Unnamed Privilege: College Education

This post was inspired by some drama going on. See my vow to try and stay more connected with the internet over winter break has failed. I realize that while I’m out of class (which ends this week, emo!tear) the last thing I want to do is increase my stress level by dealing with idiocy online.  So all that is to say that I only know the gist of this drama as opposed to all the intimate details because I could not bring myself to wade through the hot mess but from what I’ve heard and the few posts I have read the basic gist is:  Elizabeth Bear made a post about Cultural Appropriation on her livejournal, a conversation happened in the comments of that post about Bear’s own problematic portrayals of POC and some of the wording in her post, Avalon’s Willow wrote a very interesting open letter to Elizabeth Bear regarding her work, it then became pile on Willow day and somewhere in discussing the difficulties of race and writing one of Bear’s friends and fellow author Sarah Monette jumped in with a defense that basically accused Willow and other criticizers of being “too emotional” and pointing out, without an evidence I might add, that they were coming from different directions one an academic, critical thought perspective and one an emotional perspective.

One guess which side she thought she was on and which side she thought Willow and other POC in the discussion were on. 

Okay aside from that sounding like the whole  “You are interrogating this text from the wrong perspective.” craziness from Anne Rice’s rant on Amazon.com when folks didn’t like one of her books it is such an incredibly problematic defense that it really shocked me to realized supposedly educated people felt completely comfortable throwing that into that discussion.

Note: When race is part of the discussion accusing someone of not being “educated enough” is a big hot button issue. Many People of Color grow up constantly reinforced with the idea that not only do we not belong in academia, we should not even try because we just aren’t smart enough. So to be having a discussion of race where a white person rolls in and basically tells a group of People of Color: “You’re complaints are invalid because you’re not smart enough” well it’s not exactly the best tool in the anti-racist’s arsenal is it?

And I assume I don’t really have to get into how “too emotional”, “too angry”, etc., etc. are silencing techniques used by the privileged to keep the oppressed from speaking about their situation honestly. Because it’s such an arbitrary judgment it can be used even against a completely rational argument and still be assumed valid by others because of the oppressed’s position in society.

But as I said because I’m not up on everything that went down and I don’t right now have the mental strength to wade through a bunch of fuckery I present you with some great links so you can read all about it should you want to. For more of a rundown of what’s going down I recommend:
http://rydra-wong.livejournal.com/ – she has multiple posts with links on her journal
http://seeking-avalon.blogspot.com/ – Avalon’s Willow’s open letter and other posts about it
http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2009/01/great-cultural-appropriation-debate-of.html – A round up of links
An awesome idea that’s come out of the hot mess: http://yeloson.livejournal.com/530108.html – The ReMyth Project

I’ve written a lot about cultural appropriation and will again but right now I rather post about a privilege that is never really acknowledged or when it is it’s only paid lip service too: the privilege of being college educated. Now it’s a fact of life that often those who have degrees are given preferential treatment in careers, social interactions, bureaucratic situations and just in general. People who enjoy this privilege often try to write it off by claiming it has to do with intelligence and being educated and not just the idea of ‘going to college’. This leaves me with one question. Who decided that colleges were the arbiters of intelligence  and the only way to acquire knowledge?

I wonder who it was that decided that other ways of learning – reading on your own, being in a more group learning environment, or just learning as you live your life – were somehow inferior. Doubtless those who could get into places of further education* went along with and perpetuated the belief that only those that exited the college system were worthy of respect. The thing is that most folks know that’s not true, most of us know people who’ve never gone to college but are among some of the smartest people we know.

I’m saying all this as someone who has seen my estimation in people’s eyes go up because I’m in grad school. And yes there is a part of me that revels in that because I worked hard to get into grad school but then there’s the other side of the equation – the automatic assumption that I deserve more respect for attending further education comes with the flip side ideal that anyone who did not go to college does not deserve that level of respect and in fact that they deserve less for never going to college.

The idea that some who doesn’t have a degree or didn’t attain a degree lacks the ability to read critically, to think through problems, to be a knowledgeable or intelligent person is prevalent and supremely problematic. And the idea that everyone who gets through college is smart is patently false. I’ve been to college so you can’t pull the wool over my eyes, a lot of my undergrad experience was dealing with total and complete idiots in my classrooms. So why do we cling to the notion that my decision to go heavily into debt for the benefit of a piece of paper somehow elevates me above people who needed or wanted to work right after high school? Why am I somehow more worthy of respect?

The privilege of being college educated intersects with a lot of other privileges.

The racism that is blatant in academia can not only stop people from attending college but can drive them away or funnel them into other majors professors deem “more appropriate”. 

The sexism that continues to convince women that they are worse than men at math and the sciences.

The classism of being able to afford college or it even being in your life plan after being constantly bombarded by societal messages that you as a “low class” person you could never walk through those ivory halls.

The unnamed privilege of being an American citizen and having more and easier access to places of further education.

Of course the above are all more complex and there are many more -isms both named and unnamed that intersect heavily with the idea of college.

All the bullshit that happens in the world at large happens at college but on a smaller scale which is not always a good thing. Professors can still be sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, isolationist, stupid or any other number of things, like within all groups of people there is a range of belief and action. My point is that college is far from a bastion of all things good, lovely, smart where people go in uneducated lumps and come out cultured geniuses.  And most who go through college know this but still fall into the perceptions of society. 

The fact is that were all affected by this attitude. It, as with many privileges that lack “-ism” names, is hardly talked about or acknowledged but it’s there and like all oppressions/privileges it can be internalized and is always self-perpetuating. My decision to even apply to grad school was hampered by continual doubts that “someone like me” didn’t belong in grad school. Even now I can’t tell you what exactly “someone like me” meant in my head but growing up we all are bombarded by ideas of what makes a “true college student”. 

So what can we do? The same thing we should do for all privileges that we possess, deal with your prejudices, be aware of it and when you might be using it, do your best to bring it up in certain situations.

What should we not do? Claim that somehow being college-educated makes us better than anyone else. You may know more about a subject than someone else but they probably know more about a different subject. To put it in a different perspective, had I rolled into a discussion and said that by virtue of being male I was right and all the women in the discussion were in the wrong because my experiences as a man shaped me into a decision-maker. You would laugh and mock me heavily but there are people who really think that. 

Having a degree does not mean you can think critically, or that you’re smarter than anyone else. College is an experience like any other in life – you can take the time to actually learn some things or you can skate through and not bother. Just because you hold the degree doesn’t mean your opinions are more valid than anyone elses.



*further education  – I use this term instead of higher education because I feel the term higher education is really hierarchical and problematic. Of course further education has its own problems as a term, still involving the idea of out-distancing someone else but at least the verbiage doesn’t automatically bring to mind ideas of being above others so until I find a better term I use this one. 


8 responses to “Unnamed Privilege: College Education

  1. Thank you for this. As a mostly self-educated dropout, I’ve been really at loose ends over this Ivory Tower sidethread in all this, but I know I’m too close to the issue to keep the discussion logical and detached enough for those who so value that academic perspective. Not to mention, why would they listen to a dropout.

  2. President Lincoln, who never had much formal education, and did not go to law school either, was deeply ambivalent about formal education.

    This is why he is not known as a public education president. He didn’t give the idea much support. Bootstraps presumably were available to everyone as they’d been for him. He always acknowledged how much help the support of his stepmother for his education efforts mattered to him. But he wasn’t able to take that next step in thinking, not yet, anyway, before he was assassinated and his growth and develpment halted.

    He was even unenthusiastic about the schools that were set up almost at the moment the Union army took certain areas on the Atlantic edges of the Confederacy. This early and rapid set-up of schools happened as a confluence of influences: whether Emancipation was officially in effect or not, there were so many hands from the plantations that were now deserted by the owners, what to do? How to organize? How to care for them? School was good for that. These — I guess under the circumstances they can be be categorized certainly as self-emancipated — people were starving to get education. They wanted it. The Union officers in these situation were themselves products of and believers in the New England conviction that education was the number one good for anyone and everyone. Additionally all these ardent New England Abolitionists — both free people of color and white — young women, men — came down whether they’d been asked to or not, to set up schools and other community public projects.

    Therefore Lincoln was presented with a fait accompli before he could actually make and implement an official decision in these matters. But he was not a
    My own struggle to get higher education was difficult, very difficult. No money, no experience, no friends to show me the ropes. I worked all through my B.A., and the following M.A. When I got my Information and LIbrary Sciences grad degree I only had to go part-time and didn’t have to take yet another job. The absolute luxury and joy of that cannot be expressed.

    There were so many courses — even the choice of program to follow — that were dictated by the knowledge that everything I took had to help me get a job as soon as I graduated. Feminist studies, film studies, anything of that ‘cool and hip’ nature, was absolutely out of the question. First I couldn’t afford the extra fees to take film courses and pay for equipment, second I wouldn’t have a job right away. And so on and so forth.

    I cannot express how I value my education, and how much I am aware that at any other confluence of circumstances — a little earlier, a little later — higher education would have been entirely out of the question for someone of my background. I also happen to love being a student and studying. So much would have been denied to me if I’d been born in an earlier generation or into this one.

    Love, C.

  3. This was a really excellent post. I’ve been made aware in a number of ways just how privileged and ignorant my mindset has been with respect to college and grad school – I grew up in a very college/university-dense area, where 90% of each graduating class (at the large public regional high school) went on to further education after high school. To me, it was just What You Did. Which has given me some enormous freaking privilege blinders around all that. Thank you for writing clearly about how it is a form of privilege and a further element of the kyriarchy.

    (Here from rydra_wong’s link roundups on LJ.)

  4. My decision to even apply to grad school was hampered by continual doubts that “someone like me” didn’t belong in grad school. Even now I can’t tell you what exactly “someone like me” meant in my head but growing up we all are bombarded by ideas of what makes a “true college student”.

    Yes oh god yes.

    When I doing interviews for colleges as an undergrad, I had an amazing experience. To set the scene, I was at Yale and dressed in my interview clothes. I had grabbed cup of tea, and was reading a newspaper kind of half crouched down. Someone thought I was homeless and tossed money in my cup.

  5. Excellent post.

    As a Latino queer person from a, shall we say, less than privileged background, I’ve never thought that the fact I am in grad school makes me superior or more intelligent than other people. Quite the contrary. I attend a rather snooty institution with a bunch of wealthy white kids, and I can very much relate with your sentiment that “I do not belong here”. I should be serving meals in the dining hall.

    Yet today, I had a post on a website that was critical of a beloved liberal social movement and the elitist/racist/classist/transphobic HRC, and one individual couldn’t let go of the fact that I was a grad student. In his/her mind, that made me “elitist”.

    I disagree. I mean, I’ll never be rich (or even CLOSE), it’s not like a PhD is really that prestigious (at least, not to me), and I will never have much power or influence (not that I want either). As a queer POC who comes from the barrio, I know people working down at the 7-11 who are more intelligent that some professors I know. And I’ve seen brilliance, and I know I don’t have it. I just like what I am doing and, fortunately, got a fellowship to keep me from starving while doing it.

    So, how does eating ramen into my late 30’s to get a degree that, when factoring in opportunity cost, is worth less than the paper it is printed on make me an “elitist”? Especially given my background?

    I agree that there is the potential for college education to be an unnamed privilege, but context is everything. And sometimes I think that some people who accuse some people with degrees of being elitist are merely projecting. Not that there aren’t any out and proud elitists in academia who “summer” instead of going on vacation and look down on anyone w/o a grad degree. But I was actually accused of being elitist for pointing out the elitist tendencies of the self-appointed rulers of the “mainstream” “gay rights” movement, merely because my profile on that site mentions I am in grad school. well, one of the requirements for getting published on that site was to write a quick bio. Since school is my life at the moment, I mentioned I was in grad school. And to one individual, that immediately invalidated any criticisms I made of elitism and privilege I’ve observed in the HRC et al.

    Baffling, I tell ya.

    Great blog, btw. Plenty of food for thought!

  6. Pingback: “Who Really Wrote Othello?” link roundup « Beyond Assumptions

  7. I’m coming to this months later, after following a link to your blog from jiawen on lJ.

    Long ago (as in, forty-plus years ago) I realized that in some families, it is taken for granted that kids will (1) get braces on their teeth if they need them; (2) have music lessons; (3) go to college. And in other families (for example, the one I grew up in), none of those were taken for granted.

    I can’t see that much has changed.

  8. I really enjoyed your post. I boycotted college for some of the very reasons you mentioned. I joined the military and was climbing the ranks just fine (until they found out I was girl that had gotten too far up the chain and they had to get rid of me). Military officers are college graduates and they were some of the least intelligent people I have ever had to put up with. They couldn’t speak properly, read, or write and they get to be in charge!

    I have come back to the civilian world and it is awful. I can’t get a job because I don’t have a little piece of paper telling them that I was dedicated enough to spend four years in college or smart enough to do the job.

    It doesn’t matter that I can lead 100 soldiers into war and bring them all home safely. It doesn’t matter that I spent six years being dedicated to a job. It doesn’t matter that I am more than capable of doing the pathetic little job they are so worried about. I don’t have a college degree, so I don’t matter.

    But now, as a vet, the VA has agreed to pay for a Bachelor’s. So, here I am, in school, begrudgingly getting a degree that I am still protesting.

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