Of Mice and Molecules...
First the business: I'll be taking a couple of weeks off for vacation. Because it takes all one's wits to survive in the Greek Islands, the blog will go dark until the last week in May.
Now onto more interesting subjects.
The other day, the NY Times published an interesting infographic/article on family income versus university attendance focusing on, among other things, family income and the likelihood of going to an elite school.
The data is interesting in many way. Four in ten students from the top 0.1% attend an elite university. This is unsurprising, as is the fact that educational quality and duration declines by income decile. At the same time, low income students admissions are held steady (by virtue of the ostensible goodwill of universities towards those disadvantaged who seek upward mobility). Something's gotta give in this equation, and it's the middle class kids, who are steadily becoming less represented at the high-end schools. In spite of the - would it be wrong to call it charity? - extended to low income students by elite universities, poor people attending elite universities tend to achieve about as well as their rich counterparts.
The takeaway - education is perhaps a panacea to social mobility as some might have you believe; however, this may be extended to being given access to a favorable environment, where your friend's dad owns a big company and will hire you into a good job straight out of school.
I remember my introductory sociology class. A teacher was discussing social class and perception. She asked everyone in there - and this was a school the NY Times calls Ivy-plus, their top tier (so you know it was loaded with rich people's kids) - to list their family income and what we considered to be our social class (wealthy, upper, upper-middle, middle, lower-middle, lower, poor, or something like that). The professor promised to compile the data and share it with us later.
I guessed our family income was about $120K in 1998 dollars. For the economic class question, I put down upper class (upper-middle was my distant second choice). I thought this was defensible; I knew the numbers and had the thermoclines between social class pretty well mapped.
When the data came back, the results were really shocking. Our class reported an average family income of about a half-million bucks (I suppose this is why half the class could afford to major in sociology - !sick burn!). Yikes. More interestingly were their classifications of their position in the economic strata - I've forgotten the numbers, but it was mathematically certain that AT LEAST 15% of my classmates who lived in a household making >$500K a year described themselves as middle class.
While this seems ludicrous, it did play into the lesson that the teacher was going for: because the majority of people in the room were technically rich, the level of earning associated with this felt average to them. Period. Although I'd stratified myself correctly, having the correct answer didn't prevent me from feeling more than a little embarrassed; I was one of the few people in the room who'd actually overestimated their economic standing. Absolute knowledge takes a backseat to the local environment, it seems.
So what were the sociological effects of this on poor little Noah? I now knew I was one of the poorest people in the lecture room. This knowledge didn't exactly bother me, but I was aware of it - it was something I never really forgot (as evidenced by this anecdote some 20 years later). The questions it prompted weren't good ones. For example, how was I supposed to wade into an environment with kids who'd had smarter peers, private schools, access to tutors, hell, even some idea of what to expect at a competitive university? By any stretch, I was relatively disadvantaged (and, because I was still relatively in good financial shape, family-wise, I couldn't even tap into the "I'm never going back to the ghetto" thing the real poor kids could). Looking back, I'd definitely say I preferred to be ignorant of my relative lack of experience and means at the time.
As I got used to the environment, though, it became what I was used to; I could handle it. I would call the adjustment uneasy but doable for the average person. There's no doubt that making the jump is hard, but once you do, the advantages are lasting. Surely, some of the things I did later were influenced by stepping up levels at some point, regardless of how easy or difficult it may have been.
Rolling this back towards the article, I put this hypothesis forth: perhaps it's not entirely the education. Maybe being placed in an environment where expectations are different (read: higher) that leads to meaningful change. I don't think that this is a new idea - one of the best ways to lift achievement in schools is to merge crappy schools with good schools. That, however, comes with a while host of problems (the white flight/public school issues in Chicago, for example), which I am ill-equipped to solve.
Maybe we should just tell our children that they're geniuses and should start acting like it.
Full Onion Article for those so inclined.
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Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.