Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Invisible Barriers

A bunch of friends were talking about this episode of The American Life the other day, which I finally got the chance to finish listening to over lunch today. (There's also a written transcript if you prefer to read.)

Its jumping off point is two teachers in New York, one at an exclusive private school, one at a poor public school in the Bronx (just three miles away) who decide to to an exchange program where the kids in the two schools visit back and forth. Then it tracks how the kids reactions to being exposed to this much richer school affected their own attempts to get into college and get out of the poor neighborhood.

There are a lot of programs and people trying to help these people get out, and yet one of the things which stops a lot of them is their own deep belief that they don't belong in elite college and jobs, and they don't deserve to do better. A lot of the kids who make it into elite colleges with lots of financial help nonetheless fail out, partly, it sounds, due to lack of academic preparation (being an A+ student at their school translates to being a C and D student at college) but also to a great extent because they feel a paralyzing sense of not belonging and not deserving which causes them to do things that seem on the face of it both stupid and their fault.

For instance, one guy gets a full ride to Wheaton College. When he arrives, he can't afford his text books. But rather than telling anyone in the program that sent him there, he just doesn't do the reading. Then he feels bad about being behind on the reading when he's often the only black kid in small discussion classes, so he stops going to class to avoid feeling ashamed. He's eventually expelled from the college.

It adds up to a strong sense of how class barriers involve a lot more than money, and that overcoming them is not simple.


Jenny said...

I am not blaming the guy who flunked out of Wheaton, but I have to wonder about the textbooks. Surely someone on that kind of scholarship would have had books included. And yet he didn't or didn't know about it. There is definitely a failure in communication somewhere.

Did the school think they had explained well enough, but he didn't realize it included books? Surely they would have given him a point person to bounce questions. Yes? Surely someone should have noticed when the book bill didn't arrive.

But then I remember my own college experiences and how administrators expected you to know so many things without being told, but I had enough cultural experience to wade through the BS.

Maybe his books fell into that void?

Darwin said...

Yeah, I have to think that with the amount of money that the scholarship was putting into his education, if he'd gone to their rep and told them that he needed help on the books they would have done so with no problem. But it sounded like not asking for help and feeling rejected instead was one of the problems that was driving this whole thing.

Boonton said...

The ability to arrive at a foreign culture, quickly sense how things are done, and keep your emotional bearings about you is a skill unto itself. Every time I have traveled the first day or two is rather upsetting. I worry I don't belong there, I worry about money, I worry about getting lost etc.

What's interesting is that many in Wharton probably lack this skill too. The only reason they know how to handle day 1 at an elite college is because they've been raised in an environment premised on putting them there.

In the long run, though, I think that skill is more valuable. Yet I don't think there is any easy way to teach it.

Darwin said...

"In the long run, though, I think that skill is more valuable. Yet I don't think there is any easy way to teach it."

Good point.

Joseph Moore said...

I've written a bit on a similar story, where some poorer young women were helped to get into colleges, and not only ended up bombing out, but with a pile of debt. It seemed that the cultural reasons were the real issue - they were very nearly completely unprepared and had effectively no family support.

As the son of a man who grew up on a farm, never went to college and went on to run his own sheet metal shop, I can attest to the feelings of not belonging at college, and of being ill-prepared to deal with it. I had grown up around blue-collar workers, not professionals and certainly not scholars. BUT - dad did want me to go and did think college was a good thing even though he had never attended.

From a cultural POV, college might as well have been Mars; but, with family support I and my siblings could still do it. For those who did not absorb the assumption that they belonged in college with their mother's milk, without family support, I can't imagine it would work out for very many people.

Anonymous said...

I had similar issues when I went to college. No one in my family had gone and I was left pretty much to figure things out for myself, and I dropped out fairly quickly. Like Joseph I grew up surrounded by blue-collar people, very few of whom had any expectation that they would go to college.

This is why I have long been convinced that the challenges and struggles of certain racial groups are really cultural deficits, based on a lack of the skills and expectations that lead to economic success. It's not a matter of merely opening doors, it's a matter of changing cultures, changing parental practices, tutoring and mentoring. But this seems to be precisely what the progressive establishment doesn't want to do: presume to change or improve cultures.

Boonton said...

The ability to be comfortable in radically changed cultural contexts is not a culture in itself, IMO. By definition it probably can't be. Consider an 'army brat' who is raised never to put down roots anywhere and is comfortable with being in a new and strange place every week. He may be comfortable with lots of different cultures but he is in fact a product of a culture in itself. If he had to live 10 years in one place he might be as profoundly uncomfortable as any of the people here.

And I think this 'skill' exists at all ends of culture. There are people from 'the ghetto' who can seamlessly go from hustling on a street corner to associating with upper class people and the elite '1%er' unable to comfortably deal with 'street people' is an old cliche (think Trading Places)

Darwin said...

I don't think that it's so much that some cultures prepare one more for being thrust into a radically different cultural context -- as you say, that kind of can't be by definition -- as that college is more culturally familiar to some than to others.

For instance, my parents were both the first in their families to go to college, but both took to it very well. They had very supportive parents who really wanted them to go to college and were bookish to start with. It was a hugely formative experience for them, and so by the time I was going to college, a second generation college student, I found it a very congenial experience. (The business world, afterwards, took a lot of getting used to, as my dad had taught all his life and I didn't have a lot of mentors who had worked in corporate America.)

The kind of stark thing is if you look down my Mom's family: seven kids the oldest two of which went to college. Of those of us among the cousins whose parents went to college, we basically all did. Among the cousins whose parents didn't go to college, only a couple have.

So expectations clearly have a lot to do with the decision, and familiarity has a lot to do with success in college.