You better be using that giant diploma for something.

There’s a good little post up at Afropologe at a recent three-parter in my alma mater’s dumb newspaper. It’s an article ostensibly about “bridging the opportunity gap” (that’s in the sub-headline), about coming to Harvard from a background that isn’t the super white, super rich one many associate with Harvard students. I initially only read the first in the series and found it pretty ho-hum–it seemed kind of like a token “Diversity is swell!” piece, with the requisite This Man Is From A Scary Place setup and Uplifting And Inspirational ending.

Anyway, Kaya really nails a few of the problems with the article (not, she’s clear to point out, with the subject of the article; and, as at least one commenter points out in the discussion thread, the Crimson has a history of misquoting people egregiously and manipulating statements to fit their pre-determined narratives), so you should head over there to see the discussion happening. This is my favorite of Kaya’s points:

the most offensive part of this to me was the part where he implies that those of us who go into public sector work do it because we don’t need money as much as he does, because our families don’t need us, or because we’re just rich. if someone could please tell that to my checkbook, that would be great.

Anyway, here’s one of the things that struck me: whenever a piece like this comes out (“Harvard kids aren’t all pampered preppies! We swear!”) it seems like it’s inevitably about a person of color from a lower socio-economic class, and the piece tries to tackle issues of color and issue of class simultaneously. What about all those Harvard kids from more privileged backgrounds who aren’t white? And what about all those white kids from less privileged backgrounds? Personally, I’d be really interested to hear about them, too.

The other thing that struck a nerve, though, was this comment of Kaya’s:

i am SO offended by the implication that public interest careers are a privilege that people from working-class backgrounds can’t afford. if you really want to help out your community, why don’t you go teach their children? no salary in the world is so high that it’s going to lift your old community out of poverty, so dont kid yourself into thinking you’re “giving back,” when you’re just “giving a bit.”

That last sentence is key. I think she’s right to question the notion that students from less privileged backgrounds are pressured to go into i-banking or whatever, but I’d also be interested to hear what other people think about the feelings of responsibility and guilt that go into the decisions of more privileged graduates who choose to go into the public interest sector. Speaking as one of those graduates myself, I know that I often feel a desire to “give back.” And as I near the end of my master’s program and think about where I’ll end up teaching, I definitely feel a tension between my desire to work somewhere with job security and a supportive parent community and high-achieving students (in other words, a school with money) and my sense that I should be somewhere that “needs me more.” (If I’m not mistaken, this comes up a lot in discussions of Teach for America, and its history of sending idealistic young white people into inner-city schools.)



4 Responses to You better be using that giant diploma for something.

  1. Em says:

    Am I reading that right in that she’s suggesting that more non-privileged kids should be working for poverty-level stipends? Gotta head out to class, so I only read your quotes.

  2. pandanose says:

    I don’t want to put words in Kaya’s mouth, so you should feel free to pose that question over at Afropologë (provided you have a blogger/google account- they don’t allow anonymous commenting).

    From what I understand, she’s suggesting that high-salary jobs aren’t the only way to help struggling communities. But I think her larger point is that public-interest jobs are an option for more than just the independently wealthy.

  3. Em says:

    Mm, read the post. Makes me glad I didn’t go to Harvard. As for the original point, I gotta say I disagree. I don’t like guy’s rationalization of his choice, and there’s things he could have done that would have landed him on the income spectrum between i-banker and Americorps, but this is actually a conversation I have had with my friends before. None of could afford to live on what Teach for America pays, and several of us saw kids who came from better-off families go into various poverty stipend non-profit programs. I can’t speak to the well-off side of the equation, but there’s nothing that will quash my do-good motivation more than the suggestion that I’m not doing ‘enough’ unless I go and and take a job that pays squat.

  4. pandanose says:

    I don’t think anyone is suggesting that you’re not doing enough, Em. Again, I don’t want to put words in Kaya’s mouth, so I encourage you to join the discussion at her blog.

    But saying (if Barnhill did even say this; I’ve read the Crimson too long to take anything in it at face value) “The ability to forgo a career in finance for the pursuit of community service in the short run is a privilege in and of itself” seems a little short-sighted to me. As you point out, there’s a lot in between i-banking and TFA. But beyond that, it’s insulting to the many, Many people working in community service who struggle to make ends meet. They’ve prioritized something else above making a lot of money, and it’s not necessarily because they have a huge nest egg or someone else paying the rent.

    And then there’s the other side of the coin: those of us who come from better-off families but strive for financial independence from our families, and still choose careers in education (or non-profits, or what have you).

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