April 22, 2007

(One of) The dark underbelly(s) of elite schools

At least in the Physics community, there seems to be a great deal of emphasis on the under-representation of women. There is also some concern about the lack of minorities. Coming in at a distant 3rd, if it is discussed at all, is the difficulty of coming from a modest background. I am probably biased, but based on my experience, I believe the latter to be at least as big a handicap as the first two. Someone out there will probably hate me for saying this, and obviously I'm not any sort of expert here, but I think the main reason for the lack of females has more to do with societal expectations or pressure before matriculating to universities, rather than marginalizing attitudes once they are there. (Some of my other thoughts on this matter are already well known.) The sort of old-fashioned sexist professors often imagined to be influencing this disparity are a dying breed, and they are being replaced by the sort of diversity-minded people who write op-eds and hold conferences about women in science in the first place. There is a lot of attention paid to that issue, as well as scholarships, preferential programs, etc. -- all things which are important -- while there is basically no attention paid to the difficulty of coming up through a system that is totally unfamiliar to anyone whose parents have never, under any circumstances, imagined that they would one day be in the position to buy a Volvo. Rather, the academic mainstays are the folks who were fortunate to be guided by parents who are intellectuals of one type or another, and who probably at least "considered" getting a PhD themselves. Growing up, I was frequently warned about the price of those "really good" colleges by my folks, and later about grad school, which they were surprised to find out was not something I would need to pay for myself. The uncertainty of never knowing whether the rug is going to be yanked out from under you definitely has a stifling effect on academic achievement.

This isn't a woe-is-me post. My upbringing was never very uncomfortable and my folks made a point of fostering intellectual development. But I was one of the people fortunate to have parents who were trying, there is no chance I would be on my way to a PhD program if they didn't undertake the tremendous effort of shuffling me around to decent schools and supporting my desire to go on to a career they knew almost nothing about. This is all a very roundabout way of getting to this excellent article from the NY Times Book Review on the way "income inequality" manifests itself at elite colleges. It is a bit more serious and scolding than the kind of stuff I usually point to...

[C]ampus liberals far prefer the soft issues of racial and gender diversity to such hard issues as the effect on American working families of cheap foreign labor or the gross inequities of a public school system funded by local property taxes, or, closer to home, the failure of their own institutions to recruit and support more talented students with no money. I have met very few faculty members who, even as they agitate for far-flung social causes, care to look closely at the admissions policies of their own institutions.

...but it considering the unfortunate rarity of such articles, it is worth pointing out.