Friday, September 15, 2006

Social & Economic Equality Should Trump Diversity

Due to my tremendous progress toward meeting my dissertation goals, I had 4 issues of the local newspaper to catch up on this morning. It's pretty much required reading in my household. The local paper keeps me in the loop about what's going on around town and continually reinforces my conclusion that good jobs are scarce here and that the housing market has already priced out most people.

My source for national and international news lies elsewhere. Lately I've been reading the Economist. I used to buy it off of the newstand when I desired, but recently realized that its short article format is a better fit for me. I can pick it up whenever, wherever and never lose my place like I did with The Atlantic, Harpers, and The New Yorker. I have stacks of those with good intentions of at least reading the featured articles. I still love The Atlantic's "Primary Sources" but now that it seems to have been cut down to one page from a double page spread, it may lose out to Harpers, whose Index I love.

Anyhow, every once in a while the "national" news scene in the local paper ignites some spark. This one follows on the heels of a recent experience I had of attending the welcome get-together of Working Class Whit(e)man College (WCWC), a group of self-identified first-generation and/or working class students and faculty formed to make life easier for those students who struggled to get into Whiteman in the first place and who have to work harder to succeed here than the advantaged students who make up the majority of the college (and faculty) population. The perennial issues involve financial aid, work study that is actually helpful academically and financially (Whiteman's idea of work study while I was a student was to have the poor kids scrub the dishes at the dining hall for the rich kids - a humiliating, demoralizing & academically pointless "work study" for minimal compensation), and of course social equality. The turn out was horribly weak compared to last year's. Perhaps the invitation failed to fully communicate the value and necessity of the group. Maybe the new crop all had Core papers to turn in the next day (which is NO excuse) or maybe the College paid lip service to diversity yet again by failing to attract and admit highly qualified WCWCs. Who knows.

In my opinion, the college pays lip service to the diversity that matters most now (socioeconomic),** the form of diversity that really matters according to Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, whose opinion piece I read this morning in the local paper, which incidentally published an editorial about how WA & OR higher education is unaffordable to middle class students (let alone working class kids like the WCWCs). Page presents statistics that counter the widely held notion that the face of poverty in this country looks young, inner city, and black offering, "While poor whites outnumber poor blacks, poverty has taken on a black face in the public mind." He quotes Walter Michaels' new book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, "The truth is, there weren't too many rich black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so." Page finished by adding that the most compelling part of Michael's book for him is Michael's descriptions of the vanishing American dream.

Harper's presented these figures in its Sept. 2006 Index (from a CBS newspoll):
Percentage of Americans in 1983 who thought it was "possible to start out poor in this country... and become rich": 57
Percentage who think this today: 80
Percentage of US income in 1983 and today, respectively, that went to the top 1 percent of earners: 9, 16

So, the American dream really is a dream - one that grows ever more elusive to realize.

When I applied to Whiteman, I saw it as the ticket out of the economic depression I was probably heading for had I stayed in state and attended a more affordable university. That was never an option in my mind, nor was not going to college. I wanted out of my blue collar work your ass off for squat background. I thought I wanted to become a medical doctor because they're rich and must therefore have a good quality of life. My years at Whiteman changed my priorities.

In the years after graduating from Whiteman I found myself unable to get a decent job (one that required some intelligent skills and paid enough to make the monthly payments on my student loans back to Whiteman). When I couldn't find that, I felt like I would have been better off had I attended a cheaper state school. Later I decided that more education was the way to go, so I applied to the one graduate school that fit my career goals and also provided the equivalent of a full-ride scholarship with pay. Only later did I realize that some aspects of the grad school "work study" were very much like washing dishes (for my TA one year I was required to make ubiquitous xerox copies - an almost completely worthless experience, and that's being generous).

Now I am back at Whiteman in a different capacity, months away from a PhD, and definitely no longer identifiable as anything but advantaged. Last year I made more money than anyone in my family ever has and my quality of life is pretty darn amazing. Despite the 80 hour work week, the life of a college professor is in many ways like having a life on Easy Street. I've never been so happy to work for the equivalent of 8 bucks an hour.

But, I don't know if that's the life I'll be able to enjoy. I just hope I will be able to find intellectually fulfilling work that pays enough to pay off my student loans and allows me to give something back to the community while enjoying a good quality of life with my little family.

I don't want to be $$$ wealthy if it means people will think I am a better person simply because I have a lot of money, a big house, a plasma TV, and an expensive car. If Whiteman students come away with a moral lesson from their "Experience," I hope it's the notion that having money doesn't make you an inherently better person. I wonder how pervasive that sentiment is and how hard it is for non-WCWC students to unlearn.

** The college must pay lip service to socioeconomic diversity at some level because it needs the rich students' parents to subsidize the education of the poor kids (all 8 of them). I don't know how many there actually are, but the college has a decent endowment, so if it could just get its heart in the right place it could and should (!) provide all WCWC students a TRUE full-ride scholarship.

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