In spite of our collective belief that education is the engine for climbing the socioeconomic ladder — the heart of the “American dream” myth — colleges now are more divided by wealth than ever. When lower-income students start college, they often struggle to finish for many reasons, but social isolation and alienation can be big factors. . . .I have seen enough writing just like this — some of it personal, some of it sociological, with statistics — to believe that there is something to it. There really are people who get into elite colleges but drop out because they don't feel like they belong. Or perhaps they don't fully commit to these strange places they find themselves, or get the right sort of parental support, so they more easily drop out when things get tough. And I have to say that this is something of a puzzle to me.
But once those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds arrive on campus, it’s often the subtler things, the signifiers of who they are and where they come from, that cause the most trouble, challenging their very identity, comfort and right to be on that campus. The more elite the school, the wider that gap. I remember struggling with references to things I’d never heard of, from Homer to the Social Register. I couldn’t read The New York Times — not because the words were too hard, but because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the world to follow the articles. Hardest was the awareness that my own experiences were not only undervalued but often mocked, used to indicate when someone was stupid or low-class: No one at Barnard ate Velveeta or had ever butchered a deer.
This may be partly because my spot on the autistic spectrum left me largely oblivious to the sort of social slights that loom large in these narratives. I did recognize that I was snobbed off a couple of times at Yale, but this had the effect of making me more defiant about my small town Missouri background, and I ended up pretending to be much more of a redneck than I actually was. While I was in New England, my southern accent got stronger. But I loved learning so much, and got such a charge about being with the smart people and the brilliant professors studying the toughest and most fascinating subjects, that I didn't really care.
But, anyway, one of the things that strikes me most strongly about these stories is the sense, among students from inner city or rural backgrounds, that everybody else has some advantage they lack. This is mostly an illusion. One of the great discoveries I made at Yale was that nobody knows what all the fancy words mean, or recognizes all the allusions to classical authors. People who went to Andover were often just as much in the dark as I was, and they didn't ask for explanations from the same reasons of embarrassment. Once I had figured that out, I started asking, to the great relief of everyone around me. To get the most out of college requires a certain thickness of skin; but to get the most out of anything requires thickness of skin. If you live in fear of looking like a fool or being mocked for your ignorance you will never learn very much or achieve anything of note.
So we get back to one of the main themes of my writing: life is hard for everybody. There is nobody who glides easily from success to success along some magic pathway paved by money and connections. When I read these accounts of poor kids who drop out when things get hard, I focus mainly on their belief that other people have it easier than they do. Now certainly other people have it easier in certain respects. That is a fact of life. But just everybody's life has troubles, and some rich kids from Westchester have worse problems than many poor kids from Queens. Plus, there are advantages to being a streetwise black kid, especially in a social sense — for somebody with the guts to trade on it, a background in a tough neighborhood and knowledge of the music popular there can open a lot of doors.
Another thing about these stories is that the protagonists come across as very much alone. Their parents are generally no help, and because they feel isolated they don't talk to their classmates about their problems. Again and again I read these stories and want to say, If you didn't know what that meant, why didn't you ask somebody? If you felt snobbed off by some elitist jerk, why didn't you talk to some non-elitist jerk about it? Likely half your classmates didn't recognize that allusion to The Stranger either, and elitist jerks are just as nasty to ordinary middle class white kids as they are to misfits. (They can be nastiest of all to each other.) If people only opened up to each other more, they would realize that everyone else is also struggling, and that might help them put their own struggles in perspective.
But all of what I just wrote assumes that graduating from an elite college is a good thing. It certainly was for me; as I have said, I think the sort of education we offer in elite colleges is one of the very best things about our society. But that's just me. The general tone of these worrying essays is that poor kids should stay in college so they can get ahead. What if they don't want to get ahead? What if, instead, they want to stay someplace they feel comfortable, and hang out with the people they know? Is there something wrong with that? There are many serious people in America who think the worst thing about our world is our determination to get ahead no matter the cost to family, community, tradition, and the environment. Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry serves as their patron saint; his acolyte, conservative blogger Rod Dreher, has recently thrown over his successful big city life and moved back to St. Francisville, Louisiana to raise his kids where he grew up.
Maybe some poor kids drop out of college, not because it is too hard for them, but because they decide they don't want to take that path in life. Is that a bad thing? Maybe our response to the statistics showing how much better rich kids do in college should be, not to railroad more poor kids up the meritocratic ladder, but to rethink meritocracy altogether. Maybe our focus should be on providing decent jobs for everyone willing to work hard, rather than throwing millions at the top stars and wondering why more of them don't come from poor families.