Underserved Students and the Politics of the Practical

One thing that’s bothered me for a while is how often low-income and first generation students are steered pretty hard toward “jobs” rather than “education” when it comes to college. I can’t argue with the imperative to earn money and support yourself and your family after college, not to mention paying off student loans, but I worry that with all best intentions we may be developing a laboring class to the long-term detriment of American intellectual and national life. It may be better educated than earlier working classes, but it still smacks of a division between the privileged and non-privileged.

Jonathan Kozol wrote, “Childhood is not merely basic training for utilitarian adulthood. It should have some claims upon our mercy, not for its future value to the economic interests of competitive societies but for its present value as a perishable piece of life itself.” His compassion for children is well-known, but what strikes me here is the phrase “utilitarian adulthood.” Much is made of ensuring that students are able to get jobs when they graduate from college. That’s well and good, but it seems to me that Latino, African American, and low-income/first-generation students are seen more in that “utilitarian” light than their more privileged white counterparts. Working to change that outlook is one reason I do what I do.

If you are a well-off white student from a good high school, it’s relatively easy to consider a liberal arts education without thinking about post-college work. You may want to be a doctor or lawyer or CPA, but you are comfortable knowing that you can still major philosophy, anthropology or English, any of which ignite the old jokes like “What are you going to do, open a philosophy store?” as Mark Slouka writes in his Harper’s essay, “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.” But you still can afford to explore, take your time, or even think about going to graduate school to be an anthropologist or a historian because you’re relatively sure you’ll be employed at something after college. (Recent history aside.) You can major in theater because you know you’ll eventually work for an investment bank anyway or if you do go into theater can rely on parents for support, at least for a little while. (I realize what a huge generalization that is, but I believe it’s justified in contrast to underserved students’ experiences.)

But first-generation kids get pushed toward the practical: Even if they’re being encouraged to go to college, they’re steered toward curricula that will end in a job right out of college. They’re NOT steered toward the arts or history because the payoff isn’t nearly the same. Most college advising programs I’ve seen advising low-income students emphasize the income-enhancing aspects of college attendance, not the intellectual stimuli or the opportunity to see well beyond one’s own borders. Again, while I can’t argue with more income, I can wish that we attended more to these students’ minds instead of seeing them just as future laborers with BAs. Otherwise we risk their continued marginalization.

A young African American colleague recently told me about her own experience coming up through the Chicago school system. Although she is extremely good at math and was taking advanced courses at an early age, she was pushed to take a basketball scholarship at an obscure Florida college because she is also extremely tall. Even though she had demonstrated her brainpower, it was obscured by her height. Luckily she left her original college and transferred to one more appropriate to her talents, but my guess is that’s more an exception than a rule. She was seen as a body, not as a mind; as a laborer, not as an intellectual.

One result of the emphasis on college as job preparation rather than life or even career development is that we continue to have a dearth of African American, Latino, and other artists and intellectuals from out of the mainstream. I’ve met many bright underserved students for whom the idea of “liberal arts” is a non-starter; they have to be sure they can make money right out of the gate so they can’t waste time with “frills.” It’s hard to be comfortable studying Hispanic or Victorian literature when you feel the hot breath of necessity on your neck. But no one seems to have told them that they can live intellectual lives and have careers, and that’s a shame.

Michael Roth’s recent passionate defense of the liberal arts in the Huffington Post seems archaic in this context: “The cosmopolitanism of curricula at America’ best liberal arts colleges is in tune with the wonderful diversity of student life. The thirst for experimentation, the ability to cross disciplinary or cultural borders, the scale of residential life — all of these factors extend to learning outside the classroom and create vibrant communities that students remember and value throughout their lives.” My guess it would leave a room full of low-income parents and students laughing bitterly–these ideas all sound like airy luxuries most people can’t afford, and they’d be right. About the affordability, anyway.

But Roth (who is the president of Wesleyan University in CT) touches on some of the things that make higher education in the United States so vital and essential even without a direct link to jobs. He says “The key is that the students at these schools are developing skills, learning how to learn, in ways that will serve them for decades.” They are the things that help make going to college worthwhile not just as preparation for one’s working life but also for one’s mindfulness of life in the world, including being a citizen in its widest sense. The differences between training for a  “job” and embarking on a “career” (one implies simply laboring at a task; the other implies vocation, growth, and mobility) include developing one’s ability to be imaginative, to see beyond surfaces, to make connections or see patterns among seemingly disparate things, and to be flexible. Why shouldn’t underserved students be able to develop these capacities the same as their better served peers?

Of course, Americans have long been suspicious of non-practical education, going back to long before the days of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Sitting around reading just doesn’t look like work (sorry, Mr. Lincoln), so what good is it? But as we move more and more into being a nation of ideas and services rather than muscular production, we need to be sure that brainpower is valued wherever it shows up. Education is a down payment on the possible: we can’t know what will happen from moment to moment much less in a year or a decade. (Not to mention how many jobs will evaporate or come to be in the next few years.) All our students need encouragement to be well-educated, not just trained.

I was surprised to learn years ago that the Olympics were once confined to amateurs because that kept working class competitors out. Only the leisure class had the time and money to train for the contests, while workers had to, well, work. Colleges have been doing their best to enable “working class” students to overcome a similar barrier but current economic and social conditions are making it hard to justify college attendance as a social good in and of itself. But practicality and ratiocination (my favorite word from an undergraduate course in American literature) can coexist and even support each other. It’s not an either/or situation. If we are to have a strong and multi-varied American culture now and in the future we need to create scholars, artists, and thinkers from every corner of American life. Enabling everyone who wants it to be an “amateur” for a few precious years can immeasurably expand our collective ability to live useful, thoughtful, and adaptable lives.

One thought on “Underserved Students and the Politics of the Practical

  1. Thank you Mr. Dix for posting this. I am an African-American woman who went through this same battle of trying to decide between passion or necessity. I choose passion and I have never regretted it!!


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