Sunday, May 25, 2014

The straw family of privilege

Reading UChicago senior Lynda Lopez's Maroon op-ed about being a first-generation college student, I was struck by two things. First, that before even reading it, I had an intuitive (and anecdotal) sense that her argument would be sound, i.e. that low-income and first-generation students have a tougher time of it, and that, to put bluntly what she put delicately, rich kids can be assholes.

Second, though, was that nearly all of Lopez's examples of things rich kids did effortlessly but that she struggled with are ones that everyone struggles with. Despite my parents' extensive educations, despite going to an elite public high school and a fancy private school K-8, despite all of this copious ambient fanciness (albeit not the tutoring or helicoptering; I'm too old to be of that generation), I, too "didn’t know how to ask professors or TAs for help or how to pick the right classes." My high school workload also wasn't comparable with that of college, nor was it at all the same sort of work expected. I never really figured out how to write a Sosc paper.

Anyway, my point, to be clear, isn't that she and I entered college on a level playing field. Rather, it's that we quite clearly did not, but not for many of the reasons she gives. The more relevant factors - which she also discusses - would be things like the ability to pay for college or figure out financial aid, the sense that you simply must graduate from college, and the feeling that you personally don't belong, something quite different from thinking that college life is overwhelming and new and impossible, which, again, just about everybody experiences.

But I find this often in discussions of privilege, that there's a sort of assumed experience that constitutes "privilege," thought to be shared by all who aren't not privileged. Intellectual discussions at the dinner table. Family connections with which to get a job. In-depth life-planning conversations with parents and other unearned mentors. Everything made easier every step of the way. While this sort of family does - as much as one can ever tell - seem to exist, it's not the uniform experience it's been made out to be. Most of the rich-kids-at-college did not, I suspect, have that childhood.

To re-reiterate, my point certainly isn't that all backgrounds are one, or that everything's subjective so socioeconomic class doesn't matter. Nor is it that I'd expect this particular author to know that this isn't how it goes. Rather, it's that those trying to sort out these issues to find remedies should be clear on exactly what it is that does matter, at where the unfairness does come from.


caryatis said...

"...Thinking that college life is overwhelming and new and impossible, which, again, just about everybody experiences."

Is this about elite schools? My experience was that, actually, being smart was enough to make it through college, as long as I found a few hours for homework between my job, relationship drama and the parties. But UChicago undergrads do seem pretty miserable.

It seems like part of the problem is that students tend to assume that getting good grades in high school will prepare them for college. Then those who find out their high school wasn't challenging feel unprepared for college. The collective solution would be to improve public education, but the individual solution is for students to stop assuming that they can depend on schooling for their education. If the school doesn't offer calculus, go to the library and learn it by yourself. I know, it's a lot to expect of teenagers.

I wish Lopez would go into more detail about what she wants to happen. The administration should "ask questions about why she did poorly in a class"? "Resources geared toward helping low-income, first-generation students transition into college?" There's a risk of stereotype threat here.

This article is along the same lines.

Phoebe said...

Ah - the "everyone" would probably have to be UChicago. How much the analogy carries over to other schools - and, indeed, whether "elite" is even the issue - is its own question. Chicago's Core can be academic hazing of sorts for almost everyone. I can think of a handful of kids who arrived prepared, but they were, as you say, the sort who hadn't relied on even really good high schools for their educations. I can see how someone like Lopez would arrive and, feeling lost, imagine that kids who fit in better socially are also reading Kant and Hegel with ease. Not so!

And the students who teach themselves calculus... exist, but do just fine. The question is more how to help the majority who don't do this. The often-stated problem is that relying on out-of-school learning ends up disproportionately benefitting kids with helpful/stable/wealthy parents, the sort who tell their kids that schoolwork is only the bare minimum.

Re: the NYT Magazine article, I haven't read it yet, but did see Miss Self-Important's response to it. Maybe once I've read it I'll have a better sense of how much is UChicago-specific, how much changes if the school in question is public, etc.

caryatis said...

I saw another Maroon article where a student complains about having to work 10-15 hours a week to pay the bills. Do people not usually have parttime jobs at UChicago?

Phoebe said...

Not a regular Maroon reader these days, so I don't know this article, but I recall working about 10 hrs a week during college, and remember this as being fairly typical. Not only did almost everyone I knew - work-study or otherwise - work, but almost everyone I knew spent at least some time working in the library's book-shelving department.