This Blog is Stolen Property

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Tag--I'm It. Again.

Thanks, Benticore.

Well, I'm crazy busy at the moment, so I think I'll take this tagging as an opportunity to write seven self-indulgent biographical posts.

That'll teach Benticore! I guess the rest of the class will just have to suffer for what he did (I learned that one from you, Mrs. Husby!)

So this post is going to be about education.

I have a very conflicted relationship to higher education. And not just because my students are annoying.

Although they are annoying.

I mean with the whole institution. Don't get me wrong, I think that college education is wonderful. I think that it offers (to the one student in ten who's not a total tool) a unique opportunity for intellectual exploration and reflection and rigor.

But it's so freaking expensive in this country (even state schools) that it becomes implicated in class hierarchy. And that sucks. That sucks a lot.

It's not that only the middle-on-up classes pursue higher education, but that these are the groups for whom it is most accessible. A huge number of students are, like me, from the working classes. And they feel, like I did, that they don't belong.

I am not the first person in my family to graduate from college, but pretty close. For those of you in a similar situation, you know what this means: you are simultaneously living out your family's social mobility narrative, with all the attendant American-dream-crap pressures, but you have no model for how it works and no money to make it happen. Your family fetishizes education, but in the abstract. For every degree earned, you are met with pride but also with suspicion. There is a subtle strain of "so I guess you think you're better than us now" for every academic achievement.

Middle class kids get money for college, not necessarily because their families *have* money, but because their families know how to *get* money. They understand grants and scholarships and loans, etc. Working class kids get the imperative: "go to college." What they don't get is any kind of support to make this happen. They often go to high schools that aren't geared toward college-bound students. My PSAT scores made me a semi-finalist for a National Merit Scholarship. Not one person in my high school, no teacher and no administrator, suggested that I submit the necessary materials to try to become a finalist. I didn't even know that there was someone whose job it was to help with college. The only thing any of us knew about our school guidence counselor was about his drug habits, because he frequently bought from students. I had never even heard of an AP exam until I started teaching students who had taken it. I didn't even know how to get a college application form.

After not completely finishing high school, I tried community college. I was working full time and was ill. I lasted a year and a half before I thought: "fuck this. I don't need this upward mobility crap."

After several years waiting on table and tending bar, I finally went back to college. Not for a degree, but just because I wanted to know shit.

The first time I stepped on campus, I nearly burst into tears. I am man enough to admit it. I had never been on a university campus before. This was a campus built in the academic gothic style, with lots of pointy stone buildings. It looked like something out of a movie. A movie about horrible prep school boys. I am not an emotional guy (unless you count annoyance as an emotion), but I was utterly overwhelmed with the feeling that I didn't belong here among all these pointy buildings with all these smart people who had graduated high school and who knew about the right fork from learning how to eat not from learning about how to set the table for people who were going to eat. And at the same time, I felt like I had never been more at home. I know how corny that sounds, but it was an intense few minutes. I wiped my eyes and my nose on my shirt sleeve (you can take the boy out of the trailer park, but....) and got on with it.

It was cool. I learned shit. I was making good money, and unlike the rest of my colleagues in the bar biz I didn't have a major cocaine habit. So I could spend my spare change on learning Ancient Greek. With the added bonus that my septum is still intact.

I loved it. My professors liked me (will wonders never cease?) and I liked school (unbelievable!).

After many years of doing this, someone from the university called and said: "you know, Bub, you have a degree. Take it already."

So I did.

Nothing changed. I still took classes and still tended bar and all was well in the world of Feemus.

And then one day, I broke my leg. Ouch. So I thought, why not do something different? Why not do something that doesn't depend on your body (which, frankly, wasn't getting any younger). So I went to graduate school.

And I saw that most people in academia were just like me. Two of the senior faculty members where I am now are from coal mining families. A few have fathers who are mechanics. Very few people come from money.

But we're all still implicated in this middle-on-up class structure. Because that's the culture. That's where most of the students come from. And they have profoundly internalized the customer service model of education. And we let them get away with it. In part because we are a little in awe of their glamour and stunned by their entitlement. And because we've been trained to respond to the desires of the "consumer." Shame on us, you know.

Education shouldn't be about selling degrees to those who can afford it. To those who are only at the college because they are legacies or because the library is named after their grandma.

And it kills me that I have to argue with kids who tell me that they shouldn't get a B because they pay $40,000 a year (yeah, sweetie, YOU pay it. sure) and then hear from people who WANT to get an education and can't because of financial considerations. That just sucks.

This wasn't meant to be a poor-me post. I've been very lucky in my life. I've gotten more breaks than I deserved. But I do believe that until we make education more equally accessible, from K-12 on up, this whole meritocracy discourse will remain bullshit.


  • I like the way you're doing the tags, Feemus.

    I know exactly what you're talking about here. I was held back by a lack of knowledge about the system, how college works, who to talk to about what, how to choose a school based on my strengths. Thank god I had a tenacious mother or I wouldn't have gotten any education at all. I ended up at an expensive private university where I thrived for a while. The teachers liked me, I made friends and learned shit. I had a scholarship, but it was still a financial struggle.

    An insurmountable struggle, as it turned out. I transferred to a state school, but by that time the focus and drive were gone. The size of the classes was overwhelming. So I quit after 4 1/2 years of college and no degree, and went to work at the Wrangler factory.

    At least I know a little more about the system now, and that will benefit my kids.

    Good post, Feemus.

    By Blogger Sherri, at 5:58 AM  

  • Sherri, your situation is almost an EXACT mirror of mine. I was hit with the same 'Go to College' urges and I went to a great highschool with all the tools to help but I didnt know where to turn. My PSAT should've made me a merit scholar but I didnt know that. I decided to go to a school way out of my parents ability to pay because my father somehow believed that my evil-step monster was going to help pay for that school and I couldn't stand the idea of staying at home. If I had just gone to Mizzou...who knows.

    I understand the feeling of belonging and not at the same time. The pressures get real weird when you're a young black man trying to get THROUGH college.

    If I knew then what I know now...but there is still so much I dont know about how to get BACK too school that it can be pretty daunting.


    Also, my tag was before I saw Sherri tagged you so...sorry about that, amigo.


    By Blogger Benticore, at 12:26 PM  

  • Stupid money.

    And since I started teaching college, I can really see how money/class/luck plays an even huger role in higher ed than I could when I couldn't afford tuition.

    I see students who went to fancy prep schools or to top flight public schools. And they are just better prepared for coursework than even really bright kids who are from poor schools. So the kids who went to crappy high schools feel like they really DON'T belong and they are NEVER the ones to ask for special privileges. I do try to badger these students into coming by office hours for a little extra help, or sometimes just a pep talk. But it's hard for many of them and they often begin to doubt their abilities (which are often superior to those of the prep school kids, just less practiced).

    Now, some of the kids from crappy schools adapt right away. They learn to the rules of the game and they thrive. But the danger is that they then think that the system works and that anyone who is struggling has some radical deficiency. It's like Bob Dole or Clarence Thomas who think that because they excelled despite hard circumstances that everyone who is not excelling did something wrong. So there's no motivation to make any kind of structural changes.

    The end.

    By Blogger Feemus, at 12:30 PM  

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