Today’s Times article on class in America revolved around unraveling
the links between educational attainment and class status in this
country. The Times has been running a series on the role of class in American society
for the last couple of weeks, and it’s been generally excellent.
It’s been quite good in dealing with the myth that there is no class or
that it’s entirely malleable in our society. We may not have
formal class here, as in the European societies of old and new, and the
movement between classes may be possible, but the series has done a
good job of showing how one chances and changes in life are quite
largely dependent on one’s social status. Medicine, education,
relationships, military service–our experiences depend largely upon
the combination education, occupation, income, and wealth play, and as
time has gone on, it has become harder in the US to move up that ladder.
I’m still working out what I think about yesterday’s article on
evangelical Protestants’ attempt to move up the class ladder, but more
on that later this week.
Here’s the root of the problem, in some sense:
Put another way, children seem to be following the paths of their
parents more than they once did. Grades and test scores, rather than
privilege, determine success today, but that success is largely being
passed down from one generation to the next. A nation that believes
that everyone should have a fair shake finds itself with a kind of
In this system, the students at the best
colleges may be diverse – male and female and of various colors,
religions and hometowns – but they tend to share an upper-middle-class
upbringing. An old joke that Harvard’s idea of diversity is putting a
rich kid from California in the same room as a rich kid from New York
is truer today than ever; Harvard has more students from California
than it did in years past and just as big a share of upper-income
This is largely true here at Harvard. Yes, we have some poorer
kids, but by and large, our students are solidly middle class. I
know only a couple of kids who qualify as “poor” (which seems to be
pretty much in accord with the standard in the article of twice the
poverty line, or about $38,000). To a lesser extent, the same was
true at Berkeley; where we had poorer kids, they were less able than
the richer kids, because they had not received the math, writing, and
science training that kids at better schools had. They were more
likely to get lower grades even as they might have tried harder.
“The same score reflects more ability when you come from a less
fortunate background,” Mr. Summers, the president of Harvard, said.
“You haven’t had a chance to take the test-prep course. You went to a
school that didn’t do as good a job coaching you for the test. You came
from a home without the same opportunities for learning.”
is probably not a coincidence that elite colleges have not yet turned
this sentiment into action. Admitting large numbers of low-income
students could bring clear complications. Too many in a freshman class
would probably lower the college’s average SAT score, thereby damaging
its ranking by U.S. News & World Report, a leading arbiter of academic prestige. Some colleges, like Emory University
in Atlanta, have climbed fast in the rankings over precisely the same
period in which their percentage of low-income students has tumbled.
The math is simple: when a college goes looking for applicants with
high SAT scores, it is far more likely to find them among well-off
One thing we in the elite universities could do would be to ignore
US News for a few years. Seriously, how will even some decrease
in rankings affect the Ivies and their private-university
equivalents? Will Stanford and Harvard suffer much for a small
drop? Few people can turn down the lure of a place like Harvard
or Cornell, even for a fast-rising place like Emory.
The article is striking to me in some sense, because I look at the
experience of my own family. Both of my parents are the only kids
in either of their families to graduate from college (and there are
only two more if you include spouses of the other four children in
their generation), and none of their parents have four-year
degrees. They had to pay for college, working up through the
community college system, clerking in grocery stores. My brother
and I always assumed (and were expected) that we would go to
college. For my cousins, whose parents did not attend college,
graduating high school was an accomplishment.
By and large, my parents’ success was a function of being
Californians. California’s system of higher education, though
staggering a bit now, was the great educational equalizer of the late
twentieth century. It set up a system where at least the top
third of students could go immediately to university and where everyone
could go eventually.
My own class status has risen immensely via my education. I am
in pursuit of a PhD and being a college professor, and even though I
make much less money than many of my family members or my friends about
my age, I maintain the same class status as them primarily via the
promise of prestige that the education I have brings.
And I wonder what my role in participating in the system of higher
education should be. On some level, my advisors would say that I
shouldn’t worry too much–just finish and find a job. And with a
degree from Harvard, one aims toward the elite universities, whether
public or private, not the sort of universities that the individuals
profiled in the article attend or will attend. But even so, there
are trade-offs: at the public universities, I had more experiences
where the students seemed to benefit and appreciate the work I was
trying to do with them while at Harvard, there are a greater number of
those really talented students who excite and stimulate one’s own
research and thinking.
In the weeks afterward, his daydreaming about college and his
conversations about it with his sister Leanna turned into serious
research. He requested his transcripts from Radford and from Virginia Highlands Community College
and figured out that he had about a year’s worth of credits. He also
talked to Leanna about how he could become an elementary school
teacher. He always felt that he could relate to children, he said. The
job would take up 180 days, not 280. Teachers do not usually get laid
off or lose their pensions or have to take a big pay cut to find new
So the decision was made. On May 31, Andy Blevins says,
he will return to Virginia Highlands, taking classes at night; the
Gospel Gentlemen are no longer booking performances. After a year, he
plans to take classes by video and on the Web that are offered at the
community college but run by Old Dominion, a Norfolk, Va., university with a big group of working-class students.
don’t like classes, but I’ve gotten so motivated to go back to school,”
Mr. Blevins said. “I don’t want to, but, then again, I do.”
He thinks he can get his bachelor’s degree in three years. If he gets it at all, he will have defied the odds.
I would love to have a motivated student like Andy Blevins. He
and I would drive each other crazy, because I’d push him as hard as I
can to do more and better, and he’d push back, to make me become a
better teacher, I think. But in a place with many students like
him, there’d be much less opportunity to have colleagues like I am used
to here, and I wonder if the research and writing would atrophy.