The Working Class and Higher Education, Pt. 2

Part 1 is here.

Just as I took my time with my first stab at this topic, I’ve been putting off writing a second post. An IHE article on mid-tier doctoral programs prompted me to the keyboard again.

Dean Dad starts with this question, “Why do people continue to apply to, and attend, nothing-special doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences?” He then gives the reasons: delusional naiveté and “a lack of alternatives.” The tone of the article rubbed me wrong from the start, so I stepped back and gave some thought as to why.

My first problem with Dean Dad’s question is the assumption that “mid-tier” programs exploit grad students while they are enrolled, then cut them loose before they find a job. In my case, I taught my own courses as a T.A., which gave me invaluable teaching experience. My professors took the time to write dozens of letters for me and spent countless hours reading and critiquing my dissertation and other manuscripts during and after I finished. I don’t know what other top-tier or mid-tier programs are like, but I couldn’t have asked for better preparation for my career. I’m sure I just think I’m special, though.

My second problem is one that appeared almost immediately on Twitter: Dean Dad’s assumption that only top-tier programs are worthwhile. So, if one doesn’t have a degree from an Ivy or near-Ivy, then one either isn’t prepared for academia or doesn’t have a chance of obtaining a tenure-track or full-time faculty position.

There’s a lot to pick apart in that assumption, but what sparked my return to this topic was the elitism implicit in Dean Dad’s post. This isn’t an unknown characteristic among academics, so I wanted to explain the perspective of a non-elite.

My educational background was in fundamentalist Christian schools. Critical thinking wasn’t valued, but reading, writing, and argumentation were. My free time was spent reading, playing chess, riding bikes with my cousin, watching TV, and playing with my G.I. Joe figures. We bought our clothes from K-mart and eventually Wal-mart. I read the local newspaper and USA Today and watched the network nightly news broadcasts to learn about what was going on in the world.

I went to college because I was capable and my parents wanted me to. I worked at retail and grocery jobs all the way through my master’s, including a semester of third shift (usually 10-6). I didn’t get involved in campus activities because, between working and studying, I didn’t have time.

My first encounter with Marxist theory and a legitimate history research paper came during my first semester of grad school. (Thank you, Thad Smith!) I dismissed advice to go to law school because I couldn’t imagine doing essentially the same thing in a more stressful environment (although more money would have been nice). I wasn’t as careful with student loans as I should have been, but I escaped grad school with a minimal debt load that was worth every penny. In grad school, I wasn’t aware of many of the trappings of, and unspoken assumptions about, academic life and still find myself fumbling my way through professional life at times because of that ignorance. Imposter syndrome is never far away.

I’m thankful that there are academics who are willing to build relationships on a personal level and who aren’t concerned about status and rank, even though they are smarter and more knowledgeable about the world than I am. They’ve taught me a lot and have helped me want to become a better historian and colleague. But there is tendency in academia to alienate people who grew up in the flyover states and didn’t inhale Foucault and Derrida as a toddler, to relegate them to the periphery in a profession that trumpets diversity.

Or maybe I’m the only one.

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2 Replies to “The Working Class and Higher Education, Pt. 2”

  1. You’re definitely not the only one, Mark. Sometimes I get the sense that my undergrad institution is considered less than respectful, as is my grad institution (to a lesser extent, but there’s only one other grad of it at my current job, as compared to a host from Harvard and the like.) But I wouldn’t trade for anything the mentoring I received at King, which was instrumental in helping me to understand my possibilities and what steps needed to be taken to get there. In hindsight, I should have probably picked a different dissertation topic, but my grad lab was the wonderful interdisciplinary space I craved. Neither institution is Ivy League, but they were right for me.

  2. Mark, I am so glad that you are continuing to talk about this fundamental problem in higher education; people of limited means are increasingly locked out of being influential in this sphere. It is frightening that so soon after the Civil Rights era, the academic world is rapidly closing its doors to the voice of marginalized people. I know that elite schools try to support diversity. But the intense competition to get into these schools enables them to define diversity in ways that meet their needs, not the needs of the poor. (See for example: http://www.theprepschoolnegro.org/) It is essential, therefore, for midtier doctoral programs, especially in the humanities, to be accessible to poor students.
    There are crazy justifications for squeezing poor students out of higher academia (Such as Dean Dad’s paternalistic dismissal of poor students insisting they have a right to be there: “prospective students think, but I’m special”). I can only hope this supposition is due to ignorance. I prefer to believe they are ignorant, rather than callous.
    I also have little patience with professors who insist that I don’t have to become a professor, like them, to succeed with a doctoral degree. In an increasingly impoverished nation, people who understand poverty on a personal level should be teaching history.

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