Phi Beta Cons

What is privilege?

Like George, I also enjoyed Jeremy Carl’s takedown of Jerome Karabel’s allegation that elite universities are “transmitters of privilege from generation to generation.”  Jeremy did a nice job unpacking Karabel’s statistical argument.  I want to look at something else: the very notion that upper-middle class students (or even middle class students) are children of “privilege.”
This notion of America’s students as nothing more than a pack of spoiled, “privileged” brats has become something of a meme in the halls of academia.  It is almost as if the academic establishment views their students as the children of pre-revolution French nobility, frivolously spending unearned wealth while the struggling masses seek nothing more than the slightest crumbs of justice.  Professors need to get out more.
While universities (and workplaces) for that matter certainly have their share of spoiled “daddy’s girls” and rich “momma’s boys,” university types forget (as if they ever knew) that upper-middle class status in this country is generally the product of a staggering amount of work.  Are academics even aware of the kind of hours that corporate lawyers, stock brokers, and managers put into their jobs?  The level of business travel?  The “perform or leave” ethos that dominates the mid to upper ranges of the business world?  Do they think that students build the kind of resumes that cause admissions committees to take notice merely by reclining, sipping mint juleps, and having “their people” do all the work? As a person who used to sit on an Ivy League law school admissions committee, I can tell you that the “privileged” do a jaw-dropping amount of real work to get noticed by schools like Harvard or Cornell.  At what point does “privilege” end and a “meritocracy” begin?
Just as professors have an unrealistic view of “privilege,” they also live in a fantasy world regarding poverty.  To hear many academics talk, you would think that “poverty” is just something that happens to people – at best, a chance occurrence, at worst, the product of actual malicious acts of the “privileged.”  Academics don’t spend much time with actual poor people.  If they did, they would find that their privileged overlords are not telling them to have kids out of wedlock, making them abuse alcohol, or requiring them to drop out of school.  While there are certainly hard-luck cases of people fighting hard against external calamities (sickness, job loss, etc.), by and large poverty in this country is the product of certain, known behaviors. 
Now of course the children of the poor have less of a chance to learn what they need to learn to escape the cycle of destruction.  Of course there needs to be a concerted societal effort to create more equality of opportunity.  But the solution is not to blame the (hard-working) “privileged,” it is to find a way to change the conduct and habits of most of the poor.  In other words, the poor need to learn the personal habits and work ethic of the “privileged.”
What does this have to do with university admissions?  If poverty is so often the result of destructive choices, then it stands to reason that “the poor” are not necessarily going to produce large numbers of kids who are doing anything like the work necessary to succeed in high school (much less distinguish themselves in the university admissions process).  This sounds harsh, but it is undeniably true.
I know that elite universities go out of their way to introduce class-based diversity.  I know that universities like nothing better than to find the “diamond in the rough” from the mean streets of Philly or the hills of Eastern Kentucky.  Yet quality candidates are few and far between.  So affirmative action ends up being wasted on the children of lawyers and doctors and middle level managers – the very people who have had every chance to learn the “right way” to study and work.


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