December 8, 2013
FYSM Color and Money: Race and Social Class
For as long as I can remember, my family has kept a “Harvard University, Class of 1961, Dunster House” mug nestled among the other coffee mugs in our kitchen cabinet, and I have often found it amusing to inform people that my family acquired the mug, not because anyone in my family attended Harvard, but rather because my great-grandfather was the Dunster House superintendent, or, really, janitor. Upon graduating high school, my grandfather was offered a full-ride to attend Harvard because of his father’s status as a Harvard employee, but he turned it down, opting instead to pay for his education at Boston College. My grandfather’s decision has puzzled me for most of my life. However, after completing Professor Jack Dougherty’s first year seminar, Color and Money: Race and Social Class, I now have a far greater understanding of the reasoning behind my grandfather’s choice.
The American educational system, and more specifically the college institution, is perceived as a mechanism for social mobility through which those born into lower socioeconomic classes can climb the social ladder and achieve a livelihood greater than that of previous generations. However, after reading Mitchell Stevens’s Creating a Class, I understand colleges and universities not as tools for greater social mobility but rather as institutions that suppress those of lesser economic means and legitimize the status of elites (Stevens, 34). The operations of college admissions offices are fundamentally biased towards more affluent applicants. While wealthy students attend SAT prep classes and tutoring sessions, hire college councilors, and row crew, less affluent students take on after school jobs, babysit younger siblings, and attend sub-par public high schools. Everything in these less-privileged students’ lives is stacked against them in the college admissions process. Thus, the overwhelming majority of students on college and university campuses come from upper-middle class, white families and communities that have done everything within their power to get these students into the most elite institutions, starting on the day they were born.
Even for the lucky few who do make it on to college campuses despite coming from lesser means, life on campus presents countless additional challenges from which more affluent students are spared. Interviews conducted of Trinity sophomores exposed the insecurities of students of lesser means, and the isolation they felt when they were unable to keep up with the latest trends and accompany their more affluent classmates on weekend trips to New York City. The interviews exposed even more surprising social trends on campus with regard to racial discrimination. Minority students reported incidences of being stopped by campus safety and asked to present student ID cards. No white interviewees reported being asked to prove that they belonged on Trinity’s campus.
After taking Professor Dougherty’s seminar, I understand college campuses to be undeniably places of intense and systemic elitism. However, discussing the elitist biases of the college campuses and admissions process is arguably an elitist act in and of itself. The vast majority of Americans do not attend college and, for the poorest Americans, the concern is not whether or not they get into college but rather whether or not they will graduate high school. Greater attention needs to be given to making sure students graduate high school with adequate reading, writing, and mathematic abilities so that they can get decent jobs and climb the socioeconomic ladder. We should not be as concerned with college admissions when there is greater issue of students graduating high school and having the skills necessary to be productive members of society.
After growing up in the basement of Harvard University, watching his father mop up after the drunken elite, my grandfather rejected the Ivy League to attend, what was in the late 1950s, a predominately urban, working class, and Catholic Boston College. This was an economically irrational thing for him to do, and something that I understand he later regretted as a principal breadwinner for his own family. But Color and Money: Race and Social Class has helped me to understand my grandfather’s reason for doing so— for my grandfather to enroll at Harvard University would mean spending four years in intense isolation, surrounded by extreme affluence and privilege. My grandfather knew enrolling in Harvard would mean being the subject of intense condescension, judgment, and even disdain. Thus, my grandfather chose to escape Harvard’s elitism for Boston College and the student body amongst whom he felt a sense of belonging.
After Professor Dougherty’s First Year Seminar, I have a greater understanding of the significance of the mug in my kitchen cabinet, as a reminder of those who are less fortunate and the work that needs to be done to ease social mobility. The lessons I have learned in my First Year Seminar are lessons I will carry for the rest of my life, as I aim to work towards greater social mobility for those who are less fortunate, and greater compassion and understanding towards those of different backgrounds.
Stevens, Mitchell. Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites. N.p.: n.p., 2007. Print.