This essay comes after three weeks since the last posting. I’d like to offer both an apology and an explanation: there’s been suddenly a flurry of activity in several areas of my professional life that has taken me up and twirled me in the air and doesn’t seem to want to put me down for a day of writing. Here’s what’s been happening: My forthcoming book on the life of Leonard Swidler and spirituality of dialogue, There Must Be YOU, has received its first endorsement. I drove down to Philly for a meeting to strategize about the book’s promotion. The publisher has sent me the galleys, which I must proofread by the middle of September. In the meantime, I am preparing for my first ever exhibit—a showing of my photography by a local restaurant in October, and like any first-timer I don’t know what I’m doing. Some of you know that I’ve been in the process of setting up an online gallery from which my photography will be available to buy, hopefully, in a variety of forms, and I must tell you: I never realized just how many obstacles such a project presents to a non-programmer. On a slightly different front, this week I am meeting my vocation director from the Dominican Sisters of Peace. I haven’t seen her in a while and am both excited and a little nervous.
As you can see, life doesn’t stop. It gets hard, good and bad, harder than hard sometimes, but it is never faceless, and there are always all these things to do and places to go. Always odd and tricky thoughts to shape and fashion, bits of reality to catch in a handful. It might be coincidental or it might be that I paid more attention just now, but in the past couple of weeks, ironically it seemed, I’ve encountered again and again the statistics and discussions on educational opportunity in this country. It is not an encouraging picture—most of you are probably aware of this. Tuition and student debt grow, quality of secondary preparation falls, the U.S. is now 14th in graduation rates in the industrialized world. Our overall success in education is one of my high horses, but today I zero in on a subtopic: the distribution of educational opportunity along income lines. This might read to you like a sudden switch of topics from my busy schedule, but bear with me. It’s not.
From a barrage of articles that hit me in the past few weeks on access to college education in the U.S., one hit especially close to home: It turns out that, statistically, the most elite schools educate today about the same ratio of “rich” and “poor” students as they did two decades ago despite their sweeping initiatives to provide financial aid. These programs, initiated by Harvard’s promise to fill in the tuition gap for any student admitted on merit, became a standard approach in the Ivy League, and yet, astoundingly, young people from “highly privileged backgrounds” still dominate their halls by an overwhelming margin. Why?
We know that “good education” is associated with financial status of the family very heavily, partly because schools in poor areas tend to be poor in quality, partly because wealthy parents spend money on tutoring and standardized test preparation, but there are plenty of students of very modest means with perfect GPAs, outstanding scores—brilliant and talented. We know that, too. Financial aid is available. Universities look for diverse and interesting student bodies. The picture is better in graduate schools than at the undergraduate level, but still, why is there not more variety at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Cornell? I’ve been thinking.
If you don’t know my own story—you can read it in more detail in some of my early posts—here’s the briefest of brief recaps: I was a Jewish refugee from Soviet Russia and came to America in 1991 as a 19-year-old with no English, no money, and no clue. Welfare wasn’t quite enough to feed the family, and no one wanted to hire someone who couldn’t understand interview questions. We were hungry. Trained as a concert pianist, I could not continue in that career because of a wrist trauma during the move and had to start my life from scratch: learning English, breading chicken, handling vegetables, and then—back to school. First, Community College, then a transfer to a four-year college, then graduate school. Everywhere I went, I received grants, scholarships, and fellowships to pay for the education that made me a scholar of religion and philosophy, a teacher, and a writer.
My undergraduate college was at the time elite on a regional level. “Bryn Mawr of Catholic colleges” they used to call it. And when I realized I wanted to continue to graduate school, I looked for a program that excited me and found one at Harvard. And that’s where I applied. And that’s where I went and had a time of my life and earned my Master’s degree. Not to the College, to the Divinity School, but I came out of poverty and went to Harvard. Why? I’ve been thinking.
At the age of 19, I was poor, I was an immigrant, and I had no communication skills in the language that gets you everywhere in America. I was as “underprivileged” as it gets—with one profound difference. I had been brought up in a society that had already given me two things that would travel with me anywhere, that no one and nothing could ever take away: an excellent, well-rounded secondary education complete with critical thinking and a sense of wonder, and self-confidence of a classless, egalitarian citizen. When I felt I had mastered the skills necessary and found the place I wanted to learn from, and it happened to be Harvard, it simply did not occur to me that I did not belong there. It never dawned on me not to apply to Harvard because I was a woman, because I was poor, lower class, an immigrant, or an ESL speaker. I would get in or I would not, and then I would get enough aid to go or not. Harvard was the place I wanted and so the only place I applied to. I could only afford one application fee.
This, I believe, is where the crux of our problem lies. With dedicated funds waiting for recipients, with admissions committees ready and poised, the fault for the lack of economic diversity at our elite institutions does not lie entirely with the institutions themselves. Don’t misunderstand: I still see plenty of inequality in how access is distributed. There is still a strong tradition of legacy admissions at many colleges—a preference for the children of graduates—which perpetuates privileged dynasties, and the disastrous state of public education in economically disadvantaged areas forces the talented poor to fight ten times as hard as their wealthy counterparts to qualify on the same level. But I have spent many years teaching these students—mostly first-generation college-goers from the depressed Philadelphia metro areas—asking the best of them the same questions, pushing them to pursue their dreams in thriving environments of intellectual and creative discovery, and I’ve heard the same answers again and again: “Me? Ivy League? You’ve got to be kidding, Professor!”
These are the conversations I’ve had with the brightest and gifted where I’ve taught: at West Chester and Temple Universities, at Rosemont College, and for many years at my alma mater community college—with the kids whose minds welcome, challenge, and embrace complexity, from whose pens flows breathtaking prose—and so, when pushed, they’ve tried to formulate for me the reasons for their incredulity: Harvard’s got to be too expensive. There’s no way they would get in. Harvard is just so white! It’s a snobbish, arrogant, elitist nest of rich kids. Their crowd would eat them alive if they pranced around with those twits.
Reasons differ, and some of their facts are wrong and others have basis in reality, but everything boils down to one overarching concept: THEY DO NOT BELONG THERE. They would not apply there. It never has occurred to them to apply.
It can be about economic, social, racial identity, or a combination thereof, mixed with ignorance about opportunity—sometimes willful to a degree—but it always, always boils down to this: It does not occur to many of the brilliant and talented in America who grow up thinking of themselves as “disadvantaged” that they belong at Harvard. I went to Harvard because, Jewish in Russia and poor and immigrant in America, still I had never been taught to know my place.
This is what it’s about. With all the other problems making up the praxis of our diseased education system, I say this one is the crux of the matter because all the others—financing and structuring secondary education, training and respecting teachers, tuition and student loans, distribution of opportunity, dissemination of information, the closing of race, gender, disability, and other gaps, and more—all of them stem from the way we think of who we are in society. From the way we think. From the way we know our place. And that comes in part from the way we talk.
There are some words that are poisonous to our children. An otherwise innocent word “privilege” is such a word now. A perfectly good word “elite” has become such a word. The “privileged” classes and the “underprivileged” grow up accepting themselves in these terms, putting themselves in their places, neither one comfortable with the other. And then the “privileged” go to the “elite” institutions—naturally. What else could we expect?
As long as we think of education as a privilege, this will not change. As long as truly good, in-depth, reflective education is not a right and therefore available on the same level for all secondary students, with guaranteed merit-based access to higher education, this will not change. The halls of the Ivy League will still be filled with the progeny of the ruling classes (American and not), the homogenous wealthy, and the treasure trove of talent from the rest of the country will stay out. Not necessarily kept. Never even having knocked on the door. Some of them will blossom into creative genius, technical wonder, humanitarian force, and so on, in other places—the world does not revolve around the Ivy League—and some will not, because the same mentality that keeps my students from applying to Harvard keeps some of them from pursuing their dreams. They just don’t think it’s their place. They just don’t have the privilege.