Fixing the First Generation Students

I had many reactions to this short piece on colleges requiring students to attend “cultural” events (read: traditional events such as opera, theater, lectures or meals in “fancy” restaurants), in part to raise the “cultural capital” of first -generation students.

I cherish opportunities to stretch oneself as part of going to college, to have choices about how one will live one’s life that weren’t visible before.

And to be fair, this is a quick piece that doesn’t go into detail about these programs.   But still, I’m troubled by the tone of “fixing” those first generation students.

First, I’m troubled by the idea that there is a fixed set of things that can be learned by many students to gain “cultural capital” that can be leveraged to gain access to higher status social circles.   The players in higher status social circles are not awaiting with open arms to share their love of opera and restaurant meals with masses of newcomers.  Cultural capital is used to sort and exclude, not because those aiming for social mobility are inherently deficient and unworthy of inclusion,  but because those with power to make the rules have an interest in making rules that work in their favor.   Knowing opera is a mark of distinction that has value only if there are many others who do not know opera.

Second, I think about the tone of this article, that these students have to learn what is “right” and to understand that those they’ve left at home are “wrong”.  I think instead of Lisa Delpit’s insistence that we teach the culture and language of power for what it is:  Something that others will use to judge us and that we can learn to gain access to things we need, rather than something inherently better  than things in our own communities.  Do I want students to be exposed to many ways of living so that they have rich and full choices?  Of course.  And more on that below.

Third, I’m troubled by the patronizing mentions of students attending these required events misbehaving because they do not want to attend.   The implication, of course, is that these are the first-generation students acting up out of ignorance or defiance.  Perhaps.   Any professor will tell you that rude, disrespectful behavior comes from across the social class spectrum though it may vary in its sophistication.   Any sociologist will tell you that efforts to mold people into something they are not are often met with resistance.

And finally, I am troubled by the implication in this piece that privileged students come to campus as culturally sophisticated and informed people, while first-generation students are riddled with deficits.      I’m thinking of the many students I’ve had who simply have no clue that many  parents  don’t pay their kids’ tuition, that hard work often does not pay dividends, that their nanny did not in fact feel like one of the family.   I think of how many narratives students have written in my classes that speak of the shallow pain of having a car in high school that was less flashy than the cars of their peers.  I think of tales of foreign travel from young people who had never taken public transportation in their own home towns because the buses go through “those” neighborhoods.   I think of the woman who lectured a class of economically struggling younger students about how hard it was when her college grad son experimented for a time with trying to support himself.    She had no clue of the privilege of playing at being poor, sort of like one might become a vegan for a time.

But I’ve never, ever heard of a college program that set out to remediate the many ways that these students are deeply naive about the world in which live (and doing well in a class in which such things are only intellectualized doesn’t count, any more than the planners of these cultural programs would settle for the culturally deprived first gen students only taking a music appreciation class).

And frankly, to me, being ignorant about one’s own privilege is more troubling than becoming restless sitting through an opera.

6 thoughts on “Fixing the First Generation Students

  1. Will Barratt November 7, 2013 / 7:38 am

    This is so well written and I agree wholeheartedly. The notion that any group of students needs to be fixed is questionable, and it has become a normal assumption on campus. The idea is often bereft of data indicating what needs fixing and the solutions rely on the ideas that we have of what is broken. Those espousing multicultural anything seem only to want students who need fixing to attend certain types of high prestige high culture events.

    • janevangalen November 7, 2013 / 7:45 am

      Will. Thanks for commenting. My ears are just highly attuned right now to “they need to be fixed” assumptions. In this case, just sending kids out to performances seemed so shortsighted…

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