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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Four things I hate about class at Carleton and a few ways to make it better

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Nobody wants to talk about it.

Let me start with an anecdote. At my high school, my friends and I didn’t have trouble talking about class. It was something that was unavoidable. When I criticized a friend for shopping at Walmart, he shot back that he couldn’t afford elsewhere and that I was in no place to criticize. I was confronted with my own class privilege. When I invited a group of school friends to hang out at my house, they marveled at the height of my ceilings. I was confronted with my own class privilege. I attended public schools that were mixed racially, socioeconomically, and culturally. I was confronted by my own class privilege. I learned to deal with it. I cracked jokes about it. My friends cracked jokes about it. Class was out in the open, and that was how we worked through the issues surrounding it.

This doesn’t hold at Carleton. I vividly remember an incident a few weeks in, while I was still sticking to the students in my NSW group for lack of other social connections. Financial aid came up at a group dinner. Another student and I started talking about how hard it was to afford Carleton and the details of our aid packages. We were shushed by another member of the table, who insisted that we talk about “happier things.” While we were bewildered, she steered the conversation away. Not wanting to rock the boat, we went along.

This pattern repeated itself over and over again, usually in subtler ways. People would steer the conversation away from money, fall uncomfortably silent, or simply walk away. I get it, if you grew up comfortable, then you don’t want to feel bad about that. Who does? I’m not trying to make you feel bad. But when I spend hours working on my FAFSA or running back and forth to the financial aid office I would like to have someone to talk to about that. When I’m parsing through my parents’ income with them to try to figure out how much they can help me with expenses, I like to know that someone else can relate. If every conversation that involves these elements gets a blanket dropped on it, students from lower classes have another reason to feel alone at Carleton.

Class conversations at Carleton are inevitably distorted.

This isn’t to say that Carleton students aren’t overtly aware of their privilege. The vast majority of them are, but there’s a difference between that and having a good sense of where you stand compared to the rest of the population. While I was a freshman and still trying to shove these conversations down people’s throats, one of my friends maintained that she had grown up tough despite having a doctor for a mother and a family full of medical professionals. Now, while it is not impossible to have had a rough time of it while your parent was an MD, I doubt money problems were a severe source of hardship. The average salary for a physician hovers around 165K a year. Roughly 20% of the top 1% of earners in America are doctors, something that Carleton students conveniently forget while railing against Wall Street. I could provide similar statistics for lawyers, consultants, financiers, or any of the other professions that Carleton parents practice, lest anyone accuse me of picking on doctors.

Again, the point of this is not to make anyone at Carleton feel ashamed of their parents or their upbringing. It’s just an objective statement that most Carleton students come from money and make their judgements about the world from a background where that was a factor. When Carleton students make judgements about how hard it is to climb the income ladder or how fair our economic systems are, those judgements are influenced by a childhood of educational opportunities and relative advantage. These childhoods are usually absent of the emotional weight attached to experiences like watching a parent weep after being rejected for a credit card or a mortgage. Logic springing from a nonfiction book on poverty is essentially different than memories from a lifetime of moving from low-income housing project to dirty motel room to halfway house.

Socioeconomic privilege takes a back seat.

As I mentioned before, Carleton students are eager to solve social problems. What confounds me is that the social problems they choose are almost exclusively relating to cultural sexism and cultural racism, as though these were the only two ills that plague modern America. I’ve always viewed sexism and racism primarily as keeping women and people of color from obtaining the opportunities they should have access to, and the best way to open those opportunities is income. Using the right language and policing cultural appropriation have their place, but you’re going to have to work hard to convince me that college students in offensive Halloween costumes are keeping poor people from obtaining the jobs they need to feed their children.

The income gap between black and white people has only widened since the 1960s. Heroin is killing poor white people at rates unprecedented in our history. Women are making progress, but primarily upper-class white women (the same kind that make up most of the females at Carleton). Income in- equality in America is widening at an alarming rate, and incomes for the vast majority of Americans (be they black, white, female, etc.) are stagnating. Unless these issues are addressed, the structures of privilege and oppression are going to stay right where they are. For example, people of color are making progress in real incomes but their comparative incomes (as compared to white peers) will remain fixed as long as income inequality keeps rising. We can be as politically correct as we want, but when you rage against the lack of diversity at the Oscars what you are really doing is pouring your outrage into a flimsy proxy for the real underlying issues. Those issues are complex and difficult to understand. They usually don’t fit well into Facebook posts or Buzzfeed articles, but they are all the more important for it.

The playing field is not equal.

A few summers ago I worked for one of the Carleton summer academic programs, which means I got to sit in on the meetings where the students were evaluated. Many of these programs are pass/fail, which means the conversation was less focused on the students who were excelling and more on those few who were struggling to meet the minimum requirements. In the first of these meetings, names were brought forward and assessed, problems identified, and discussion produced a set of students being considered for failure. Then someone in the room pointed out that every one of the individuals under consideration was both a person of color and a student on scholarship. The room went silent, but that silence wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as it should have been.

When I talk about income inequality and privileged groups, one of the most important issues is education. There are lots of statistics out there on how unequal American schools are, so I’m hoping you are already aware that certain schools disadvantage their students just by enrolling them. This problem is mitigated in some cases by charter schools or magnet schools targeting minorities and poor neighborhoods, but these schools let colleges fill their “diversity” and “low-income” quotas without giving a second glance to the millions of student who don’t have access to such programs. Still, this issue goes beyond schools.

What isn’t considered, especially by Carleton students, is the role of parents. Parental income correlates with educational success in America to a level of significance that would have any math major drooling. Parental income is a much better predictor than type and quality of school, although the two are obviously interrelated. This is partly because students with educated, high-earning parents reap rewards far outside the classroom. A lawyer will bring home stories about cases to the dinner table. An engineer might encourage their daughter to join a robotics club or start tinkering with programming. A financial consultant might help their son start his own investment club.

So what do Carleton students do about all of this? We already do one thing right: we help each other. Carleton students are almost universally generous in their willingness to cooperate and aid struggling peers. It’s one of the most beautiful facets of this institution. Unfortunately, many Carleton students still act as though we’re all starting from the same starting line when we are admitted. Many students still operate under the basic assumption that the race we undertake from our first class at Carleton is fair, when this is patently untrue. While any student who makes it to Carleton has caught a few lucky breaks somewhere, many of us are only here by the skin of our teeth.

The only way to rectify these misconceptions is honest and intimate conversation. At Carleton we are given unprecedented access to the inner lives of the people around us. This presents an opportunity for those of us on the lower end of the income scale to gain an appreciation of those of us on the higher end. It also provides those of us on the higher end with an opportunity to hear out the experiences of those one the lower end. These opportunities should not be squandered. There is too much understanding to be gained.  

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