So for the first time in my life I have written an “op-ed.” It was an interesting experience, and one quite different from blogging. I decided to write on inequality and elite education (which is pretty much what I’ve been working on the last year — the book will be out some time around the end of this year). I’m not sure why I fell into a more journalistic mode of constructing a story (starting with an “event” and using it to elaborate a set of disconnected points). But I did. One of my concerns was that the editorial would read like an attack on students at Columbia (“you’re rich and that’s why you’re here, so don’t think you’re so smart…”).
The trick is that that is a major part of the explanation. But to get in kids have to work very hard. Squaring these two narratives — you’re here because you’re rich and you’re here because you worked hard — is tough. To say to a rich student, “yes, but what if everyone had the opportunities you did?” does not address it. In part because in their reference groups, they likely did. So most of my students out-worked and out-talented (awk, I know) most of their peers. For them to believe in their position as meritocratic is not, from their perspective, foolish.
So instead I tried to make this a story of the institution. While students might have a tough time seeing the biases applied to them, I thought if I pointed out just how wealthy our institution is, they might see the kinds of things I worry about. My favorite part of what I wrote is:
“Why do about half our students come from among the richest 5 percent of Americans? Are rich people just smarter?
They’re not. The difference between rich and poor is quite simple: The rich have more money, and they can use that money to buy advantages for their children (my own life fits this story).”
It reminds me of the preface to Elliot Liebow’s book, “Tell Them Who I am”:
“People are homeless not because they are mentally ill, drug users, or thieves, but because they do not have a place to live…”