Skull and bones and cheese

I don't know if my students think they're in a finishing school for professional elites, but there's certainly a sense of entitlement - to A's, to large amounts of my time whenever they want, to special consideration for any excuse. I'd much rather teach students that worked hard in high school to get B's than a great deal of my students - many of whom I suspect received A's without much effort. I've yet to meet a TA that would characterize the general UW-Madison undergrad population as hard-working and intellectually curious. Admittedly, it's possible that's just a function of their age and the transition from being taught to learning - maybe my expectations are too high. Are my students qualified to be at this school? Sure. Are they the students who will benefit the most from the type of education that we try to provide? I'm not so sure.
To prevent failure, middle-class parents pass along to their children every possible advantage, in the form of "social capital," or those habits of speech and self-discipline that allow a child to thrive in the classroom. Middle-class parents who can afford the property taxes move to the best school districts, or send their children to private schools. Economists have a vocabulary for this: They write about "Cobb-Douglas utility functions," whereby parents forgo current consumption in order to secure for their children high levels of future income. Legal theorists have a vocabulary for this: They talk about inter vivos bequests, whereby parents pass along a good education as a kind of inheritance. (Even literary critics have a vocabulary for this: They talk about Bourdieu-ian "reproduction.") So there's a technical language for inherited middle-class advantages; but as of now no ideological, no emotional, and no public-policy language for the phenomenon. Held to the impossible standard of the Golden Age, universities are now easily portrayed—even public universities, and even the old land-grant colleges—as finishing schools for a stable professional elite.

1 comment:

Spice said...

I think this is one of the biggest reasons to go to a small liberal-arts college. At Carleton there was kind of an institutional hang-up about the fact that most of the world has never heard of us, but at the same time we were pretty sure we were getting a better education than many folks at more famous institutions. Also, although there were certainly a lot of people from privileged backgrounds (and a lot of people not from those backgrounds), Carleton did a lot to make sure that those sorts of differences weren't obvious - like making campus events free, encouraging everyone who wanted a work-study job to have one, etc. We were all there to learn (and to have a lot of wacky fun), which is a very different overall ethos than I sense permeates Wisconsin.

I think the whole passing along of privilege really hurts the kids, actually. A professor I know at Stanford wrote a book about how the pressure parents put on kids to do the right activities to get into the right colleges, etc. ends up producing really stressed out, anxious, and unhappy adolescents and young adults. Who apparently then, once they reach the promised land of a good college, decide that they've made it and don't have to put much effort in to get a degree.

Then again, I have to note that all of the folks I know who went to Harvard as undergrads are fantastic, hard-working, and caring people who don't fit this stereotype at all. So either I know some sort of subset of Harvard grads (the kind who end up friends with or marrying my Carleton friends, for example), and/or, as one could probably expect, people who go to big, prestigious universities are a lot more diverse than they are portrayed.