school, and the legacy daughter of a president, I'm not sure how different "privileged privilege" from "less-privileged privilege" is, especially in terms of test scores. There's probably diminishing returns in terms of tutoring, so an expensive private tutor might not boost your score much more than a Kaplan SAT class would, and the 30 points difference probably wouldn't make or break or application. Likewise, my guess is writing about vacations in Aspen and designer prom dresses doesn't impress admissions committees. Being able to have impressive experiences helps, but there's a limit to what your parents can plausibly buy to be impressive, and there has to be some level of initiative, or drive, or sign of intelligence on the part of the student. Conversely, there are plenty of fairly cheap things you can do to be impressive, like grand chess master, or spelling bee winner, or national debate winner, etc. I agree, general parental wealth and influence in circles where everyone is Ivy-Leagued probably help proportionally, but that's a very specific form of privilege. I doubt Kim Kardashian could get into Harvard, but it's hard to say she's lacking in privilege. ( Jenna Bush couldn't even get into Yale, even with her family connections).

Britta said...

In terms of that girl though, I have no idea what she's whining about. Bryn Mawr is a good school, and she should be happy to get in there with a 1300 SAT and no obviously unprivileged background. (At my good public HS in Oregon, a 1300 would be nothing to brag about, nor would it be a straight shot to Bryn Mawr. In fact, I had a friend with a 1420 who went to Bryn Mawr, and she certainly though given her SATs and grades that she did pretty well in college admissions.)

(sorry to post so much! we had the end of year picnic today, so I had a few too many glasses of wine in hot weather. I apparently have a lot to say. Hope I'm not embarrassed rereading this! ;)

Phoebe said...

Flavia, Britta,

Flavia, I think the 1300 and the unawareness of how gauche the letter was kind of go hand in hand. Not in the OMG anyone who doesn't get 1600 is a moron sense (obviously untrue), but in the, the letter-writer is probably of only moderate privilege one. It's certainly a privilege not to have to take out loans for college, and to be able to go wherever you get in, without having to worry about financial aid. (As for the not having to work during college, if that's part of what the 7-11 remark was about, my sense of it in college was that virtually everyone worked, as in for money, whether they had to or not.) But the presence of tuition money does not necessarily indicate massive privilege in all areas - there are kids for whom college was like their parents buying them a soda, but also ones whose families sacrificed and saved to get to that particular amount, ones whose parents got lucky with an investment or inheritance and, though not high-income, chose to set that aside for that purpose. All of these would make a kid better-off than one with loans, work-study, etc., but wouldn't necessarily indicate a "daddy's little princess" situation when it comes to things other than education, or, more to the point, the kind of cultural capital that assures a 22-year-old will get a great job regardless of where years 18-22 were spent.

Britta - this gets at what I mean re: relative privilege among the privileged. The child of major public intellectuals will have both connections and know-how that a kid whose accountant parents managed to save up enough probably will not.

Flavia, we agree that someone no less bitter than the letter-writer, but from a more People Like Us family, would not have sent this letter; I also suspect someone from such a family would have, all things equal, managed a higher score. As for the entitlement-mediocrity question, I do agree that the issue with this letter, as well as the reason it makes a less-than-ideal catalyst for this discussion, is its eye-roll-inducing obvious offensiveness. After reading it, even those ambivalent about affirmative action would admit the 1250 from the Bronx to their theoretical colleges. (OK, except Withywindle.) But there is a sense, I think, that children of privilege who don't excel are not merely underprivileged in the natural intelligence department, but are somehow failing to make the most of what they were given, and are as such kind of shameful. Even if that was not the main thing you or most of your commenters were responding to, I think there's still an element of that reaction in the thread. And, I think, this gets at why one reads this sort of thing and feels compelled to refer to one's own high(er) test scores, implicitly or explicitly. No one wants to be that kid, certainly in the entitlement sense, but also in the failed-to-make-most-of-resources one.

It also made me think of another fine example of this phenomenon - the "Native Society" profile Rita responded to a while back. Story was, a group of well-off but academically-mediocre NYers returned from their mediocre colleges to find themselves the lone non-strivers in a swath of Manhattan populated mainly by ambitious arrivals from elsewhere. Rather than self-flagellate, they felt... entitled.

Britta said...

I've been thinking a little more about this issue, because it seems like two intertwined issues. One is privilege which allows you to bypass meritocracy because of your wealth/connections/name etc. It's pretty easy to decry this sort of privilege, though of course, Harvard wouldn't have 30 bn endowment if they didn't admit people who have in the past or will in the future donate lots and lots of money, and part of the appeal of going to a fancy pants schools is the ability to hob nob with children of celebrities/celebrities and the children of the wealthy and powerful. In that sense, these perhaps undeserving students both detract from the brand (i.e. "the best and the brightest") but also add to it (i.e. "the most elite").

Secondly, there's the whole fact that, within the system of meritocracy, things beyond innate intelligence (whatever that even means) and hard work can get you very far on supposedly objective measures of these traits, which generally considered "unfair." Statistically SAT scores are positively correlated with parental income, the ability to take APs or advanced microbiology in HS requires good schools, which means either living in a nice area or being able to afford private school, etc. Individually people can shift around, but on the whole the people who "objectively" qualify based on merit are also those from fairly privileged backgrounds.

The question is, of course, does a top school just take students solely on "objective" measures, in which case very elite schools would have only A+ students with 1600s, or are they engaged in social engineering projects of a sort? Given the application/availability ratio, there is going to be some crazy selection, so there has to be some rubric, and it won't satisfy everyone. It seems like now, some place like Harvard admits a section of wealthy powerful elites, a section of upper-middle class kids who are flawless students and have some special skill/passion that makes them stand out, and then a small section of disadvantaged kids who have also managed to stand out. This pretty much covers all the bases, although it isn't really ideal for any group but the first. There will always be people who feel and have been shafted, but it's hard to see how to change it, without drastically increasing student body size, or fundamentally altering the nature of the university.

Finally, while people like this girl get in a snit over the poor student who stole her spot (not that a poor student with a 1250 is going to get into an Ivy either, without something really damn special to recommend them), but really, there is crazy affirmative action for wealthy white males, or white people not from the coasts, policies designed explicitly to keep out Jews, and which are now keeping out Asians (I don't know if Jews still face the same kind of barrier that Asians do now). My guess is for every African American admitted with a lower test score than a white student, there were probably 5 white students admitted with lower test scores than Asians who didn't get in.

PG said...

Ridiculously long comment got eaten. Shorter version: I have no "disgust" toward someone who got a 1300 SAT score despite having parents who could pay private schooling, because that's about what my older sister got (albeit pre-1995 score re-centering). There can be differences in privilege even intra-family, as exemplified by the gap between my older sister's and younger sister's advantages because of my family's going from lower middle class to top tax bracket in the course of about 15 years. Even aside from money, differences in having quality time with a highly-educated parent or in having the company of an elder sibling who pushes intellectual and cultural knowledge create meaningful differences in privilege.

I am disgusted with the sense of entitlement. My parents have never thought their children entitled to anything, and I wonder if this is due to being immigrants and not feeling like America owes them something. This hypothesis seems to get some backing on a larger scale, considering that Asian-Americans are disproportionately less likely to complain publicly about (racial or economic) affirmative action relative to white Americans.