July 27, 2021

Note Book | Equity : One Percent Education

Just as the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans gobble up a disproportionate share of the nation’s economic resources and rejigger our institutions to funnel them benefits and power, so too do our educational 1 percent suck up a disproportionate share of academic opportunities, and threaten to reconfigure academic culture so that it both mimics and serves their values.

Pointedly, the Occupy Harvard news release announcing its formation read: “We want a university for the 99%, not a corporation for the 1%.”

Good luck with that!

Who are these academic 1 percenters? To a large extent, they are the children of the economic 1 percent — children of privilege who have been given every chance to excel and often do. They attend private schools and summer camps, take music lessons, get extensive SAT tutoring, land prestigious internships, take trips overseas and generally do what the less affluent cannot afford to do.

Their educational dominance culminates with competition for spaces at the best schools, which has never been stiffer. Of the 1.6 million high school seniors who took the SATs last year, roughly 30,000, or 0.2 percent, will end up in the freshmen classes of the country’s 20 highest-rated universities. Superachievers get the lion’s share of slots in the Ivy League, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other outstanding universities. As a result, they dominate the Rhodes, Marshall and other prestigious scholarships. They get catapulted into the most selective professional and graduate schools. And they land the highest-paying jobs, becoming, if not the next generation’s 1 percent, at least its 5 percent.

Many elite institutions are attempting to redress the economic imbalance with generous financial aid — Harvard, for example, gives students with family income below $65,000 a free ride, and the number of freshmen receiving low-income Pell grants has climbed to 18 percent this academic year compared to 12 percent five years ago. But that’s still well below the nearly 27 percent of American households with poverty-level incomes of less than $25,500.

Even with economic outreach, the vast majority of students at the best schools are likely to be wealthy, well-appointed young people groomed and professionalized at an early age precisely so they would impress admissions officers. Most low-income and even middle-income students cannot meet the academic and experiential benchmarks that elite schools set.

Indeed, there are very few poor superachievers.

The emphasis on personal achievement has done more than turn the admissions process into a race to rack up résumé points; more important, to the extent that elite colleges set the pace, it is turning the educational culture into one that stresses individual perfection instead of one that stresses social improvement. Because graduate schools and the best jobs often require extraordinary credentials, students must pour their energies into their own ambitions and accomplishments. And schools encourage it.

Some may see this obsession with perfection as the culmination of a long trend; tiger moms have been pushing their children to be intellectual decathletes for generations. But it may actually be a reversal of an even longer trend. At the turn of the last century, the influential philosopher John Dewey saw education as a democratizing force not just in its social consequences but in its very process. Dewey believed that education and life were inextricably bound, that they informed each other. Education wasn’t just something you did in a classroom to earn grades. It was something you lived.

Neal Gabler is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Stony Brook Southampton, part of the State University of New York.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ed021a1f5bee18a3db9a22df41c7f7bc

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