30.1.12

UNLOCK THE HABITUS.

Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University are separated by two miles as the seagull flies, and something exceeding the legendary six degrees on the academic pecking order.  Their proximity allows sociologist Ann L. Mullen to interview fifty students at each university in order to structure Degrees of Inequality:  Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education.  Book Review No. 4 suggests that the received race-class-gender framework of analysis is too mechanical and too divorced from reality to be useful in organizing serious analysis, although when Professor Mullen deviates from that framework, she sometimes identifies ideas that might be of use at Yale, at Southern Conn, and everywhere between, whether on the U.S. News pecking order, or under the flight of a drunken crow.

The problem with the received framework appears at page 13.
My work is informed by a body of critical educational theory, originating with the French sociologist Pierre Bordieu.  Bordieu's work illustrates how the French educational system manages to help reproduce class relations, all the while maintaining a guise of meritocracy.  Privileged families stay ahead by passing on educational credentials to their children; their ability to do so is facilitated by a symbolic system that inevitably runs in their favor.  The language, knowledge, and cultural styles of the upper classes arbitrarily become more highly valued and can thus be used as a form of capital.  Children with these resources succeed in school and are perceived as being more intelligent because of the ways in which schools legitimize these resources.
The subsequent literature Professor Mullen alludes to concentrates on whether the students are "passive dupes" or "autonomous individuals with the capacity to resist."  She continues at page 35, "[T]he cultural standards of any group are fundamentally arbitrary and do not reflect intrinsically higher forms of knowledge or values."  Perhaps if we are speaking of easily imitated markers such as body language or dressing for success.  On the other hand, behaviors such as deferring gratification, planning ahead, and exchanging your best efforts for the best efforts of others might be evolutionarily stable.  That's a testable implication: if standards are as arbitrary as Bourdieu-channelled-by-Mullen claims, one might see other sets of norms also producing life expectancies in excess of forty years, and diseases eradicated, and highly-regarded institutions of higher education emerging.  There well might be room for game theorists and evolutionary biologists to colonize sociology and anthropology.  Until then, we're likely to see continued research purporting to identify and deconstruct the successful reproduction through education of class positions (page 105).

And that's the shame, because there is much in Degrees of Inequality that suggests it matters what goes on at the universities that are not among the fifty institutions claiming to be among the top ten or twenty, and some of the conversations, particularly with Yale students whose life wasn't the one parodied in a recent car commercial (you will attend one of these schools, earn one of these degrees, drive one of these cars, yawn) who might otherwise have attended Kansas or Kansas State or Michigan or Northwestern.  Regular readers recognize the Spielberg Effect spiel: that Yalie can expect to do as well out of one of those state universities or Northwestern as he would have out of Yale, and those institutions owe their applicants the same academic challenge.  At Southern Conn, she notes the effect of involved professors on the involvement and success of students, and suggests that the high schools those students attended often did not provide sufficient challenges.  Thus the first semester at a regional university comes as a shock, sometimes salutary, too frequently not.  Here, fundamentals, developed from elementary school onward, help.  Degrees of Inequality on occasion notes the inadequate primary and secondary schools, yet says little about the importance of the common schools fulfilling their missions properly.

The conversations with students are instructive.  Although the author suggests that Yale students tend to use more complex sentences and engage in more introspection, the transcripts, no matter where from, are full of those collegiate tics: definitely, pretty much, I mean, and, of course, like, y'know.  Sometimes the author's priors get in the way of analysis.  Yale women are the students most likely to pursue the liberal arts for their own sake, although they anticipate "earning only 83% of the salaries of their male peers, probably an accurate guess, given the continuing gender wage gap" (p. 110).  That many of those women anticipated stopping out of the labor force to have a baby, a choice that affects job tenure and thus earnings, doesn't enter Professor Mullen's calculation.  Apparently the MRS Degree hasn't been completely overtaken by events.

The anecdote the author uses to illustrate the great distance between the two universities may tell us more than any of the more systematically organized material.  Begin at the beginning, well, at page 16.
The obliviousness of the Yale community to its nearest academic neighbor turned almost comical when the Women's Studies Program at Southern held a conference on global justice featuring a keynote speech by Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum.  Yale learned of this event only a few days before it occurred and, surprised that such an eminent speaker was visiting Southern and not Yale, immediately tried to incorporate part of the event at Yale.  Unfortunately for them, Menchu's schedule had already been filled and they were left only with the option of attending the talk at Southern.  Faculty and administrators alike, however, had not visited Southern and, although it was just two miles away, did not know where it was located or how to get there.  Southern finally had to fax them a map.
Something about this story smacks of urban legend.  It's true that Yale lacks a geography department, or urban planning, or regional science, but in an era of multiple Yellow Pages and Google Maps, it's enough to make George "pointy-headed professors who can't park a bicycle" Wallace chortle, and perhaps some academics ought be careful griping about students who can't locate Iraq on a map.  The real crime, however, is Southern Conn's, or Yale's, continued interest in the celebration of made-up stories about Communist rebellion and fascist repression in Central America, rather than more real injustices, such as the failure of the high schools to equip all students with the intellectual and cultural capital to make a go of it, should they desire, in a challenging college.

A reader might consider the generalization of Degrees of Inequality to his or her own institution.  Change, for example, the founding date of a normal school to a different year in the 1890s, change the compass direction, change the state, and change the year it becomes a university, and you have Northern Illinois University.  Here we have students who begin at community college and transfer here, aided by articulation agreements apparently not in place in Connecticut.  Students begin here and transfer to Urbana or seek letters of reference for Northwestern for graduate programs, something that doesn't take place at Southern Conn, at least within the author's sample, although there might be Yalies that will do a graduate degree at Northwestern.  But listening to the Yalies talk about the curricular offerings, one might suspect that Horatio Parker is still standing in the way of creativity in music (no world music, one jazz class, p. 197).  Go here and pick the music calendar, and understand why my Wednesday postings might be skimpy or annulled for the next month.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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